By ANTHONY McCARTNEY
AP Entertainment Writer
LOS ANGELES —
Mickey Rooney’s approach to life was simple: “Let’s put on a show!” He spent nine decades doing it, on the big screen, on television, on stage and in his extravagant personal life.
A superstar in his youth, Rooney was Hollywood’s top box-office draw in the late 1930s to early 1940s. He epitomized the “show” part of show business, even if the business end sometimes failed him amid money troubles and a seesaw of career tailspins and revivals.
Pint-sized, precocious, impish, irrepressible — perhaps hardy is the most-suitable adjective for Rooney, a perennial comeback artist whose early blockbuster success as the vexing but wholesome Andy Hardy and as Judy Garland’s musical comrade in arms was bookended 70 years later with roles in “Night at the Museum” and “The Muppets.”
Rooney died Sunday at age 93 surrounded by family at his North Hollywood home, police said. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office said Rooney died a natural death.
There were no further details immediately available on the cause of death, but Rooney did attend Vanity Fair’s Oscar party last month, where he posed for photos with other veteran stars and seemed fine. He was also shooting a movie at the time of his death, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with Margaret O’Brien.
He was nominated for four Academy Awards over a four-decade span and received two special Oscars for film achievements, won an Emmy for his TV movie “Bill” and had a Tony nomination for his Broadway smash “Sugar Babies.”
“I loved working with Mickey on ‘Sugar Babies.’ He was very professional, his stories were priceless and I love them all ... each and every one. We laughed all the time,” Carol Channing said.
A small man physically, Rooney was prodigious in talent, scope, ambition and appetite. He sang and danced, played roles both serious and silly, wrote memoirs, a novel, movie scripts and plays and married eight times, siring 11 children.
His first marriage — to the glamorous, and taller, Ava Gardner — lasted only a year. But a fond recollection from Rooney years later — “I’m 5 feet 3, but I was 6 feet 4 when I married Ava” — summed up the man’s passion and capacity for life.
Rooney began as a toddler in his parents’ vaudeville act in the 1920s. He was barely six when he first appeared on screen, playing a midget in the 1926 silent comedy short “Not to Be Trusted,” and he was still at it more than 80 years later, working incessantly as he racked up about 250 screen credits in a career unrivaled for length and variety.
Rooney was among the last survivors of the studio era, which his career predated, most notably with the lead in a series of “Mickey McGuire” kid comedy shorts from the late 1920s to early ‘30s that were meant to rival Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” flicks.
Rooney soon was earning $300 a week with featured roles in such films as “Riff Raff,” “Little Lord Faunt-leroy,” “Captains Coura-geous” and “The Devil Is a Sissy.”
Then came Andy Hardy in the 1937 comedy “A Family Affair,” a role he would reprise in 15 more feature films over the next two decades. Centered on a kindly small-town judge (Lionel Barrymore) who delivers character-building homilies to troublesome son Andy, it was pure corn, but it turned out to be golden corn for MGM, becoming a runaway success with audiences.
Rooney’s peppy, all-American charm was never better matched than when he appeared opposite Garland in such films as “Babes on Broadway” and “Strike up the Band,” musicals built around that “Let’s put on a show” theme.
After splitting with Gardner, Rooney married Betty Jane Rase, Miss Birmingham of 1944, whom he had met during military training in Alabama. They had two sons and divorced after four years.
His third and fourth marriages were to actress Martha Vickers (one son) and model Elaine Mahnken.
The fifth Mrs. Rooney, model Barbara Thomason, gave birth to four children. While the couple were estranged in 1966, she was found shot to death in her Brentwood home; beside her was the body of her alleged lover, a Yugoslavian actor. It was an apparent murder and suicide.
A year later, Rooney began a three-month marriage to Margaret Lane. She was followed by a secretary, Caroline Hockett — another divorce after five years and one daughter.
In 1978, Rooney, 57, married for the eighth — and apparently last — time. His bride was singer Janice Darlene Chamberlain, 39. Their marriage lasted longer than the first seven combined.
After a lifetime of carrying on, he became a devoted Christian and member of the Church of Religious Science. He settled in suburban Thousand Oaks, about 40 miles west of Los Angeles. In 2011, Rooney was in the news again when he testified before Congress about abuse of the elderly, alleging that he was left powerless by a family member who took and misused his money.
That year Rooney took his stepson Christopher Aber and others to court on allegations that they tricked him into thinking he was on the brink of poverty while defrauding him out of millions and bullying him into continuing to work. At the time, Aber declined comment on the suit except to say, “this lawsuit is not from Mickey Rooney — it’s from his conservators who are stealing from him.” The New York Times reported that the suit was settled last year.