Labeling Mickey Rooney a “legend” of the screen feels something of an understatement. Though he reached the height of his fame relatively early in his career, Rooney maintained an acting career for almost nine decades–an unparalleled record that is unlikely to be matched any time soon.
He began performing when he was still in diapers, and continued acting up until his death yesterday at the age of ninety-three. Over the years, the actor enjoyed some of the highest highs (the popular Andy Hardy series of films, which helped make him the biggest box-office draw in Hollywood for three years straight) and endured some of the lowest lows (his universally panned “yellowface” performance in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s), but Rooney never lost his love for being in front of the camera, and he never gave less than everything he had in every role he ever took. Over his long career, he was nominated for the Academy Award four times, and he received two special Oscars: a juvenile award in 1938 (alongside Deanna Durbin) and an Honorary Award for career achievement in 1983.
There is no denying that Mickey Rooney made a mark. He was America’s favorite teenager well into his 20s, a familiar figure of vigorous youth and hope in an uncertain time. He was funny, and he knew it, too. But there was a more serious side to the actor, one that spoke to depth and adult understanding. In films such as Boys Town (1938) and The Human Comedy (1943), the younger Rooney was given the chance to plumb those depths within himself. And even when the movies themselves dipped into sentimental territory, Rooney’s particular talent shined through, elevating the most maudlin of scripted lines in his own appealingly earnest way.
As he grew older and outgrew the fresh-faced characters that had defined the first two decades of his career, Rooney took a number of disparate roles. He dipped into noir with 1950’s Quicksand, turning in a stellar performance that plays beautifully against type. He took on well-received supporting roles in films such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), and the all-star ensemble comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He even took on television, with two self-named, albeit brief series in the 1950s and 60s.
In later years, Mickey Rooney starred in a number of family-friendly movies, gaining a new generation of fans in films such as Pete’s Dragon (1977) and 1979’s The Black Stallion (Rooney would reprise his role in the early 1990s television series The Adventures of the Black Stallion). He also took on voice-over roles in a number of animated features, including The Fox and the Hound (1981) and The Care Bears Movie (1985). He, along with Dick Van Dyke and Bill Cobbs, went villainous in 2006’s Night at the Museum (he reportedly filmed a cameo for the upcoming second sequel to the film, to be released this December). He popped up in The Muppets (2011) in a brief surprise cameo. And every Christmas, Rooney’s voice is heard in several perennial animated holiday classics, as he plays Santa Claus in three Rankin-Bass stop-motion favorites: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), and A Miser Brothers’ Christmas (2008).
His resume is lengthy, covering multiple genres and hundreds of roles since his debut in 1927. But perhaps more than anything, Rooney was, at heart, a true song-and-dance man. When the music started and it came time to put on a show–particularly opposite frequent co-star and longtime friend Judy Garland–he was nothing less than effervescent, buoyant and freewheeling and full of enthusiasm and joy. To watch him perform is to see an immense love for life, for the sheer act of it.
No one can ever say that Mickey Rooney didn’t love performing. He was born to do it.
Godspeed and good rest, Mickey. You’ve earned it.