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Celebrated actor Mickey Rooney dies at age 93

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney share a sweet moment and a soft drink in “Babes in Arms.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer photo)

Mickey Rooney, a celebrated child actor who embodied the All-American boy in the “Andy Hardy” films of the 1930s and ’40s and became one of the era’s top box-office draws, has died. He was 93.

Rooney, whose roller-coaster show-business career was marked by an often-turbulent personal life, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Police Cmdr.  Andrew Smith and the Los Angeles County coroner’s office confirmed his death. The cause was not disclosed.

One of the most enduring performers in show business, he made his debut on the vaudeville stage in 1922 as a toddler and toured into his late 80s in a two-person stage show with Jan Chamberlin, his eighth wife. They had been married since 1978.

Jokes about his propensity to walk down the aisle were once a staple of pop culture. Even Rooney told them. “My marriage license reads, ‘To whom it may concern,’ ” he chortled to the Los Angeles Times in 1981. The first and most famous of his wives was actress Ava Gardner, whom he married in 1942.

Of his final, lasting marriage, he once simply said: “I think you go until you find the right one. Jan was the right one for me.”

When the 90-year-old Rooney testified before Congress in 2011 about elder abuse, the actor said he spoke from personal experience. A family member who took and misused Rooney’s money had left him powerless, he said.

“I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated,” Rooney told a Senate committee. “When a man feels helpless, it’s terrible.”

Rooney did not identify the person during his testimony, but the previous month he had obtained a restraining order against his stepson Chris Aber. He accused him of withholding food and medicine and trying to gain control of his assets.

A settlement was reached when Aber and his wife, who both denied wrongdoing, agreed to abide by the stay-away order without it being enforced by a judge.

“If elder abuse happened to me, Mickey Rooney,” the actor testified, “it can happen to anyone.”

In 1982, Rooney earned an Emmy Award for playing the title character in a drama, “Bill,” about a mentally challenged man living on his own for the first time. Many critics considered it his best performance.

During his initial burst of fame, Rooney broke through as a dramatic actor playing the young tough in the 1938 film “Boys Town” and starring with Judy Garland in a series of popular musicals that included 1939’s “Babes in Arms,” which brought him the first of four Oscar nominations.

Between 1937 and 1946, Rooney portrayed the relentlessly positive Andy Hardy in 15 MGM feature films that presented an idealized portrait of American family life. They were among the most popular movie series of all time, according to film critic Leonard Maltin.

A story the late director Billy Wilder often told illustrates how important Rooney was to MGM. Wilder witnessed studio chief Louis B. Mayer — who was unhappy with Rooney’s off-screen antics — grab the teenage star by the lapels and yell, “You’re Andy Hardy! You’re America!”

In the early 1940s, Rooney earned a second Academy Award nomination as a teenager who comes of age during wartime in “The Human Comedy” and appeared opposite an adolescent Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet,” now considered a classic.

When such leading actors of his generation as Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn were asked who was the best actor in Hollywood, they both immediately named Rooney, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne recalled while interviewing author Gore Vidal, who said the same.

“Tennessee Williams, who knew more about actors than anybody in our time ... said, ‘There’s only one great actor in the United States and that is Mickey Rooney. ... He can do anything. He sings, he dances, he can make you weep. He can play tragedy, he can play comedy,’ ” Vidal said in 2007 while introducing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the 1935 film with a teenage Rooney as Puck.

Decades later, Rooney received an Oscar nomination for his subtly drawn performance as a horse trainer in the 1979 film “The Black Stallion.”

Mickey Rooney was born Joseph Yule Jr. on Sept. 23, 1920, in New York City. His parents were the vaudeville entertainers Joe and Nell Yule. When he was about 18 months old, he joined his parents’ act, singing the sentimental “Pal of My Cradle Days” while wearing a tiny tuxedo.

His parents split up when he was 4, and mother and son soon headed to Hollywood. By 1926, Rooney had his first film role, as a midget, in “Not to be Trusted.”

Soon he was cast in the Mickey McGuire movie shorts, made first as silent films and then talkies. More than 60 were produced between 1927 and 1934, “when the Depression flattened everything,” the 5-foot, 3-inch Rooney wrote in his 1991 autobiography “Life Is Too Short.”

Rooney was so closely identified with the little tough guy he played in the series, he began using the name Mickey McGuire but eventually dropped the last name because of legal issues. A studio publicist and his mother suggested “Rooney.”

Rooney eventually would have roles in more than 300 films and television projects and make dozens of TV appearances as himself.

He received two honorary Oscars, in 1938 and 1982. The first was for his achievement as a juvenile actor, while the last acknowledged “60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable performances.”

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