Mickey Rooney, who died Sunday at age 93, was once America’s most famous teenager.
Starting at just 16 years old, Rooney played Andy Hardy in a series of more than a dozen films about a wholesome family in the fictional Midwestern town of Carvel. From 1937’s A Family Affair to 1946’s Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (with an attempted revival in 1958 with Andy Hardy Comes Home), America watched Andy get into some gentle kind of trouble, and then get out of it, often with the guidance of his father, the wise Judge Hardy (played by Lionel Barrymore in the first installment and Lewis Stone after that). These were sitcoms before sitcoms ever existed on television, presenting a warm, idealized place people wanted to return to — and did.
The Andy Hardy films were where future marquee names like Lana Turner and Esther Williams got their start, and where Rooney was repeatedly paired with fellow MGM star Judy Garland, with whom he went on to act in nine movies. The films are more relics of their era than enduring classics, movie comfort food to soothe a country as it went through World War II. But they also prove Rooney was an actor who was always bigger than any one role in his astonishingly long career — an entertainer of the old guard, who got his start in showbiz as a toddler working alongside his parents in their vaudeville act, and who never slowed down after that.
Even on the eve of his 70th birthday, Rooney still loved what he did. “I’ve been coming back like a rubber ball for years,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I love what I’m doing, so I’m not working. I’m having fun.”
Throughout his ten-decade career, Rooney was nominated for four Academy Awards, but didn’t actually go home with a trophy until 1983, when he was given an honorary Oscar “in recognition of his years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances.” And that versatility was really what made Rooney such a legendary star.
His career reads like a history of show business, from the silent era in which he made his screen debut at age six through the golden age of the studio and musicals like Busby Berkeley’s Babe in Arms. He acted alongside Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, played a gambler and soldier in the World War II movie The Bold and the Brave and, less charmingly, played an ugly Asian stereotype in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He also performed on Broadway and tried his hand at directing with 1951’s My True Story and 1960’s The Private Lives of Adam and Eve.
When he accepted the Oscar in 1983 for all of that work and more, Rooney told the crowd, “I love every minute that God has given me to be an infinitesimal small part of this great business … I have a lot of memories, as we all do … I want to thank you, one and all, for remembering me.”
Rooney was always willing to reinvent himself, always game to try new mediums. If you watch television or go to the movies, then you know Rooney’s work, from his voicing of Kris Kringle in the Rankin-Bass special 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town to his part as Henry Dailey in the 1979 film The Black Stallion and subsequent Family Channel series The New Adventures of the Black Stallion to his more recent turn in Night at the Museum.
Rooney wasn’t just an actor; he was a tireless entertainer who clearly loved to be in front of an audience, and continued to work right into the years preceding his death. It’s hard to imagine there will ever be another performer like him and even Rooney himself knew that to be true.
“You’ve got to recognize, there will never be another you. It has nothing to do with ego; it happens to be the truth,” he once said. “There will never be another person the same. There’ll never be another you. There’ll never be another me.”