Few people today might recognize him by his real name, Joe Yule Jr., but the boy born in 1920 at 696 Leonard Street would become an Academy Award winner and Hollywood legend using the stage name Mickey Rooney. Rooney’s career in Hollywood spanned an astonishing nine decades.
Rooney’s career, like that of Greenpoint’s other Hollywood legend Mae West, began in Vaudeville as a child. Rooney’s parents were vaudeville actors, but they could never have dreamed how much their son would achieve on stage, screen, and television. Joe Yule Jr. became the star of his parents’ act by the age of two. In an autobiography, Rooney explained how he first entered the theater world. As a toddler, Rooney was hiding under the scenery when he sneezed. Dragged out by an actor, the toddler was ordered to play his harmonica. He did, and the crowd erupted. The rest, as they say, was history.
Rooney inherited a lot of his acting genius from his father Joe Yule, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1892. Rooney’s grandfather, a boilermaker, immigrated to Greenpoint when Rooney’s father was still just a teenager. Joe Yule Sr. came of age at a time when Vaudeville was all the rage locally. Greenpoint had seven vaudeville theaters, which presented almost non-stop live entertainment. Yule Sr. was a natural theatrical talent with an amazing ability to get people to laugh. In 1910, vaudeville impresario Percy Williams sent out a producer to scout for talent for a production he was staging at the Greenpoint Theater. The production called the “Wow-Wows” included future greats Charlie Chaplin and Laurel Hardy. The producer hired Rooney’s father who delighted local audiences but drove the director nuts with his frequent humorous ad-libs from the script. Yule’s talent got noticed and he soon moved on to bigger venues.
Yule was a great actor, but apparently a terrible husband. He married dancer Nellie Carter, a former chorus girl and a burlesque performer and together Carter and Yule became a successful vaudeville act, but Rooney’s father drank prodigiously and had a roving eye for other women. The couple split in 1924. Carter took Rooney away from Greenpoint the following year in 1925 to the bright lights of Hollywood. At age six, Rooney first appeared on screen, playing a little person in the 1926 silent comedy short “Not to Be Trusted.”
His mother saw an advertisement for a child to play the role of “Mickey McGuire” in a series of short films. Rooney got the role and became “Mickey” for 78 of the comedies, running from 1927, the first year of talkies, or films with sound to 1936, starting with Mickey’s Circus (1927), his first starring role.
In 1935, Rooney moved to MGM studio where he became friends with another child prodigy Judy Garland. In 1937, Rooney was chosen to play Andy Hardy along with Garland, and the Hardy role who would make him even more famous. The film was an unexpected success and led to 13 more Andy Hardy films between 1937 and 1946. His breakthrough role as an actor, though, came in
the 1938 film Boys Town opposite Spencer Tracy who portrayed Father Flanagan, the priest who runs a home for wayward and homeless boys. Rooney was awarded a special Juvenile Academy Award in 1939, for “significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth”.
Rooney was tiny, standing just five feet two inches tall. As he became an adult his diminutive stature created a problem. He was too small to play next to Hollywood’s leading ladies and too old to play the teenage roles that had made him a star. He continued to play bit roles and cameos for decades, but he never achieved the success of his earlier years.
He was short, but at the age of 21, he married the willowy Ava Gardener, one of eight women Rooney would wed. He fathered 11 children. His career slumped after World War II, but Rooney was a master of reinventing himself and was one of the most naturally gifted actors Hollywood ever produced.
The great English actor Laurence Olivier called Rooney the finest actor he had ever seen. Charles Brown, the famous director who directed Rooney in two films said of him, “Mickey Rooney is the closest thing to a genius that I ever worked with. There was Chaplin, then there was Rooney. The little bastard could do no wrong in my book … All you had to do with him was rehearse it once.”
Rooney died at age 93 in 2014. He was shooting a movie at the time of his death, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with Margaret O’Brien.