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Legendary movie star Mickey Rooney dies at 93 (with 2005 Miami Herald interview from Fort Lauderdale)

Mickey Rooney, the Hollywood legend who worked in show business for more than nine decades, died Sunday at age 93.

In the late 1930s, Rooney was the world's top box office attraction. He's most famous for the Andy Hardy pictures and 'Let's put on a show' musicals he made with Judy Garland during their years at MGM.

I interviewed Rooney, his wife Jan and stepson Chris in 2005, when the Rooneys appeared for a week at Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale. A few years ago, Rooney accused Chris of elder abuse and he separated from Jan.

I interviewed Rooney two more times: Once in 2007, when Warner Home Video released a DVD box set of his musicals with Garland; and in 2011 to discuss a movie he made with MGM's blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow.

Here's my first Mickey Rooney interview that ran Feb. 6, 2005, in the Miami Herald:



Five years before the movies talked, 2-year-old Mickey Rooney sang and danced.

In no time, he moved from America's burlesque stages to Hollywood. By 1939, Rooney was the world's No. 1 box-office attraction - bigger than Gable, Garbo and Garland.

Now in his ninth decade in show business, Rooney is back where he began: singing and dancing on stage. Through Feb. 13, he appears (with wife No. 8, Jan) at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale, part of the Great American Follies series.

"I've been performing 82 years, " Rooney said. "I think everybody is born to do what they do."

Rooney was born to entertain. His mother, a chorus girl, gave birth to him while she performed on the road. Little Joe Yule Jr. joined the act in 1922.

"Since he was 2 years old, he has supported his whole family, " said Jan's son, Chris Aber-Rooney, who produces Rooney's current vaudeville-style act. "At 84 years old, he's still supporting everybody."

In Hollywood from 1927 to 1934, Rooney (then called Mickey McGuire) cranked out hundreds of comedy short subjects. Stardom came in 1935, when Warner Bros. cast 15-year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He stole the show from James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland.

Rooney moved to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which cast him in a B picture called A Family Affair. His 1937 role as teenaged Andy Hardy led to 21 more pictures in the series, one of Hollywood's most prolific and successful.

"The Andy Hardy series contributed to 55 percent of the gross profits for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, " Rooney said.

His pay at the time: $2,000 a week and $25,000 upon completion of each motion picture. No residuals from theatrical reissues - or later TV and home-video sales.

Through 1941, Rooney remained the world's top box-office star. He played Young Tom Edison, starred opposite Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous and Boy's Town, and launched the career of 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in 1944's National Velvet.

Along the way, he teamed with Judy Garland to make MGM's most-successful musical duo. Among their blockbuster hits: Babes in Arms; Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy.

MGM coached other young performers how to sing and dance, but not Garland and Rooney.

"We had talent, " he said. Director-choreographer Busby Berkeley "didn't tell us how to dance. He just showed us what to do. You know how long it took to film those numbers? Two days!"

Rooney's star began to fade during World War II, when he enlisted in the Army. After the war, he returned to MGM. He had a few more hits, including a turn as composer Lorenz Hart in 1948's all-star Words and Music.

Soon after, Rooney left MGM and began performing on television and in nightclubs. He became equally well-known for his tumultuous private life, including personal bankruptcy, 11 children and eight marriages.

Wife No. 1, in 1942: the late movie queen Ava Gardner. "She never wanted to be a star, " Rooney recalled. "She just wanted to be a person."

Six divorces and one marital tragedy later (fifth wife Barbara Ann Thompson was shot to death in 1966), he met singer Jan Chamberlin, 36, in 1974. They wed four years later and are still together.

Being married to Rooney is "hard, very hard, " said Jan, who travels and performs with him. "When you're thrust into a life like that - an arena - at first it's a little overwhelming. While you love the adulation and the admiration, you want to make sure you say the right things to people. It can be a lose-lose situation."

She didn't marry Rooney for his fortune. He has none.

While Rooney was in the Army, his mother "borrowed" his childhood MGM earnings, according to stepson Aber-Rooney, 45. "When it came time to collect the money they gathered for him, there wasn't much left. He doesn't like to remember things like that.

"He's been so bitter all his life. He's mad at himself that he never knew how to save his money."

To supplement his income, Rooney makes TV commercials. One you won't see: a cold-remedy ad that was supposed to air during today's Super Bowl. In the commercial, set in a sauna, Rooney's towel accidentally drops, revealing his rear end.

Rooney's stepson said multiple takes had been shot of Rooney running out of the sauna fully covered. In one shot the star's towel accidentally fell off. That was the take producers chose to use.

Fox TV nixed the ad, not wanting to air another wardrobe malfunction after last year's Janet Jackson debacle.

Rooney won't discuss the ad, except that he's glad it won't air. He'd rather talk about his act and how he still travels the world, giving interviews, singing and dancing.

"I see him when he's not working, " his stepson said. "He's frail. He doesn't know what to do. The only time you see him happy, smiling, is when he's on the stage."


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