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Mickey Rooney, America’s boy next door, dies at 93

Mickey Rooney, with Judy Garland in “Babes in Arms” in 1937.

Mickey Rooney, with Judy Garland in “Babes in Arms” in 1937.

Mickey Rooney, a Hollywood legend who graduated from child star to leading box-office draw to venerable character actor, and who later battled drug addiction and financial woes while drawing public attention to the issue of elderly abuse, died Sunday. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his son, Michael, according to The New York Times.

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An author, radio personality, television star, voice-over actor, and Broadway headliner, the famously diminutive (5-feet, 2-inch) Mr. Rooney, who puckishly titled his 1991 memoir “Life Is Too Short,” was an outsized and amazingly versatile talent. Beginning with parts in the silent film era, Mr. Rooney became a bundle-of-energy entertainer best known for his roles in such classic Hollywood films as “National Velvet,” “The Human Comedy,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “The Black Stallion,” and a series of Andy Hardy movies, three co-starring his close pal Judy Garland.

Guest appearances on dozens of television shows, from “Wagon Train” to “The Love Boat,” kept Mr. Rooney working steadily through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. At age 70, he reached a new generation of fans though his starring role in The Family Channel series “The Adventures of the Black Stallion.” His final film credit was “The Muppets,” in 2011.

Along his merry way, Mr. Rooney earned just about every honor show business can bestow upon one of its favorite sons, including an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, an Emmy (for the 1981 drama “Bill”), two Golden Globes, and four separate stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, for his work in movies, TV, radio, and theater.

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“You always pass failure on the way to success,” Mr. Rooney once remarked, and the road he traveled in his personal life — he was married eight times and became a Bible-thumping, born-again Christian four decades ago — was as bumpy and unpredictable as the one he followed professionally.

Mr. Rooney was born Joseph Yule Jr. into a show business family in Brooklyn on September 23, 1920. His father, Joseph Sr., was a vaudeville comic; his mother, Nellie, was a chorus girl. First thrust onstage at the age of 17 months, the toddler took to the bright lights as naturally as a racehorse takes to a track. He made his initial splash starring as comic-strip character Mickey McGuire in dozens of short films produced between 1927 and 1936.

By age 14, he’d signed a long-term contract with MGM studios and blossomed into a major star. In 1935 alone, his film credits included “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Ah, Wilderness!” and “Reckless.”

During World War II, Mr. Rooney entertained US troops at home and abroad while serving in the military himself, where he earned a bronze star. The war years robbed him of much of his star power, though, as both Hollywood and the country began turning from the kind of innocent, freckle-faced stories that had once made Mr. Rooney so personable, and so bankable, an actor.

In the meantime, his personal life began overshadowing his stature as an entertainer who could do virtually anything. Mr. Rooney’s marital adventures, especially, became fodder for stand-up comics as the divorces piled up, one after another, including a short-lived marriage to budding starlet Ava Gardner. Quick to make sport of his own personal foibles, he once quipped that he was the only man in the world whose marriage license read, “To Whom It May Concern.”

There was nothing funny, however, about his fifth marriage, to Barbara Ann Thomason (aka Carolyn Mitchell) in 1958. In 1965, she was found dead in what was ruled a murder-suicide; her body lay beside that of the actor Milos Milosevic, a family friend. For years thereafter, Mr. Rooney, who’d been no more faithful to the couple’s marriage than his wife had been, battled depression as he sought to keep his acting career from going under.

In 1978, he wed Jan Chamberlin, a relationship that outlasted all his previous marriages combined. She survives him, as do eight of Mr. Rooney’s nine children. In addition to his son, Michael, Mr. Rooney leaves Mickey Jr. from his marriage to singer Betty Jane Rase; Theodore from his marriage to actress Martha Vickers; daughters Kelly Ann, Kerry, and Kimmy Sue from his marriage to Thomason; and daughter Jonelle and son Jimmy from his marriage to Carolyn Hockett. Another child, actor Tim, died in 2006.

Mr. Rooney lived long enough, and productively enough, to engineer several career comebacks. In the 1970s, he climbed his way back from dinner-theater performances to a starring role in the Broadway production of “Sugar Babies,” co-starring Ann Miller. It was a smash hit, and Mr. Rooney was nominated for a best actor Tony Award, one of the few major honors to elude him. In 1995, he received what some consider the highest pop-culture tribute: voicing himself on an episode of “The Simpsons.”

In 2011, family turmoil and financial troubles prompted Mr. Rooney to testify before a US Senate committee debating anti-elder abuse legislation. The actor did not identify any alleged abuser by name. However, earlier that year he’d obtained a restraining order against one of his wife’s sons by a previous marriage. Mr. Rooney testified he’d been a victim of financial abuse. The restraining order was later lifted, following an undisclosed settlement between Mr. Rooney and his stepson.

An avid golfer, swimmer, singer, poker player, and racetrack enthusiast, a champion of military veterans and crusader for animal rights, Mr. Rooney seldom sat still for very long. Whether working in the margins of show business or center stage, he did so with boundless energy. And an elfin grin no one else could quite match.

“Had I been brighter, the ladies been gentler, the Scotch weaker, the dice hotter,” he once reflected, “ it might have all ended up in a one-sentence story.” No chance.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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