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Disastrous Facts About Mickey Rooney, The Original Hollywood Train Wreck

Brendan Da Costa

Mickey Rooney is a Hollywood legend if ever there was one. The actor’s career spanned more than nine decades and 300 films. But it wasn’t all sunshine and stars. With almost as many failed marriages as movie credits and a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags story that reads like a Six Flags rollercoaster, Rooney was a falling star. Vanity Fair called him the “original Hollywood train wreck” and with all of these facts, it’s hard to disagree…


1. He Who Shall Not Be Named

Mickey Rooney’s name isn’t actually, well, Mickey Rooney. The famous actor we all know today as Mickey Rooney was actually born Ninnian Joseph Yule Jr. in 1920. The long process of this Ninnian guy becoming Mickey Rooney began when he changed his name to Sonny Yule…then to Mickey McGuire, Mickey Looney, and, finally, Mickey Rooney.

No relation to another famous Mickey…

2. He Was A “Big” Deal

Mickey Rooney was known for his stature. At just 5’2” tall, Rooney was a short guy—it didn’t help that he was baby-faced well into his 30s. But, despite his “shortcomings,” Rooney still managed to tower over his contemporaries…by standing on top of his box office grosses. From 1939-1941, he was the biggest box office draw. Even Laurence Olivier called him “the greatest actor of them all.” Greatest except for one…

3. He Was No Mouse

In his autobiography, Life Is Too Short (pun likely intended), Mickey Rooney made a bold statement. The actor claimed that another famous Mickey had gotten their name from him. In an outlandish story, Rooney stated that Walt Disney named Mickey Mouse after him. Despite the striking similarities between these two Mickeys, it turns out that this story is false.

4. He Took Advice Too Literally

You’re often told in show business to, “Break a leg,” for good luck. A young Mickey Rooney may have taken that idiom far too seriously. In one of his first widely praised roles as the mischief-maker Puck in 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the little tyke did, in fact, and quite literally, break his leg. The role garnered much attention for Rooney…even though he had a double throughout much of the film.

5. He Was Born Into It

Whatever his name was, Mickey Rooney was destined for the stage and the silver screen. Rooney’s mother was a burlesque performer and his father was a vaudevillian. And entertaining was the family business. Rooney’s mom & dad had him performing in their production of A Gaiety Girl when he was just 17…months old. To call them stage parents seems like an understatement…

6. He Put A Cork In It

Mickey Rooney moved to Hollywood with his mother and quickly landed the role of Mickey McGuire that would launch his career. But, for the audition, the part called for a “dark-haired child.” Rooney was blonde…and his mother couldn’t afford hair dye. So, she did what any showbiz mother would do and used burnt cork on the kid’s head.

7. He Was “Girl Crazy”

Mickey Rooney rose to superstardom when he landed the role of Andy Hardy in a series of successful films for MGM. With his diminutive stature and baby-face, Rooney was able to portray the “all-American” teenager well into his 20s. One might question how much acting he was doing, however,  as the “hyperactive, girl-crazy teenager” wasn’t exactly a stretch for Rooney…

8. He Played “Crazy Eights”

Not only did Mickey Rooney rack up more box office cheddar than his contemporaries, he also racked up more marriages than all of them…maybe even combined! The stereotypical Hollywood marriage—short and dramatic—all started with the comedic actor. Over the course of his career, Rooney collected a total of eight marriages, each more dramatic than the last.

To get through all of those marriages, he needed a head start…

9. He Was A Sugar Baby

From the time that he was 18, Rooney had already developed a love for love. While on the set of 1938’s Marie Antoinette, Rooney began spending a lot of time in the trailer of his co-star, Norma Shearer…and they weren’t running lines. Sharer was twice Rooney’s age at the time and recently widowed. The affair was public and scandalous enough that it garnered the attention of one very powerful Hollywood mogul…

10. His Mentors Tried To Help

MGM head Louis B. Mayer had some words for Rooney about his behind-the-scenes escapades. Mayer grabbed Rooney by his lapels and said, “Listen to me! I don’t care what you do in private. Just don’t do it in public. In public, behave. Your fans expect it. You’re Andy Hardy! You are the United States! You’re the Stars and Stripes. Behave yourself! You’re a symbol!” Rooney didn’t exactly heed Mayer’s sound advice…

11. He And Judy Sitting In A Tree

If you’ve heard any rumors about a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland love affair, rest assured, they’re just rumors…probably. The two delighted audiences on-screen but according to Rooney, “Judy and I were so close we could’ve come from the same womb. We weren’t like brothers or sisters but there was no love affair there; there was more than a love affair.” That’s not to say all of the rumors weren’t true…

12. He Was A Trooper

When he wasn’t charming audiences or trying to charm another woman, Rooney was entertaining the troops. In 1944, the actor brought his talents all the way to the weary men on the battlefields of WWII. Rooney joined the US Army and served more than 21 months entertaining men in active combat zones. Frankly, his love life sounds more dangerous than any active combat zone…

13. He Married A Gardener…Or Is It Gardner?

Mickey Rooney’s first marriage was to another Hollywood legend—although she was just a starry-eyed starlet at the time. At 21, Mickey Rooney seduced and married Ava Gardner, 19. The marriage was about as short as Rooney himself, as Gardner divorced Rooney the following year.

14. He Was Golden

Despite being the original Hollywood legend, Rooney didn’t get one of those trophies most coveted by the Hollywood elite…at least, not on merits. Sadly, when awards season came around—every year for nine long decades—Rooney walked away empty-handed. The actor received a total of four Academy Award nominations and didn’t win any of them.

His one Oscar came in 1939 when his career was just getting going…but it was an honorary trophy, the Juvenile Award. Later on, in 1983, he won another honorary Oscar. Better than nothing…

15. He Met His Match

Rooney’s second marriage…boy oh boy, what a nightmare. Rooney met and married Betty Jane Phillips in 1944. It was quite the year for Betty Jane as she had just won the Miss Alabama pageant. If her name sounds familiar it might be because Betty Jane went on to a successful music career as B.J. Baker. And let’s just say that, in Betty Jane, Rooney may have met his match…

16. His Marriage Was Over…Fast

Rooney and Phillips had two children together and enjoyed almost five years of wedded bliss. Still, Rooney’s second marriage ended in divorce and Phillips wasted no time moving on. Just eight days after the couple finalized their divorce, Phillips married her second husband, Buddy Baker. And she had a good reason for kicking Rooney to the curb…

17. He Had An Affair With Cleopatra

While Phillips was pregnant with their second child, Rooney dealt her a devious act of betrayal. The actor met a young—very young—Elizabeth Taylor on the set of National Velvet and the two became…close, shall we say? Phillips paid a visit to Rooney on set one day and walked in on him and a then 14-year-old Taylor who was on her knees in front of Rooney. Hint, she wasn’t praying.

18. He Drank Like A Fish

Both Betty Jane Phillips and Mickey Rooney bolted out of their marriage and into another one. Honestly, those two got remarried faster than a Formula 1 racer goes around the track. Rooney married Martha Vickers in 1949…the same year he divorced Phillips. They had a son together before Vickers couldn’t handle Rooney’s drinking anymore…and she wasn’t talking about water.

19. He Liked To Swing

Okay, the fourth time is the charm…right? Not exactly. Rooney’s fourth marriage was a whirlwind of a love affair. Rooney met the model and actress Elaine Devry—although at the time she was working as a waitress—while she was practicing at a Hollywood golf range. To mix our sports analogies, something about her swing just knocked Rooney right out of the park…

20. He Was “Mobbed”

Everyone has a past—and Elaine Devry was no exception. The beautiful waitress practicing her golf swing was hiding a secret. Before she tried her luck in Hollywood, Devry had been married before…to a mob guy! What’s more, her ex owed the Mafia a bunch of money and roped Rooney into it by asking him for a life-saving loan.

Rooney didn’t give it to him because, well, Devry maybe had a thing for guys with money troubles…

21. He Took A Haircut

After returning from WWII, Rooney’s career hit a slump. The actor was too short to be a leading man—though that has never been a problem for Tom Cruise—and too old to play a teenager. He signed a contract with MGM for $25,000 per film. While that might sound good, until then, his fee had been $100,000 per film. Talk about a pay cut.

Frankly, I’d do it for free…but then I don’t know anyone would show up to the theater.

22. He Took Nothing To His Grave

Mickey Rooney would have money troubles for the rest of his life. Despite earning millions of dollars over the course of his nine-decade long career, Rooney had to declare bankruptcy twice in his life. Even more tragic than that, the actor passed on with assets of only $18,000 in 2014 and a drawer full of IOUs to the IRS.

Nevertheless, Rooney’s money troubles never stopped him from letting the good times roll…

23. He Was Tenacious

Want to know the trick to Rooney’s charm? Tenacity. Just dogged tenacity. Rooney charmed Devry by making bold claims about his wealth and proposing relentlessly—and we mean relentlessly. Rooney proposed to Devry on every single date they had, 30 times in all. Eventually, Devry said yes and shortly thereafter said, “I do,” in the most Hollywood way of all…

24. He Had A Flight Of Fancy

He might have been broke and a compulsive liar—and maybe even a little annoying, proposing 30 times—but Rooney was charming. In the most Hollywood of all Hollywood marriages, Rooney chartered a private plane to Las Vegas the same night that Devry said yes and tied the knot the very next day. Things that are done in haste never turn out well…

25. He Had A Long, Unhappy Marriage

Despite the hasty wedding and nuptials, the marriage actually lasted for a while. Rooney’s marriage to Devry lasted from 1952 to 1958—his longest marriage so far. But, after sorting out Rooney’s finances only to have him gamble his way back into debt, Devry fell in love with someone else…and so did Rooney.

26. His Fifth Marriage Was Tragic

Mickey Rooney’s fifth marriage was the worst one of all. It reads like someone cut and pasted the pages of a Greek tragedy together with a Shakespearean drama. Seriously, “The Desperate Wives of Mickey Rooney: Season 5” makes seasons one to four look like a Friends marathon. This marriage has it all…including a tragic twist-ending that no one could have predicted but everyone should have seen coming…

27. He Flaunted His Affairs

Mickey Rooney began dating the multiple beauty pageant winner, Barbara Ann Thomason…while he was still married to Devry. And Rooney wasn’t exactly shy about it. Famously, Rooney bought Thomason a $4,500 fur coat only to have Devry get upset with the publicity of the scandal. So, to smooth things over, he bought Devry an even more expensive fur coat. And Devry wasn’t the only jealous one…

28. He Had A Bad Marriage Counselor

Thomason had a simple solution for Rooney’s marital woes. A simple, Shakespearean solution that would have made even Lady Macbeth blush. Instead of, I don’t know, suggesting a marital counselor for Rooney and Devry, Thomason simply suggested that Rooney was married to the wrong woman. She told Rooney to divorce Devry and marry her.

Naturally, Rooney refused to divorce his wife to marry his mistress and that sent the would-be Lady Macbeth into a tailspin…

29. He Almost Lost His Mistress

Rooney’s refusal to divorce Devry unsettled Thomason—to a disturbing degree. In a frightening incident that garnered national attention, Thomason’s friends found her, allegedly unclothed, floating in the pool of a house that Rooney had rented for her. Fortunately, they fished Thomason from the water before too long had passed.

And that’s just the beginning of the drama…

30. He Got Married…Again

Rooney’s marriage to Elaine Devry was far from a happy one. From Rooney’s money troubles to Devry’s Mafia connections, the marriage almost seemed doomed to fail. Finally, Rooney gave in to Thomason’s demands and he filed for divorce from Devry…while in Mexico…so that he could marry his mistress…while she was pregnant.

Believe it or not, these were the simple times…

31. He Was Taken To The Cleaners

Eventually, Rooney relented to his mistress’s demands to have him divorce his wife. But Rooney’s divorce from Devry at the behest of a pregnant Thomason would cost him dearly. While they tried to reach a settlement, Devry was demanding over $20,000/month in alimony. When they finally did settle, Rooney was on the hook for even more.

The exact amount is hard to come by but some sources put it at the equivalent of $3.5million in 2020. Devry later said, “Living with Mickey is no bed of roses. Six wives can’t all be wrong.” Six and counting…

32. He Was In For Hard Times

Thomason agreed to love Rooney for richer or poorer…$3.5 million poorer, to be exact, but who’s keeping count. With his divorce from Devry final, Rooney was free to make an honest woman of his mistress and the two tied the knot in 1958. The marriage would last eight years and end in tragedy. But not before a lot of drama…

33. He Couldn’t Stay Faithful

Five years into the marriage, Rooney fell prey to old habits—as if he had ever really fallen out of them. After a trip to Yugoslavia, Thomason discovered that Rooney had been seeking the comfort of a stripper. Could she really have been surprised? Instead of getting angry or jealous, however, Thomason switched back into Lady Macbeth and decided that it would be better just to get even…

34. He Welcomed The Wolf Into The Sheep’s Den

After learning that Rooney was having an affair, Thomason took revenge. She didn’t want to feel left out, so, she went out and began an affair of her own. A mutual friend had introduced Rooney to the Yugoslavian actor named Milos Milosevic. Before long, while Rooney was away filming, Milosevic sparked up a relationship with Thomason and they moved in together. Divorce number five looked imminent…

35. He Tried To Make It Right

Despite their…differences, Rooney and Thomason stopped flirting with other people long enough to flirt with the idea of reconciliation. After all, the couple did have four children together…even if those children were living with their mother’s lover. And speaking of, Milosevic wasn’t about to let Rooney take his family back…

36. He Contributed To His Wife’s Demise

Stoked by jealousy, Milosevic turned the drama of Rooney’s fifth marriage into an utterly disturbing tragedy. While Rooney was away filming in the Philippines, Milosevic decided that if he couldn’t have Thomason, then no one could. Sadly, he killed Thomason before taking his own life. The real tragic twist was that Rooney owned the implement that Milosevic used to write this sad ending.

37. He Found Sweet Solace

Rooney wasn’t the only one devasted by the events that led to Thomason’s downfall. His sixth-wife-to-be was also grieving. Marge Lane was best friends with Barbara Ann Thomason and she had had a front-row seat to the Rooney-Thomason tragic love story. Lane had even had dinner with Thomason the night of the incident involving Milosevic. You’d think she’d have steered clear…

38. He Moved On…Quickly

You would think that, being so close to Thomason’s stormy marriage to Rooney, Lane would have avoided falling prey to the Rooney-trap herself. But grief is a heck of a thing. Rooney and Lane became very close in the aftermath of their shared tragedy. So close, in fact, that they decided to get married…later that same year.

39. His Marriage Lasted A “Century”

Rooney’s marriage to Lane lasted for 100…days. I don’t think that the ink on their marriage certificate had even dried. And, at this point, if you’re having difficulty following Rooney’s marriage life, don’t feel ashamed. He couldn’t keep track himself. Once, when asked about his marital woes, Rooney mentioned Lane, his sixth wife, and then added, “I think that was her name, anyway.”

40. He Was In Seventh Heaven

Thankfully, Rooney’s seventh—no, that’s not a typo—marriage was a lot less drama-riddled than numbers one through six. In 1969, Rooney married secretary Carolyn Hockett in another last minute, Las Vegas wedding. And the two lived happily ever after. The End. Just kidding. Though there wasn’t much tragedy, there was still drama…

41. He Married Young

By the time that Rooney signed his seventh marriage certificate, he had figured out the key to a happy marriage…marry younger. Carolyn Hockett was 23 years Rooney’s junior when they got married in 1969. Rooney was 48 and Hockett was 25. Evidently, Rooney was past his prime and by 1975, Hockett had filed for divorce, citing financial instability.

42. His Lucky Number Was Eight

Lucky number eight…depending on how you look at it. Rooney’s eighth marriage would be his last marriage and his longest. In fact, marriage number eight lasted longer than all of his previous marriages combined. But a long marriage doesn’t necessarily make for a happy marriage, as Rooney was about to learn. All of those divorces might have been saving Rooney from a worse fate…

43. His Wife Had Him Taken Away

Rooney’s marriage to Joan Chamberlain was long—but it was also full of dramatic twists and turns. There were some “bumps and bruises” over those 36 years. For example, in 1997, Chamberlain called law enforcement and accused her husband of battery. Law enforcement hauled Rooney away, but ultimately did not lay charges against him as there was a lack of evidence. Abuse would be a running theme in this marriage…

44. He Was Taken Advantage Of

Chamberlain wasn’t the only one claiming wrongdoing. Rooney also alleged abuse. According to the aging star, Chamberlain’s son from a previous marriage had taken advantage of him. Rooney claimed that Christopher Aber and his wife Christina had verbally and physically abused him and meddled with his money. Whatever little he had left…

45. His Money Vanished

It’s hard to imagine that Rooney had any money left. His career was in the tank and he had been paying out alimony almost as soon as he hit adulthood. Somehow, Christopher and Christina Aber still managed to squeeze some juice out of this lemon. The pair admitted to making off with approximately $2 million of Rooney’s money.

46. He Had A Great Credit Score

With all of the money troubles that he had, Rooney didn’t struggle to get credit…on the screen. By the time Rooney was taking his parting bow, the veteran actor had racked up more acting credits than maybe any other actor of all time. All said, Rooney had 342 acting credits starting in 1926 and ending in 2017.

47. His Marriage Was Appended…To Divorce

Mickey Rooney’s first marriage to starlet Ava Gardner set the stage for his ultra-dramatic life afterward. The union was far from ideal—but few knew the utterly brutal way that it came crashing down. Just a week after their wedding, Gardner had to be hospitalized for appendicitis. After three weeks, she was finally allowed to go home to Rooney. Gardner returned to their apartment and found evidence that while she had been in the hospital, Rooney had been busy cheating on her—in their own home. Soon after, she filed for divorce. 

48. He Re-strained His Marriage

If you think that the current situation in the world has strained your familial relations, wait until you hear more about the Rooney-Chamberlain clan. Suffice to say, Thanksgiving dinners were tense gatherings. After Christopher and Christina made off with Rooney’s money and abused the elderly actor, he filed for a restraining order. I guess that means his wife had two Christmases?

49. He Was Alone

Chamberlain shouldn’t feel too bad that Rooney kept her son at arm’s length. He did the same to his very own children. Rooney disinherited his eight surviving children—not that they stood to inherit much from their poor father. To add insult to injury, Rooney barred his children from seeing him in his final years. Thankfully, he still had some friends left…

50. He Was Rich Where It Mattered

By the end of his career—if it really did ever end—Rooney had left behind a string of Hollywood classics…and failed marriages. Sadly, for all of his contributions, Rooney passed on without enough money to pay for his own funeral. In a show of appreciation for him and to demonstrate their love for the Hollywood legend, major film studios agreed to pay for Rooney’s funeral. It was the respect he had never received in life…

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13


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