Rooney started his career in his parents’ vaudeville act while still a toddler, and broke into movies before the age of 10.
He was still racking up film and TV credits more than 80 years later – a tenure likely unmatched in the history of show business.
“I always say, ‘Don’t retire – inspire,”‘ he told The Associated Press in March 2008. “There’s a lot to be done.”
Among his roles in recent years was a part as a guard in the smash 2006 comedy “A Night at the Museum.”
At his peak, Rooney was the incarnation of the show biz lifer, a shameless ham and hoofer whom one could imagine singing, dancing and wisecracking in his crib, his blond hair, big grin and constant motion a draw for millions.
He later won an Emmy and was nominated for a Tony.
Rooney’s personal life matched his film roles for colour. His first wife was the glamorous – and taller – Ava Gardner, and he married seven more times, fathering seven sons and four daughters.
Through divorces, money problems and career droughts, he kept returning with customary vigour.
“I’ve been coming back like a rubber ball for years,” he commented in 1979, the year he returned with a character role in “The Black Stallion,” drawing an Oscar nomination as supporting actor, one of four nominations he earned over the years.
That same year he starred with Ann Miller in a revue called “Sugar Babies,” a hokey mixture of vaudeville and burlesque. It opened in New York in October 1979, and immediately became Broadway’s hottest ticket. Rooney received a Tony nomination (as did Miller) and earned millions during his years with the show.
Rooney signed a contract with MGM in 1934 and landed his first big role in “Manhattan Melodrama”, and won praise as an exuberant Puck in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which also featured James Cagney and a young Olivia de Havilland.
He was soon earning $US300 ($A324.06) a week with featured roles in such films as “Riff Raff,” “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “Captains Courageous,” “The Devil Is a Sissy,” and most notably, as a brat humbled by Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in “Boys Town.”
The big break came with the wildly popular Andy Hardy series, beginning with “A Family Affair.”
But Rooney also earned a reputation for drunken escapades and
short romances, and was unlucky in both money and love. In 1942 he married for the first time, to Gardner, the statuesque MGM beauty. He was 21, she was 19.
The marriage ended in a year, and Rooney joined the Army in 1943, spending most of his World War II service entertaining troops.
Rooney returned to Hollywood and disillusionment. His savings had been stolen by a manager and his career was in a nose dive. He made two films at MGM, then his contract was dropped.
“I began to realise how few friends everyone has,” he wrote in his second autobiography. “All those Hollywood friends I had in 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1941, when I was the toast of the world, weren’t friends at all.”
His movie career never regained its pre-war eminence. The 1956 World War II drama “The Bold and the Brave” brought him an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. But mostly, he played second leads in such films as “Off Limits” with Bob Hope, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” with William Holden, and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” with Anthony Quinn. In the early 1960s, he had a wild turn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” as Audrey Hepburn’s bucktoothed Japanese neighbour.
In 1983, the Motion Picture Academy presented Rooney with an honorary Oscar for his “60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances.”
Born Joe Yule Jr. in 1920, he was the star of his parents’ act by the age of two, singing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” in a tiny tuxedo. His father was a baggy-pants comic, Joe Yule, his mother a dancer, Nell Carter. Yule was a boozing Scotsman with a wandering eye, and the couple soon parted.
The boy was also playing kid parts in features, and his name seemed inappropriate. His mother suggested Rooney, after the vaudeville dancer, Pat Rooney.
In 1978, Rooney, 57, married for the eighth – and apparently last – time. His bride was singer Janice Darlene Chamberlain, 39. Their marriage lasted longer than the first seven combined.
Rooney was with his family when he died at his North Hollywood home on Sunday.