No, Mickey Rooney was not Irish, the pint-sized actor was actually born Joseph Yule, son of a Glasgow, Scotland native. Rooney died in 2014 aged 93 after a stellar career and eight marriages.
Though he played numerous Irish roles and once changed his name to Mickey McGuire and then Mickey Looney and finally Mickey Rooney, he was actually of good Protestant Scottish background.
Indeed, Rooney himself joined an evangelical church late in life and one of his sons is a major evangelical preacher.
Rooney was born Joseph Yule, Jr. in Brooklyn in 1920. His father, Joe Yule (born Ninnian Joseph Ewell), was from Glasgow, Scotland, and his mother, Nellie W. (née Carter), was from Kansas City, MO. Both of his parents were in vaudeville, appearing in a Brooklyn production of "A Gaiety Girl" when Joseph, Jr. was born. He began performing at the age of 17 months as part of his parents' routine, wearing a specially tailored tuxedo.
In his first appearance, he was known as Sonny Yule at just 17 months. He felt the spotlight on him and described it as his mother's womb. From that moment on, the stage was his home.
While Joe Sr. was traveling, Joe Jr. and his mother moved from Brooklyn to Kansas City to live with his aunt. While his mother was reading the entertainment newspaper, Nellie was interested in getting Hal Roach to approach her son to participate in the "Our Gang" series in Hollywood. Roach offered $5 a day to Joe, Jr., while the other young stars were paid five times more.
His first brush with an Irish name occurred when the Yules separated in 1924 during a slump in vaudeville, and in 1925, Nell Yule moved with her son to Hollywood, where she managed a tourist home.
Fontaine Fox had placed a newspaper ad for a dark-haired child to play the role of "Mickey McGuire" in a series of short films. Lacking the money to have her son's hair dyed, Mrs. Yule took her son to the audition after applying burnt cork to his scalp. Joe got the role and became "Mickey" for 78 of the comedies, running from 1927 to 1936, starting with Mickey's Circus, released September 4, 1927. These had been adapted from the Toonerville Trolley comic strip, which contained a character named Mickey McGuire. Joe Yule briefly became Mickey McGuire legally in order to trump an attempted copyright lawsuit.
Love Irish history? Share your favorite stories with other history buffs in the IrishCentral History Facebook group.
His mother also changed her surname to McGuire in an attempt to bolster the argument, but the film producers lost. The litigation settlement awarded damages to the owners of the cartoon character, compelling the twelve-year-old actor to refrain from calling himself Mickey McGuire on- and offscreen.
During an interruption in the series in 1932, Mrs. Yule made plans to take her son on a ten-week vaudeville tour as McGuire, and Fox sued successfully to stop him from using the name. Mrs. Yule suggested the stage name of Mickey Looney for her comedian son, which he altered slightly to Rooney. Rooney made other films in his adolescence, including several more of the McGuire films, and signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1934. He played numerous Irish roles afterward.It was an era when Irish names were big in Hollywood such as James Cagney and Tyrone Power, and Errol Flynn and Rooney cashed in as well.
*Originally published in 2014. Updated in Sept 2023.