For Kelly Rooney, the pain of losing her father, Hollywood star Mickey Rooney, is as fresh as if it had occurred yesterday.
“He was always an inspiration and a magical person in our lives,” Rooney, 59, tearfully told Fox News. “We really loved him and we cherished him. Now growing up, we came to realized that the world loved him too. So we did have to share him with the world."
Rooney, the larger-than-life entertainer who bounced on stage before he was 2 and rarely left the spotlight for the next nine decades, died on April 6, 2014, at age 93. America’s boy next door first won fame as the teenage Andy Hardy, becoming the greatest box office draw of the ‘30s and ‘40s. He went on to appear in over 300 films, as well as garner fame on television and theater.
Rooney was survived by his eighth wife of 35 years, Jan Chamberlin, as well as eight children — a ninth died in 2006.
"As we became adults, we understood that was something he was born to do since he was 18 months old," his daughter said. "He never really knew anything else. It honestly feels like we lost him yesterday. I miss him very much. We all do.”
Rooney said she and her father were incredibly close, especially after their lives were shattered by tragedy. Her mother, aspiring actress Barbara Thomason and Mickey’s fifth wife, was shot to death at age 29 in 1966 by his friend, Milos Milosevic. The 24-year-old budding actor used the same gun to kill himself. Kelly was 7 years old at the time of the murder-suicide.
Rooney stressed that while rumors long persisted Thomason and Milosevic were lovers, that’s far from the truth.
“My dad and [Milos] became friends,” explained Rooney. “My dad was trying to help him in the business. And unbeknownst to my mother, he fell in love with her and became obsessed with her. … She and my dad had such a loving relationship. When you saw them together, it was that look of love. My mother loved him dearly. And my dad loved her dearly. She was a hands-on mom who taught us to say our prayers and brushed our teeth. We had a lot of love from my mom. Losing her put a real hole in our hearts.”
According to Rooney, Mickey would go on to declare Thomason as the great love of his life and would blow a kiss to the heavens when he later performed on stage.
“My dad called me in 1992 and said, ‘Kel, I want you to hear something,’” Rooney recalled. “'… I have to apologize to you because I couldn’t save her. And I’m so sorry.’ I know he carried around a big bag of guilt about that.”
The bond that father and daughter developed over the years was inseparable. And it wouldn’t be until Rooney was about 11 years old when she learned her father was different.
“As a little girl, I would notice that everyone was always looking — I always thought they were looking at me,” Rooney chuckled. “But eventually, I realized they were really looking at my dad. So one day I said, ‘Dad, why are people always looking at you?’ He went, ‘Well honey, it’s my work. It’s what I do. I’m in the public eye.'” As a kid, I still didn’t know what he meant. But he was always on television. … And through his films, I could see how much joy he brought to people.”
Rooney said that her list of favorite memories with Mickey is longer than his film credits. However, there’s one special moment that’s still vivid in her mind.
“My dad used to have an honorary badge that was given to him from the police department,” explained Rooney. “He would go, ‘Kel, come on, you’re going to go on a ride with me.’ He drove me in his car around Beverly Hills, going through stop signs and hurrying. I would be on the floorboard because he was driving so fast. Then he would get pulled over by a police officer. He would then flash that honorary badge proudly. And a lot of those times, we were racing over to Judy Garland’s house!”
Despite his lasting career in Hollywood, Mickey's proudest achievement was serving our country when he was drafted into the Army in 1944.
“He told his mom, ‘I just feel like God’s calling me to go and do my service,’” said Rooney. “I know several people who were with my dad throughout the rest of his life and they told me he was trying to help veterans. He told us kids that more than anything, he loved being in the service. He was a veteran in Patton’s Army. He received a bronze star. And he never went into the army to entertain. He went into the army because he wanted to be one of them. I know that’s one thing he was very proud of. More than the movies, to tell you the truth.”
“One day, I asked him, ‘Daddy, how come you didn’t marry Judy?’” said Rooney. “He said, “Well Kel, that would be like you marrying your brother. I’ve known her since she was a little girl and she knew me since I was a little boy. We grew up together.’ … Judy was always so kind and gracious. A lot of times, she and dad would get the kids together to go swimming at the beach or ride horses in Malibu. … They loved each other. And it was a love they grew up having for each other. They were the best of friends.”
Garland passed away in 1969 at age 47 from a barbiturate overdose. Rooney said the death devastated her father.
“I heard my dad on the radio crying and talking about it,” said Rooney. “… It was very difficult. When he went to Judy’s funeral, everyone expected him to get up and say this or that. He didn’t. He went up, kissed her coffin and left. He couldn’t handle it. It was really hard on him.”
Despite the personal losses Mickey endured, it was his love of performing that kept him going for decades. He was 93 when he shot his final scene “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb" — six weeks before he passed away.
“He loved to be imaginary and to have fun,” said Rooney. “To him, acting was fun. It was a job. It was time to play. And he just loved it. He thrived in it. He would step back for a minute, but he always wanted to jump right in.”
Despite an 80-year career, Mickey’s estate at the time of his death was valued at only $18,000, per The Associated Press. It was signed on March 11, 2014, and called for his stepson Mark Rooney and his wife to be the sole beneficiaries. Rooney said he had lost most of his fortune because of elder abuse and financial mismanagement by another one of his stepsons.
According to The Detroit News, Rooney claimed her father was forced to continue to work and was “demeaned” when he forgot lines or couldn’t read cue cards. She also alleged her father’s caretakers would tell her he was not home when she called to come to see him. Rooney insisted she relied on impromptu visits to see her father.
Rooney also alleged that during her last visit with her father she begged to take him out of the house and away from his caretakers. However, he refused, fearing word would get leaked to the press.
“Every time he saw any of us kids, he lit up,” said Rooney. “He was like a little stick of dynamite whenever he saw us. And he would become more alive… I’ve been feeling guilty and ashamed all this time because I felt like I could have done more. … He called at one point and said, ‘I love all of you kids and we’ll be together very soon.' It just didn’t happen.”
Today Rooney, along with Casey Kasem’s daughter Kerri Kasem and Glen Campbell’s son Travis Campbell tirelessly advocate for laws aimed to protect aging parents, ensuring visitation rights for their loved ones, as well as raise awareness on elder abuse. She said it’s her love for Mickey that continues to drive her every day so that others won’t suffer from a similar fate.
“I’m thankful that I’m my dad’s daughter,” said Rooney. “I’m his first girl. People would always say, ‘You look just like your dad.’ I heard that my whole life. But it’s a real honor to look like my dad. When I was a little girl growing up, I didn’t know if I liked it too much. But I like it now. And I’m just grateful we had such a wonderful dad.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.