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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

Mickey Rooney’s $12 Million Loss to Gambling Addiction Trounces Other Hollywood Gamers

The legendary movie star, who passed away at 93 on Sunday, had a long career marked by extreme highs and lows.

2 Substance

Mickey Rooney, the star of stage and screen and gambling casinos, died on Sunday at age 93. The very short man (five-foot two) had a very long career (200-plus movies) and was widely praised as a comic genius, from his early Andy Hardy movies in the mid-1930s through Sugar Babies, his Broadway-musical comeback vehicle in the early 1980s, to The Muppets in 2011.

At age 19, he was No. 1 at the box office and pulling in $300,000 a picture—the perfect makings of a fast celebrity flameout. In retrospect, it almost seems inevitable that he developed addictions. Booze and pills were part of it, but what really got him all dopamined up was gambling, especially playing the ponies and shooting craps.

Rooney’s life was marked by the extreme highs and lows, and impulsive starts and stops, characteristic of compulsive gamblers on the Vegas strip and Wall Street alike. He was married eight times, declared bankruptcy twice; “suits for alimony, child support and back taxes pursued him like tin cans tied to the bumper of the car he was driving to his next wedding,” Aljean Harmetz wrote in The New York Times’ front-page obit. Rooney once estimated that he lost a total of $12 million to his addiction before he allegedly got religion and got sober as a born-again Christian in the late 1970s.

It is usual now to associate professional sports stars with gambling addiction, but during the golden age of Hollywood the nation’s most celebrated compulsive gamblers were either movie stars or mobsters. And because the Mob typically owned the casinos and racetracks, they often wound up owning the stars themselves, who would pay down their gambling debts by doing shows at Mob hotels. “I was a smash hit at the Riviera, where I drew $17,500 a week and lost twice that on the crap table,” Rooney wrote in his 1991 autobiography, Life Is Too Short.

Hollywood’s cavalcade of problem gamblers during the 1930s and 1940s, when Rooney got his start, include George Burns, George Jessel, George Raft, Phil Silvers and Chico Marx; in the 1950s and 1960s, Rooney was joined by such Rat Pack members as Jerry Lewis as well as Jimmy Durante, Larry Krugman, Walter Matthau and Vince Edwards.

More recently, sex has outclassed gambling in the ranks of Hollywood addictions, but its time-honored status as a show business vice continues to be well tended by some top celebrities.