This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Mickey Rooney shrieks in pain. Is he OK? “No, I’m not,” he says, choking back tears. It’s July 2010, inside The Grill on the Alley in Thousand Oaks, and in the midst of an interview with one of the authors of this piece, the diminutive 89-year-old has been kicked under the table by his eighth wife, Jan, as confirmed by his stepson, Chris Aber, who also is at the table. “She kicked him real hard,” says Chris with a laugh. Rooney’s offense? Rambling in his answers.
This meeting took place because the interviewer (who, as a then-freelance writer, was gathering material for a book) agreed to requirements set forth by Jan and Chris and conveyed to him over the phone by Kevin Pawley, Rooney’s Kentucky-based manager: Bring a check for $200 and slip it to Chris when Rooney wasn’t paying attention (ostensibly because financial transactions made him uncomfortable) and treat the three of them to lunch at the restaurant (Jan later ordered dinners to go for each of them).
A flip cam at the end of the table rolls as Jan, theatrically seeking the source of what caused her husband’s pain, peers under the table for a moment and then turns to Chris and scolds him for confirming, in part, what the general public only would learn later: In his final years, Rooney was the victim of ongoing elder abuse.
The alleged wrongdoing and how it went on for so long has been a mystery — until now. Five years after that interview, and more than a year after the star’s death, an investigation by The Hollywood Reporter (uncovering legal documents, witness testimony and financial records that never before have been publicized) indicates Rooney’s life was more abusive than he let on while he was alive. What’s more, the trouble persisted until he died in April 2014 in a Studio City rental, with only $18,000 to his name. (Rooney’s body rests at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where many legendary movie stars are buried.)
Just weeks after Chris was served with a restraining order on Valentine’s Day in 2011 accusing him of financially exploiting Rooney as his business manager, the actor flew to Washington, D.C. Herb Kohl, chairman of the Senate Special Aging Committee, had read press reports that a conservator for Rooney was pursuing elder-abuse charges, and he invited Rooney to testify about what he’d been through. As a transcript of that hearing reveals, Rooney, without naming names, tearfully explained that he’d himself been a victim of the increasingly common crime, stripped “of the ability to make even the most basic decisions about my life,” leading to an “unbearable” and “helpless” daily existence. In a process that began after Rooney confided in a Disney executive during filming of 2011’s The Muppets, Rooney’s attorneys filed court papers in their petition for a conservator (to protect him and recover his assets) that revealed the extent of the control — he wasn’t even allowed to buy food or carry identification.
Rooney had a black eye, a missing tooth and other injuries as the result of an incident in January 2012 in which he later told acquaintances that he had fallen onto a big-screen TV.
For her part, Jan, 76, who now lives with Chris at his house (and receives $100,000 a year from Rooney’s SAG pension and Social Security benefits), insists that she has been falsely accused and characterizes her late husband’s Senate testimony as coerced and unreliable. “Mickey was a 90-year-old man who was in and out of it mentally and was easily influenced by other people,” she submits.
Only now will the public learn that the alleged debasement was not just financial but physical, too. Numerous family members and others close to Rooney say the small-statured actor frequently was abused by Jan, his wife of 36 years, who weighed twice what he did. THR also has learned that she was struggling with mental health issues during this time. These close acquaintances say Rooney — who himself was arrested in 1997 by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department on suspicion of hitting Jan during a fight (the case was dropped) — was bloodied and bruised in multiple altercations, in his final years emerging as a feeble man lying to his doctor about why he was being treated for this black eye or that missing tooth. While Rooney always denied spousal abuse, multiple sources tell THR that, when confronted, Jan herself acknowledged assaults. In a long interview with THR via email, Jan is adamant that “I never physically abused Mickey, but we had some minor pushing scuffles, tempers flared when we were angry. Sometimes it was his fault, sometimes mine. We always made up.” (As a condition of responding to an interview request, she insisted that THR publish all questions and answers in their entirety. A full transcript can be viewed here.)
One of the insiders is Hector Garcia, who was brought in by the conservator to oversee Rooney’s safety, including during periodic visitations with his wife after he moved out of their home. Days after Garcia began this job, he heard yelling and a thump coming from a second-floor bedroom and rushed inside. There, he found Rooney on the ground with Jan standing over him. “I told her, ‘You cannot be hitting Mickey; I won’t allow it,’ ” recalls Garcia. “She responded by telling me: ‘Get used to it. I hit him because that’s the only way he learns — by hitting him like a kid.’ ” (He told her if she did it again, he’d place her under citizen’s arrest.) Jan allows, “That might have been one of the very few times when we slapped each other on the arm during an argument. But we never meant to hurt each other.”
The abuse claim is complicated by Jan’s abiding closeness with son Chris — who, accused by Rooney’s conservator, attorney Michael Augustine, of stealing $8.5 million from his stepfather, agreed in 2013 to a $2.8 million civil settlement. Garcia describes an incident in which he was bringing Rooney for a visitation with Jan when the actor saw Chris getting into his car and got so upset at the sight of his stepson that he “dropped down to the floorboard of the vehicle and literally started crying, shaking, scared. In fact, he soiled himself, and I had to go clean him.” (Responds Chris: “That’s ridiculous. Mickey had a problem soiling his pants all the time.”)
Chris, 56, who has yet to pay a cent, maintains his innocence: “[Rooney’s lawyers] had to save face, so my attorney told me to make up a number, so I made up a number.”
Responds Augustine, “He was always in Hawaii, the wife was with the big diamonds — they were spending it fast and furiously.”
How much Jan knew of Chris’ alleged financial wrongdoing remains unclear, as is the contentious role played by her younger son Mark, 53, a former punk rocker with a drug-riddled past who (along with his wife, Charlene) became Rooney’s stay-at-home caregiver and extracted the star from the grip of Chris and Jan. Meanwhile, multiple legal entanglements still are keeping L.A.’s Superior Court busy 18 months after Rooney’s death, including a dispute over the rights to his estate — which could rise in value if key possessions, such as his juvenile Oscar from 1939, are sold — that’s being pursued by seven of his biological children.
What is clear: One of the biggest stars of all time, who remained aloft longer than anyone in Hollywood history, was in the end brought down by those closest to him. He died humiliated and betrayed, nearly broke and often broken.
Rooney testified to the Senate in March 2011 about the frightening elder-care abuse he had suffered but didn’t name names or mention physical abuse.
Born Joseph Yule Jr., the only child of a poor chorus girl and burlesque performer who split up when he was 4 (his mother took him from Brooklyn to Hollywood), Rooney made his big-screen debut in 1926, in the silent era, and 88 years later still was at work — on the upcoming straight-to-Amazon Prime release Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — the week he died. Rooney was a hit from the start, first in a series of Our Gang-like two-reelers in which he played a kid named Mickey McGuire, then at MGM, where he became a fan favorite — and Louis B. Mayer‘s golden ticket.
For a nation emerging from the Depression and headed into World War II, the vibrancy and can-do spirit of Rooney’s screen persona proved irresistible. He stood only 5-foot-3, but he was huge, ranking as the top box-office star from 1939 through 1941 (and certainly one of the best-paid actors of that era) thanks to the appeal of his work as an all-American kid in the Andy Hardy franchise; 10 musicals opposite another prodigy, Judy Garland; and other classics such as Boys Town and National Velvet. In 1939, the Academy awarded Rooney a special juvenile Oscar, and in the next five years, he twice was nominated for the real thing. (No male since has landed a best actor Oscar nom at a younger age.) He would go on to receive two more noms — for The Bold and the Brave (1956) and The Black Stallion (1979) — and pick up an Honorary Oscar, too, in 1983. No less a thespian than Laurence Olivier called him “the best there has ever been.”
But as subsequent child stars — from Elizabeth Taylor to Macaulay Culkin, none as popular as Rooney — would discover, adjusting to the real world after growing up in a dream factory isn’t easy. While his contemporaries attended school, collected an allowance and hoped for a kiss at the movies, Rooney had an education limited to studio tutors, gambled massive amounts at racetracks and slept his way through the studio’s stable of budding beauties, including Ava Gardner. At 19, she became his first wife (he was 21). She divorced him after little more than a year because he couldn’t remain faithful to her.
Rooney, whom Laurence Olivier called “the best film actor America ever produced,” starred in 1958’s ‘Andy Hardy Comes Home.’
Friends say Rooney was ill-equipped to be an independent adult, which he was forced to become after the war ended and he parted ways with MGM, founding his own production company with a business partner. Thus began decades of reckless spending and gambling; bad investments and failed get-rich-quick schemes (like Mickey Rooney Macaroni); alcoholism and pill-popping; and, famously, marriages and divorces, which cost him a pretty penny in alimony. (Rooney did not divorce his fifth wife, Carolyn Mitchell; she was murdered by a rumored lover in 1966 in their home when he was out of town.) Left in the wake of this were 10 children with whom Rooney elected to have little contact; indeed, in his 1991 autobiography, he devoted more words to his pets than his kids.
Richard A. Lertzman, who co-authored the new biography The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney, tells THR that the actor was a “manic personality” who suffered from bipolar disorder. He also contends that Rooney attempted suicide “twice, maybe three times” over the years, with resulting hospitalizations reported as “nervous breakdowns.”
In the ‘70s, as American movies grew more cynical, Rooney struggled to find quality work. He’d blown through most of his money (first declaring bankruptcy in 1962), was reduced to doing dinner theater in Kentucky and, while in L.A., crashed at the Nichols Canyon home of his agent, Ruth Webb, known for hosting eclectic parties. At one soiree, Rooney’s oldest son, musician Mickey Jr., now a 70-year-old recluse, brought a date named Jan Chamberlin, an aspiring country singer from L.A. (Lertzman says Mickey Jr. told him they were engaged, while Jan said they were “just friends.”) Before long, while Mickey Jr. was away for a gig, Mickey Sr. and Jan, who was 18 years younger, became an item.
Being with Jan meant being with Chris and Mark, her teenage sons (from her marriage to script supervisor Lynn Aber that ended when she was 26). In a 1979 story in People, Chris said he and Mark “were both troublemakers when Mom met Mickey.” Mark now says of his mother, “She was always trying to be a singer, always after fame, always trying to date people.” She had a history of troubled relationships. “She tried to leave this one guy — took us away for a weekend somewhere to hide from the guy,” recalls Mark. “And when we got back to the house, the cat was smashed on the table, like into tuna fish. My brother’s cat was [dead] in the refrigerator.”
Rooney represented the possibility of something better for Jan and her sons — Mark says they were on welfare — though, at first, Rooney was so destitute he had to move in to their rental home in Sherman Oaks. Eventually, he got together some money and, recalls Mark, “took us to nice dinners, taught us a lot about etiquette and all that stuff, exposed us to a lot of things, you know, horse racing and golf.”
“If they proved just one thing, I could go to jail. They couldn’t prove anything,” says Chris, with wife Christina in April 2014 after his stepfather’s death.
Around that time, Rooney’s fortunes turned around. He landed his part in The Black Stallion and reluctantly made his Broadway debut in Sugar Babies, a burlesque revue that became a smashing success, running for nearly three years and earning Rooney as much as $65,000 a week. But family members say Jan’s frustrations festered; she submitted audition cassettes to places like The Tonight Show, which sent her a polite rejection letter.
Before long, Chris and Mark began working for Rooney — first informally, with Chris as a driver and Mark as a chef (“He sent me to chef school”) and then as paid assistants. “This is something I loved doing,” says Chris. “Imagine going to Sugar Babies and being in the dressing room with all the girls undressing in front of you.” Chris later married Christina and moved out while Mark stuck around. By the 1990s, both were headed for trouble: Mark admits to being heavily into drugs (heroin and cocaine) and says Chris was, too — “My brother was doing coke this whole time.” (Chris had no comment on any past drug use.)
‘Babes in Arms’ (1939) was one of 10 highly successful big-screen musicals Rooney starred in with fellow prodigy Garland.
In 1996, Jan reached out to family acquaintance Geraldo Rivera about Mark’s troubles, and the TV talk show host offered to pay for him to get treatment. Mark went off for a month to an upscale treatment facility in Nashville — Chris Farley was there at the time. (“One thing Chris said at one of the meetings was, ‘My idea of a party is a large pizza, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a gram of coke,’ ” recalls Mark.) Ten days into his stay, Mark appeared on Rivera’s show via satellite, with his brother beside him and Jan in the studio. Chris uploaded this segment to YouTube in 2012.
Soon after, Mark entered an after-care program in Florida. “I got a job at two restaurants,” he recalls. “I had a new energy. I was focused.” At one restaurant, he met a bookkeeper named Charlene Fevrier, whom he began dating and eventually married. He says he heard little from Jan and Chris, but “Mickey would call all the time, ‘When are you coming back? You’re all better now.’ “
Mark says he wanted to visit home but claims that Jan blocked Rooney from providing the necessary funds. When Mark finally earned enough to return on his own, he says he was shocked by what he saw. “Something happened,” he says. “Jan and Chris were running the show.”
How does a man who earned tens of millions of dollars during his career wind up with $18,000?
Mark says Rooney had a breakdown while in Australia filming 1998’s Babe: Pig in the City, after which his stepfather was prescribed strong medication. He says, “They put him on these brain psych meds and things, and my mom was administering them — and she didn’t know what she was doing.” Adds Charlene, “[Jan] said, ‘I have to keep him high to be onstage, and I have to keep him quiet and subdued when he’s at home.’ ” (Jan denies this.)
Mark, Charlene and Augustine contend that Rooney, after declaring bankruptcy in 1996, was told (erroneously) by Chris that his pensions — from SAG, AFTRA and Actors Equity — had been cashed out and he would have to work to keep his home and health and medical benefits. (Chris denies this and says he committed no wrongdoing in connection with his stepfather.) Jan and manager Pawley put together a revue for her and Mickey to perform together, Let’s Put on a Show, and Chris began booking them at venues of varying prestige across the continent.
Carroll Ballard, who directed Rooney in Black Stallion, ran into him in Toronto that year, after Rooney had done “some kind of theater thing” that was “way below his abilities, and I think he felt embarrassed.” Says Robert Malcolm, Rooney’s agent after Webb: “Mickey was a star. Jan was not. Jan had a great need for being at the center of things, and that made me uncomfortable.”
In 2004, Mark saw Rooney in Branson, Mo., where Chris had booked Mickey and Jan for a gig. Mark says he found Chris “already positioning himself” to get access to Rooney’s money, having persuaded Mickey and Jan to move out of their “big and beautiful” home in Sherman Oaks and into a “really crappy rental home” in Westlake Village. Moreover, recalls Mark, “He was on the phone shopping for new Porsches. The guy said he needed to check Chris’ credit and paperwork and he goes, ‘You’ve got to check my f—ing credit? I’m a f—ing millionaire! What are you talking about?’ And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on here?’ “
Another episode disturbed Mark even more: “Chris came in and goes, ‘Mickey, I’d like you to sign this. We’re going to go for two months and we’re going to go here and we’re going to do this.’ And Mickey goes, ‘Ah, wait a minute, Chris, I don’t want to sign it right now. Why don’t you come back later?’ And Chris says, ‘Just sign it, come on, sign it!’ ‘Chris, no, I don’t want to sign it.’ And he goes, ‘Just sign the thing, you f—ing piece of shit!’ ”
Family members and Augustine tell THR that this arrangement continued for years, with Chris committing his stepfather to performances, appearances and interviews in return for cash payments, most of which he spent as if they were his own. Chris already had compelled Rooney to add him as a sub-account holder, signatory or authorized user on nearly all of his accounts, debit/credit cards and P.O. boxes. In 1998, Chris was installed as a 49 percent partner in Rooney’s production company, Densmore Productions.
Chris maintains that he was always paid a flat salary for his work, which he describes on his LinkedIn page as “coordination of all travel arrangements, public appearances, publicity, bookings and press releases as well as forecasting and overseeing budgetary matters,” plus “assisting in all aspects of the actor’s personal life, living arrangements [and] supervising estate employees and managing three rental properties.” At the same time, court documents avow that while Rooney’s home repeatedly was refinanced to withdraw equity, Chris owned two Mercedes, a Porsche and four houses (collectively worth more than $2 million).
Cast alongside a young Elizabeth Taylor in the 1944 hit ‘National Velvet,’ Rooney (right) would go on to have a film career that no child star in history has since matched.
A Wells Fargo statement obtained by THR shows that as Rooney’s monthly pension and Social Security payments, which totaled more than $11,000 a month, were deposited into an account accessible by Rooney, Jan and Chris, similar amounts were almost immediately transferred out of the account to others, like one named “Tiyana,” which is the name of Chris’ daughter. “That’s the name of an account, that’s not a person,” argued Chris when confronted with this statement in an interview on Oct. 9. “That’s how I remember the name of the account. If you make up an account, then you can put any name you want on it. I could put ‘dog shit’ on the account, and that’s where it goes. It was Mickey’s savings account!”
Although Mark and others say that Chris and Jan both took advantage of Rooney, it appears that Chris left Jan to live in relative squalor with her husband — Charlene says that Rooney’s toilet was left “filthy” and rats were running rampant while Chris and Christina lived nearby in a five-bedroom house (it was sold in 2012 for $695,000) with help. Jan wrote Chris an email in June 2010, obtained by THR: “It is very possible we are going to have to go our separate ways,” citing a recent incident in which she alleged that Chris had slammed a car trunk on her head (“It has done something to me. Just what I don’t know”) and expressing concern about Chris’ attitude (“Your HATE is buried so deep”).
Soon thereafter, say Mark and Charlene, Chris shut down Rooney’s production company and fired his financial advisers save for one, Cindy Smith, who, court documents later would allege, was siphoning off Rooney’s money, too, to fund a side business. (Smith cooperated with the conservator in return for having her name removed from the complaint.) Charlene says she spoke with one terminated accountant, Judy Hensley, in 2006, and was told, “I’m kind of friends with her [Smith], so I can’t really say too much. But I’ll tell you this: You’re never going to get them. Call an elder abuse lawyer.” (Neither Smith nor Hensley could be reached for comment.)
Chris and Jan entered business dealings with two wealthy men who paid them — apparently without Rooney’s knowledge — for access to the star. Michael Schrimmer, a Glow-Stick entrepreneur from Chicago, paid tens of thousands of dollars for opportunities like accompanying Rooney to a dinner at Steven Spielberg‘s home. And Ray Willey, a California building preservationist, hired Mickey and Jan to perform at his daughter’s wedding and do a signing at his art gallery. (Neither Willey nor Schrimmer responded to calls for comment.)
Both men were involved in The Rooneys, a never-produced reality show pilot about the supposedly zany family life of the couple that was filmed in August 2009. Willey is credited as an EP, having put up $30,000 to fund it, with Schrimmer as associate producer. The first scene in the sizzle reel, set during a memory-lane visit to the Sony lot (formerly MGM), features Jan berating Rooney for, to her mind, foolishly passing on roles in successful films including Heaven Can Wait, Dances With Wolves and — Chris pipes up from the back of their chauffeured SUV — Cocoon. “Another movie he gave up!” she exclaims in exasperation. “The list goes on and on and on!” Rooney, in response, verges on tears, his face red and fists clenched.
Meanwhile, Mark and Charlene adopted the last name “Rooney” and began selling some of the actor’s possessions on eBay — without his permission, says Chris. “I’ve got a whole list,” Chris says, “$20,000 worth of stuff!” (He declined to show a list to THR.) Charlene counters that the sales were far more modest and always with Rooney’s permission. “He’d say, ‘Here’s a picture from Sugar Babies, just sell this.’ And we’d get the money and buy food or whatever.”
When asked about Chris’ accusations, Augustine offers a curt reply: “They put a video signed by Mickey or something on eBay for $19.95; he stole $8 million!”
“Being married to Mickey is like a game of chess,” Jan told People in 1979, a year after they tied the knot. “I’m not sure who will win. It’ll probably be a stalemate.” For Rooney’s part, he observed in his 1991 autobiography Life Is Too Short, “ever since I started going with Jan, it’s been one, big, joyous fight. The reason we don’t part: The fight isn’t over yet.”
Rooney was the first to acknowledge that, with his big ego and impatient personality, he could be a pain. He went on in his book, “Sometimes I mistreat her. She mistreats me, too.” In the couple’s final years together, a period during which Charlene claims they largely didn’t interact in their own home, she recalls an incident during which Rooney accidentally tracked dog feces through their house, prompting Jan to smear it on his clothes in a rage. (Asked about it, Jan replies, “I won’t dignify that question with an answer.”)
“Ever since I started going with Jan, it’s been one, big, joyous fight,” wrote Rooney, with his wife at the Academy Awards in 1978, the year they got married.
An apparent strain in the marriage was the asymmetry of their success. While Rooney had been at a low ebb in his career when they met, he rebounded with Sugar Babies, and, according to those around them, Jan pushed her husband to leverage his fame to increase her own — with little success. “Mickey was offered a part in a Muppets movie,” says Charlene. “She said to Mickey, ‘You call that producer and you tell him that I’m going to be in that or you’re not going to do it.’ ” (Cameos of both Rooney and Jan were shot; hers was cut.)
Jan liked to script Rooney’s phone calls, claim Mark and Charlene, particularly with the press, scribbling notes on scraps of paper passed to him to read, some of which have been reviewed by THR: “Jan is the singer in the family!”; “I never really felt married until I married Jan. How she’s put up with me all these years I’ll never know”; and, perhaps most ironically: “I may not have a million dollars — but I have a billion-dollar wife.”
Jan often insisted she autograph photographs handed to Rooney and leaned into photos with her husband. “Mickey was always pushing to get Jan a role in things he was working on,” says Malcolm. “She was just a person who wanted to be in the limelight.”
For her part, Jan contends that any efforts to include her were her husband’s doing: “Mickey always insisted.” Similarly, she maintains that their July 2013 separation agreement included a clause that his conservator would continue to “make reasonable efforts to include Jan into some of Mickey’s appearances” — not at her entreaty but because “Mickey demanded that it be written into the contract. He loved having me in his shows.” (Counters Augustine, “She is of the belief that she is some kind of a star, so we threw that in … we knew it was a provision without any teeth because nobody wanted Jan.”)
Garcia observes that “she was loving toward him in public, but behind closed doors, it was like you turn on a light switch — she would start screaming and yelling at him.” After one loud outburst, when police were called in spring 2012, Charlene says that Jan sought to spin their toxic rapport in innocuous terms, comparing herself and Rooney to the pair on The Bickersons, a late-1940s radio show about a squabbling couple.
Yet, according to those close to Rooney, too often the fights coincided with unexplained physical ramifications for the star. In one instance in 2012, according to Mark and Charlene, Rooney had the beginnings of a black eye and a tooth knocked out, claiming he fell onto a big-screen TV. In another, in November 2010, when Mark found him at the bottom of the stairs, he claimed to have slipped in the shower. (In Jan’s telling, “I was in a different part of the house and I found out about it 10 to 15 minutes after it happened.”)
In an August 2014 court filing at the behest of seven of Rooney’s biological children that in part accuses Jan of isolating her husband from the rest of his extended family, Kelly Rooney and Kerry Rooney Mack claim Jan confessed to them in April 2010 that she had assaulted her husband. “She said, ‘You know, sometimes, I have to hit him,’ ” says Kelly, now a hairdresser who lives in Northern California. “And I said, ‘What? No, you don’t!’ She said, ‘Oh, yes, I do!’ ” Court documents indicate that some of Rooney’s children filed a report with local police but did not pursue it further after, they say, Jan pleaded with them.
Augustine acknowledges he and Rooney’s attorneys became aware of Jan’s behavior but were powerless to prohibit their interaction unless Rooney formally registered a complaint against her, which he refused to do.
Multiple sources tell THR that Jan has struggled with mental illness over the years, a topic that Jan declines to address (“I’m not comfortable discussing anything like that”). It’s unclear whether, as family members and Garcia say she has claimed to them, her outbursts toward Rooney were exacerbated by her battle with a brain tumor that has led to hormonal issues. (She defines her current prognosis simply as “uncertain.”) Mark and Charlene say she had an acute crisis following the dissolution of a monthslong, at times explicit, Facebook messaging fling with a would-be paramour from Florida in 2010. THR contacted this man and confirmed key aspects of the unconsummated affair.
“We were both troublemakers when Mom met Mickey,” says Mark (left), shown in seemingly happier times with (from left) Jan, Rooney and Chris.
“She was seeing things coming out of walls,” says Charlene, who lived downstairs with Mark, “and she was tapping some kind of Morse code on the walls for days.” Charlene notes that Jan demanded that someone buy her bullets for a Benelli shotgun in their house: “I was scared to death that we were all going to be on the front page.” (Of this incident, Jan explains, “Mickey bought a shotgun to protect our home. I don’t recall asking about bullets, but I might have purchased them at Mickey’s request.”)
Despite their troubles, Rooney chose for many years not to leave Jan. “Mickey never wanted to separate from me,” avows Jan. Garcia says Rooney “did not want to end this one with a divorce” — despite it all, Rooney told friends, he still loved Jan. (However, that outlook, says Garcia, dissolved near the end, when Rooney realized Jan was protecting Chris.)
THR spoke to Jan within days of Rooney’s death. Between sobs, she claimed the separation had been at her initiative: “I just couldn’t deal with it anymore, with the fights, so I said, ‘Maybe we just need to take a break and see if we can work through this.’ “
While Mark is estranged from both his brother and mother, Jan says, “They’re my sons, and I love both of them and [their antagonism toward each other is] very uncomfortable.” In their troubled youth, Mark says the two got along, occasionally doing cocaine together, until he completed rehab.
Mark and Charlene moved in with Rooney and Jan in 2006, several months after a disconcerting family trip to the Telluride Film Festival, at which Rooney was being honored. “[Chris] told somebody at Telluride, ‘Mickey Rooney works for me, I don’t work for Mickey Rooney,’ ” says Mark. Adds Charlene: “Mickey grabbed me by the arms and said: ‘Look at me! You have to promise me that you and Mark are going to help me. I can’t take it anymore!’ ”
Chris claims the couple, both earning low wages in Florida, saw a meal ticket. “They thought Mickey was worth millions,” he laughs. By Jan’s estimation, the pair, who only erratically have been employed since their arrival in California, “didn’t contribute anything” to her household. These contentions infuriate Charlene, who in her journal documented scores of incidents that she claims to have witnessed caring for the star between 2005 and his death (typewritten excerpts shared with THR totaled 45 single-spaced pages): “We had a house and we had jobs [in Florida]. We made a promise to Mickey.”
The couple sees themselves as having embarked on a quiet, protracted mission to extract Rooney from an abusive situation and care for him during his final decline. “When Mickey would shit in the bed, Mark cleaned it up,” says Augustine. It all came in the end at a significant financial and personal cost to Mark and Charlene, leaving them broke after he died, while other key players — particularly Chris, who has yet to pay out his settlement, and Jan, who is receiving Rooney’s SAG pension — have, to their minds, made out. “There was no money,” says Garcia of the trio’s living arrangement before Rooney died. “There were instances when I had to give them $50 or $100 out of my own pocket just so they could eat.” (Mark and Charlene claim they’re entitled to unpaid caregiver fees totaling $38,000. Augustine says they’re the first in line to be paid — ahead of him and Rooney’s attorneys, who never have been paid anything and are owed $200,000 and $1.5 million, respectively — after the IRS, which is owed “less than $50,000.”)
The couple particularly was aggrieved when, after Rooney’s death, Augustine portrayed himself as a saving-the-day figure. Notes Mark: “They take a lot of credit, the lawyers and the conservator. But, you know, some of it kind of sucks because they act like they just came and found Mickey and we didn’t do shit.”
Augustine says that he’s sympathetic to their plight but that there’s little he can do to assist them. “Mark and Charlene somehow were of the opinion that [Rooney’s conservator and attorneys] were responsible for providing them with some sort of housing and/or living support and, when they were advised that this was not something that we could do because there were no funds in the estate, they basically ceased communication,” says Augustine. “I am always open to speaking to them concerning matters of relevance to the estate.”
Charlene brushes off his vows: “That’s unbelievable. Why would we choose not to be in touch with the person who is trustee to the estate and, as the sole beneficiaries to the estate, has our future in his hands?”
As Rooney continued to be verbally and physically abused by Jan and trotted out to events with which he wanted nothing to do by Chris, he became more forward about his situation, unwilling to go on living in fear. An executive with Disney named Edward Nowak, whom he confided in during the making of The Muppets, referred him to Bruce Ross, a senior partner at Holland & Knight, who became Rooney’s counsel and suggested he request a voluntary conservatorship to stop the abuse.
“The role of a conservator is basically to take over when the court determines that a person can’t take care of [himself or herself],” says Burt Levitch, a partner at Rosenfeld Meyer & Susman. Adds Laura A. Zwicker of Greenberg Glusker, “Most people with any significant assets have done estate planning such that they wouldn’t need to get a conservatorship. And it’s unusual for someone to be imposed upon while he can still go out and earn money. Usually it’s imposed on someone with severe mental or physical impairment.”
Family members often are made conservators (see Britney Spears), but Ross felt strongly that an independent party should be appointed to navigate Rooney’s situation, and, after interviewing several candidates, he and Mickey decided on Augustine, a state trust lawyer with 40-plus years of experience who also represents the trusts of Gene Kelly and the creators of Gumby.
Augustine went to work. In short order, after presenting evidence of financial wrongdoing, he procured a restraining order keeping Chris and Christina away from Rooney, negotiated a separation agreement with Jan (Rooney was advised against divorce to save money) and, in June 2012, won court approval to place Rooney under the care of Mark and Charlene at a rental property, the location of which would be withheld from Jan and Chris. He then sold Rooney and Jan’s Westlake Village home for $1.057 million; afterward, Jan moved in with Chris and Christina. And in May 2013, he reached a settlement with Chris.
Augustine has not recovered any money. He says Rooney’s art collection remains unaccounted for and that he hired a P.I. to follow Chris.
Augustine tried to initiate criminal prosecution of Chris, filing a report with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, but says, “They decided it was a civil matter and refused to take it to the D.A.” A spokesperson for the VCSD said, “In 2013 we received a report of a possibility of some kind of a financial elder abuse that was investigated, and at no time was a crime ever established.”
Says Chris: “If they proved just one thing, I could go to jail. They couldn’t prove anything.”
In the end, Augustine went after Chris via civil litigation, though he knew there was nothing to recover. He sued Chris’ homeowners’ insurance carrier (“We discovered there was an insurance policy that insured [Chris] for negligent acts”), but a judge ruled in July that the carrier was not obligated to pay. Now, the carrier is suing Augustine to recover the costs of their defense.
On the bright side, Augustine’s efforts meant Rooney no longer was “physically in peril.” He says, “All of a sudden Mickey’s appearance improved, everything about Mickey improved.” Indeed, while Jan fueled the impression that nothing had changed — on Facebook, she continued signing posts, “Love, Jan and Mickey” — Rooney was shining at summer 2012 Q&As at the Academy and Hammer Museum and even had a cameo in 2014’s Night at the Museum 3.
Yet Jan, Chris, Christina, Mark, Charlene and most of Rooney’s surviving biological children agree that they are unhappy with Augustine, either because he sued them, limited their access to Rooney or failed to send them a check.
Rooney with his Honorary Oscar in 1983.
On April 6, 2014, Rooney died of natural causes after being found unresponsive during an afternoon nap. TMZ broke the news before Augustine could notify Jan or Rooney’s biological children, who were outraged. Within hours, Jan and Chris tried to claim Rooney’s body and began granting interviews.
Rooney, one of the top movie stars of all time, died poor. “If he had been managed properly,” says Augustine, “I think he would have been in the neighborhood of someone like Paul Newman, easily worth hundreds of millions of dollars.” He adds: “The biggest crime here was not stealing the dough, because Mickey could’ve made the dough back. The biggest crime was they turned Mickey into a dog-and-pony show, and nobody wanted to have anything to do with him.”
For all his life, other people sought to make money off of Rooney. Jan kept bags filled with clippings of Rooney’s hair from various years, say Mark and Charlene. (“She thought it was going to be like Elvis‘,” chuckles Charlene.) Chris admits to selling photos of his stepfather to the photo agency Coleman-Rayner hours after his death. And Mark and Charlene acknowledge selling audio of Rooney being berated by Jan to RadarOnline and being a source for a New York Post gossip column item about his condition. “We’re just trying to pay the goddamn rent, for Christ’s sake,” says Mark. (Once all creditors are paid, Augustine says any of Rooney’s remaining assets — perhaps including the juvenile Oscar, which certainly would go for no less than several hundred thousand dollars — would go to the sole beneficiary of his trust, Mark.)
In April 2004, the actor’s extended family came together on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to dedicate a star reading, “Mickey and Jan Rooney.”
Chris, who acknowledges he and Christina owned four homes while he worked for his stepfather, says, “I lost my beautiful home because Mickey wasn’t paying me. I had to go bankrupt so I wouldn’t lose my wife’s house.” Augustine has little sympathy for the Abers. “We did discovery, subpoenaed records, took depositions,” he says. “Chris and Christina are thieves. Quote me on that. They could sue me. F— ’em.”
Today, Jan, Chris and Christina are living off Rooney’s pensions. According to Augustine, the last thing Rooney wanted was to subsidize Chris’ lifestyle. (“To be honest, his direct statement was, ‘I don’t want that cocksucker to get a nickel.’ “) Still, Chris claims poverty. Now splitting his time between “a small tract house” in Conejo Valley in California and Waikiki, Hawaii, where he works as director of operations at the Burn’n Love Elvis-impersonator show, he says, “I tell my wife, ‘I’m sorry, honey, you can’t go to Taco Bell today. I don’t have enough money.’ “
Rooney had purchased plots for Jan and her sons but had conveyed to Augustine that he no longer wished to be buried with them (or to have Chris and Christina at his funeral). However, he didn’t have the funds to purchase a different plot. Roger Neal, a publicist and manager, intervened and arranged a plot for him at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. “They gave him a beautiful spot, a gorgeous crypt,” says Neal. “He overlooks the lake.”
Despite Rooney’s legendary career, no Hollywood stars were invited to see him off, much less eulogize him. Except, that is, one who never met him: Mickey Rourke, who had received a fan letter from the elder Mickey three decades earlier, at the outset of his own career, and was touched by it (“I grew up watching his early shit, you know?”) but never wrote back. Rourke met Mark at a mutual friend’s tattoo parlor on the Sunset Strip just a few days before the star died and arranged to finally meet his fellow Mickey. Then he learned the star had died. “I went, ‘Oh, shit,’ ” says Rourke. “I owe it to him to go to his funeral.”
Mark and Charlene invited Rourke and their mutual friend to attend an open-casket private ceremony the day before two other small funeral services for other family members. (In a final indignity, Rooney’s body had to be refrigerated for two weeks after his death as family members fought in court over burial arrangements.) It was just the four of them.
“It was a pathetic sight to see him in what looked like a f—in’ $85 polyester gray suit, with his little hands folded, looking so tiny and all alone,” says Rourke. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, after all he accomplished, all he did, the effort that he put forward …’ “
Told that Rooney’s favorite wine was kosher Manischewitz, he brought a bottle, took a slug and left it beside the body. (Their friend laid down a horse-racing form.) “I kissed him on the forehead, thanked him for the letter and held his hand,” says Rourke. “It was cold.”
Additional reporting by Austin Siegemund-Broka.