By Michael Fleeman and Champ Clark
Updated April 21, 2014 12:00 PM

For many years, Mickey Rooney had a favorite gag. “My marriage license reads, ‘To whom it may concern,’ ” he quipped to the L.A. Times in 1981. He was just 5’2″ and chipmunk-cheeked, but Rooney – who died April 6 at age 93 in his North Hollywood home – was also a Casanova. The diminutive star rose to fame in the 1930s playing characters like squeaky-clean teen Andy Hardy, but his eight marriages were nearly as storied as his career. “Look, he could be extraordinarily charming,” explains his Broadway costar Ann Jillian.

That charisma made Rooney a natural movie star. “He took over every scene he was in,” says TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, even if that scene included Spencer Tracy in Boys Town or Judy Garland in their many musicals, including 1939’s Babes in Arms, for which Rooney got his first of four Oscar nominations. He could also hold his own opposite horses (National Velvet, The Black Stallion), Disney cartoons (Pete’s Dragon) and Ben Stiller (Night at the Museum, a sequel for which the tireless actor had just finished shooting).

Born in Brooklyn to two vaudevillians, Joseph Yule Jr. made his showbiz debut at 17 months. MGM signed him at age 14, and he was soon a box office king – in 1939 his films earned $30,000,000. Ava Gardner was a 19-year-old newcomer when they wed in 1942; they split after 16 months. “She broke my heart,” Rooney told PEOPLE in 1999. “I couldn’t get settled with my love life.” There were seven more trips to the altar (the last, to Jan Chamberlin, endured 35 years, though the couple were separated at the time of his death) and nine children.

Rooney also battled problems with alcohol and faced career slumps. In his 90s he testified before Congress that he was the victim of elder abuse by a family member, though no charges were filed. And professionally he endured, never losing his characteristic pluck. On March 30 he was enjoying a favorite pastime – playing the ponies at Santa Anita – and “fans were coming up to him, asking for autographs,” says pal Dick Van Patten. “Mickey loved that.” After nine decades he could still command an audience.