LeRoy was born in San Francisco on October 15, 1900 to Jewish parents Edna (née Armer) and Harry LeRoy. His family was financially ruined by the 1906 earthquake that destroyed his father's import-export business. To make money, young Mervyn sold newspapers in front of the Alcazar Theater after his dad's death in 1910. From this newspaper sales location, he was given a bit part for a play. Through his winning a Charlie Chaplin impersonation contest, he moved into vaudeville then minor parts in silent movies.
LeRoy worked in costumes, processing labs and as a camera assistant until he became a gag writer and actor in silent films, including The Ten Commandments in 1923. LeRoy credits Ten Commandments director, Cecil B. DeMille, for inspiring him to become a director: "As the top director of the era, DeMille had been the magnet that had drawn me to his set as often as I could go." Leroy also credits DeMille for teaching him the directing techniques required to make his own films.
His first directing job was in 1928's No Place to Go. When his movies made lots of money without costing too much, he became well received in the movie business. He directed two key films which launched Edward G. Robinson into major stardom, the Oscar-nominated critique of tabloid journalism Five Star Final (1931), and the classic gangster film Little Caesar (1931), which made his mark. From that point forward, LeRoy would be responsible for a diverse variety of films as a director and producer. LeRoy ended up working at Warner Bros.. In 1938 he was chosen as head of production at MGM, where he was responsible for the decision to make The Wizard of Oz. He was responsible for discovering Clark Gable, Loretta Young, Robert Mitchum and Lana Turner.
In the 1950s, LeRoy directed such musicals as Lovely to Look At, Million Dollar Mermaid, Latin Lovers and Rose Marie. He moved to Warner Brothers, where he was responsible for such famous films as Mister Roberts, The Bad Seed, No Time for Sergeants, The FBI Story and Gypsy.
He was nominated in 1943 for Best Director for Random Harvest, and also in 1940 as the producer of The Wizard of Oz. In addition, he received an honorary Oscar in 1946 for The House I Live In, "for tolerance short subject", and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1976.
A total of eight movies Mervyn LeRoy directed or co-directed were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, one of the highest numbers among all directors.
LeRoy married three times and had many relationships with Hollywood actresses. He was first married to Elizabeth Edna Murphy in 1927, which ended in divorce in 1933. During their separation, LeRoy dated Ginger Rogers, but they ended the relationship and stayed lifelong friends. In 1934, he married Doris Warner, the daughter of Warner Bros. founder, Harry Warner. The couple had one son, Warner LeRoy and one daughter, Linda LeRoy Janklow. His son, Warner LeRoy, became a restaurateur. The marriage ended in divorce in 1942. In 1946, he married Katherine Spiegel, who was his wife until his death.
LeRoy retired in 1965 and wrote his autobiography, Take One, in 1974. After being bed ridden for six months, LeRoy died natural causes and heart issues in Beverly Hills, California at age 86. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. On February 8, 1960, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street, for his contributions to the motion pictures industry.
A fan of thoroughbred horse racing, Mervyn LeRoy was a founding member of the Hollywood Turf Club, operator of the Hollywood Park Racetrack and a member of the track's board of directors from 1941 until his death in 1987. In partnership with father-in-law, Harry Warner, he operated a racing stable, W-L Ranch Co., during the 1940s/50s.
LeRoy directed or producedAs director, unless otherwise noted.