Mickey Rooney died on April 6, 2014. We offer Jim MacEachern’s profile of him in tribute.
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“A great man is only the reflection of a great boy in a larger mirror.” — Ann Shoemaker, the actress playing his mother in Strike up the Band (1940), to actor Mickey Rooney
“Even in 1940, it was unlikely that movie audiences believed that Mickey Rooney, then twenty years old, would grow up to be a great man. He was, at the time, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. One secret of his allure was that it seemed he would never grow up at all.” — Thomas Hine, Mickey Rooney and the Downsizing of Man
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For a long time, I looked upon my fascination with the career of Mickey Rooney as a kind of guilty pleasure. It was nothing to be taken seriously. But now that he has been a working actor longer than anyone in history, my interest seems somewhat justified. My curiosity about him began in the 1960s. I’m a Baby Boomer who grew up with TV, and Rooney was omnipresent on the boob tube. His old MGM movies, the Hardy films, and the musicals with Judy Garland were broadcast frequently, as were his not-so-good films from the 1950s (The Atomic Kid, The Big Operator), and many others. He also did game shows like The Hollywood Squares and appeared on almost every episodic dramatic series from Combat to Wagon Train. He guested on the comedy shows like I Love Lucy andJack Benny, and on The Milton Berle Show. He could do comedy, sing a little, dance a little, and given a good dramatic role, he could tear your heart out.
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“When I was twenty I was the number one box office star in the world. When I turned forty nobody wanted me. I couldn’t find a job.” – Mickey Rooney
This excerpt from Rooney’s moving acceptance speech upon finally receiving a full-sized honorary Oscar (he received a miniature statue as a juvenile) in 1983 referred to his paltry output in films over the previous twenty-five years. In his speech he mentions that it was the Broadway play Sugar Babies that resurrected his career, but that the payoff wasn’t more good film roles but rather a remarkable performance in a made-for-TV movie, Bill. Rooney’s success on Broadway and in Bill in effect shamed the Academy into this belated acknowledgment of his stunning talent.
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“I was a 14-year-old boy for 30 years.” – Mickey Rooney
One of the Mick’s very best performances was as Grady, the washed-up jockey in “Last Night of a Jockey” on Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (1963). Rooney is the sole performer in this episode. The story concerns a jockey who has been suspended from racing for horse doping and race fixing. Early in the program, Grady looks at himself in the mirror with revulsion. He screams at his reflection with self-recrimination, calling himself a runt and a shrimp with a palpable self-hatred. Grady is alone in a rooming house with a bottle of booze close by. Suddenly Grady’s subconscious produces an apparition in the mirror who talks back to him. His alter ego takes over the recriminations with glee. Grady’s reflection taunts him with a list of the mistakes he has made in his life, and Grady responds defensively to the heckling. At first he tries to physically remove this voice by striking himself in the head. Rooney is working very close to his own subconscious here. He is, after all, playing a performer who is a has-been, banned from his work, and at times over the decades Rooney must have felt the same way about his own profession. It is chilling to watch this great actor literally bludgeoning himself with vicious words like runt and shrimp knowing all too well that his lack of physical stature hindered his own career greatly.
How aware was Rooney that this role was so close to his real-life predicament in so many ways? It’s hard to know. Even though he has written two autobiographies (the first in the early ’60s was ghost-written by sportswriter Roger Kahn), his version of the truth has always been somewhat unreliable. It’s not that he is deliberately lying but that he has such an emotional commitment to make-believe that he tends to see the world the way he would like it to be rather than the way it is. So the Mick is not very good at introspection. This is a major reason he is so bad on talk shows. In fact, he has never even appeared on Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton. That show is now in its 18th season and literally hundreds of actors have appeared on it, but not Rooney. There have been some great actors interviewed, and also scores of mediocre ones, but many of them went to drama school and/or college and can therefore converse intelligently and often charmingly about their rather ordinary careers and their “craft” in a way that Rooney cannot. In his interview for the Archives of American Television, he is asked to speak about his work in Bill, but he finds it difficult. Beyond giving the outline of the story and saying that he played the role “to the best of my ability,” he is reluctant to talk about the issue of institutionalizing the mentally handicapped, just saying that “he was an impaired man. How do you talk about that?” It’s as if Mickey felt sorry for the real Bill Sachter and didn’t want to tarnish his memory (Bill died in 1983) by discussing him. He is a completely intuitive actor. I doubt that he does much analyzing of his work either before or after the performance. He just does it without thinking about it. And for him that approach has worked magnificently. Mickey’s education has been show business ever since he busted out of his basinet at 17 months and pranced out onto the stage in the middle of his parents’ vaudeville act. The only formal education he had was at the little school for child actors on the MGM lot.
In “Last Night of a Jockey,” Grady’s alter ego torments him throughout the show’s first half, but then offers to grant him any wish. Grady ruminates on the possibilities and decides that he wants to be big. The sight of Rooney-Grady standing in the middle of the room, arms at his side, looking upward and with all his power shouting to the heavens “I want to be big” is truly moving. The second act opens with the sound of thunder and a flash of lightning as Grady wakes up. He wipes the sleep from his eyes and immediately senses something a little odd. He looks and sees his feet dangle over the end of the bed. He picks up the phone, and it disappears into his huge hand. He begins to giggle as he realizes this Swiftian turn to his life. He mumbles, “This is wild,” as he giggles with delight. He stands up and the room shrinks around him. He is big! The first thing he does is call up an old girlfriend who jilted him to let her know that he is a changed man. She rebuffs him again. She thinks he’s crazy when he tells her about his growth spurt – “I must be six, seven, eight feet tall. The Lakers will be scouting me soon.” She doesn’t buy it, and he hangs up in anger.
Mickey didn’t even receive an Emmy nomination for stripping himself psychologically naked as Grady. Many of his performances were underappreciated at the time. Just a few years prior to The Twilight Zone episode, he gave one of his greatest performances in the biopic Baby Face Nelson. Director Don Siegel used Rooney’s lack of stature throughout the story. In one scene Nelson has a meeting with some gangsters in a playground. Rooney is sitting on a swing below a sign saying “children over 12 not allowed on swings.” But this low-budget movie did almost no business when it was released, and Rooney received bad reviews. Newsweek‘s movie critic wrote, “This one offers pocket-size, Puckish Mickey Rooney in the unlikeliest role of his career – that of Public Enemy No. 1, vintage 1933. It is as incongruous as Edward G. Robinson playing Pinocchio.” But this movie is now considered a classic of the genre. David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film writes that it is one of the greatest performances in screen history and that it “achieves a fearful poetry because of Rooney’s seizure of part of his own appalling destiny.”
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“Special thanks to Mickey Rooney. He said, ‘Kid, when the time comes to deliver, I’ll deliver’ and he sure did.” – Corey Blechman, acceptance speech on winning an Emmy for his script for Bill
Rooney’s work in Bill is a masterpiece of physical acting. He said in an interview that everyone was telling him how to play the part of a mentally challenged man, but “I told them to shut up”; he pounds his chest, “I’ll do it from here.” There is a scene early in the movie when Barry Morrow (Dennis Quaid), who is doing a documentary on the real-life story of Bill Sachter, a mentally handicapped man who was warehoused with schizophrenics and people with every manner of mental impairment for forty-six years, has foolishly taken him back to Granville to see how he would react. When Barry goes on a tour of the institution, he leaves Bill with one of the patients he remembers from his decades there. Bill soon misses Barry and wanders off to try and find him. Barry becomes concerned when he comes back and finds him missing. He eventually locates Bill hiding in a corner and comforts him. Bill is frightened out of his wits and rushes back to Barry’s car. On the drive home Bill is sure he sees his sister, Sara, walking down the street and forces Barry to stop the car. Bill gets out and approaches the woman, who runs away. Bill follows her, calling Sara … Sara. He finally catches up to her, and she tells him she is not Sara and that her name is Ida. The look on Rooney’s (Bill’s) face reminded me in its total anguish of Munch’s The Scream. People talk about the actor’s mask; nowhere has it been more compelling to me than in that scene.
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“We’re all just grown up little children making believe.” – Mickey Rooney
One of the most remarkable things about Mickey Rooney is how he has been able to maintain an almost childlike emotional connection to performing. Film critic David Thomson has called it an almost “psychic identification with fantasy.” Nowhere is this childlike sensibility more evident than in his performance as Bill Sachter. He plays the character as if he were a child with very adult problems. We see this quality in the way he moves, walks, sits, and talks. There is a scene of Bill sitting on the floor with Barry’s young son, Clay, playing with a toy. Bill’s posture is that of a kid, with short legs outstretched on the floor. He pulls the string on the talking toy and bends toward Clay so they can both hear the message.
The Mick has continued to work steadily since, which is a far cry from the period when he couldn’t find employment at all. Things at one time were so bad that he would actually take jobs appearing at parties for cash. Robert Osborne, one of the hosts of Turner Classic Movies, has interviewed Rooney for his show Private Screenings and has mentioned that he is surprised that Mickey has not received an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award or even a Kennedy Center Honor. Those awards have gone to actors whose careers and personal lives have not been so messy. As great as Rooney has been when working with good material, he has probably also been in more bad movies than any other major actor. Films like How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, and countless other bottom-billed drive-in movies don’t help when reviewing his body of work. He has been married eight times, and the boyfriend who did not like it when Rooney’s wife decided to go back to her husband murdered Rooney’s fifth wife. The killer of Barbara Rooney was a Yugoslav actor named Milos Milosevic, who then shot himself after the deed. This, of course, devastated Rooney but didn’t kill his insatiable desire to perform. A big part of the reason Mickey did so many bad movies was because he was in desperate financial straits. He had lots of alimony to pay over the decades, a gambling problem, and got involved in all kinds of crazy business ventures that included a mail-order Self-Study Acting Course and a food line headed by Mickey Rooney Macaroni. None of these business ventures panned out.
Mickey Rooney was awarded the Telluride Medal in 2005. Telluride is known as the American Cannes and to say that choosing Mickey Rooney for this prestigious award raised a few eyebrows is an understatement. Roger Ebert interviewed him for the tribute. The clips package that was shown included, of course, his work as a young man at MGM, the musicals with Judy, Andy Hardy films, and a few of his later dramatic roles. Telluride makes a specialty out of surprising its audiences with unexpected treasures, and in connection with Rooney’s tribute, the festival showedThe Comedian, a 1957 live-on-TV Playhouse 90 drama written by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer (who called Rooney “the best actor I’ve ever worked with”). The video, recently released on DVD, is a revelation for anyone who identifies Rooney with Andy Hardy. The Comedian was rebroadcast in 1981 as part of an anthology series on PBS called The Golden Age of Television. An added bonus to the program were interviews with director Frankenheimer and surviving cast members Rooney, Kim Hunter, and Mel Torme.
The Comedian is a scathing portrait of the behind-the-scenes turmoil of putting on a weekly live comedy/variety series. Rooney plays Sammy Hogarth, the star of the show who browbeats everyone around him into submission. His favorite target is his weakling brother Lester (Mel Torme), whom he keeps around as a gofer and to be the butt of jokes in his weekly monologue. Lester has grown tired of the abuse – or rather his wife (Kim Hunter) has – and she has threatened to leave him if he doesn’t stand up for himself. Edmond O’Brien plays the dried-up head writer who in desperation uses the work of a dead colleague to infuse life into the show that by midweek was going nowhere. Lester finds out about the plagiarism and threatens to take this information to a columnist who is out to get Sammy unless the jokes at Lester’s expense are dropped from the monologue. The acting is superb from the entire cast, but it is Rooney who steals the show. His Sammy Hogarth is a despicable human being, but a recognizable one.
Sammy is always looking into the mirror in his dressing room. He has a mammoth ego and worries about getting older. There is a sense that Sammy looks on the weekly broadcast as similar to preparing for a championship fight. There is even a scene where he is stripped to the waist and shadow boxing. Sammy as played by Rooney doesn’t speak his lines, he bellows them, and he is always in everyone’s face when he talks in order to compensate for his small size. He must invade the space of all the others in order to be recognized as someone of stature. He is a big man in show business but is saddled with a small man’s ego that must always be nurtured, or the next time he looks in the mirror he might be staring at a sad little man, and that scares the hell out of him. Everything about Sammy is excessive. His laughter is a wide-open-mouthed guffaw. It is an angry laugh. When he eats, he stuffs spaghetti down his kisser like a condemned man having his last meal. He devours everything and everyone around him because he can’t get what he needs.
Director John Frankenheimer spoke about working with the Mick in the 1981 rebroadcast. “The problem during two and a half weeks of rehearsal was to keep Mickey Rooney from changing the performance he came in with. He would change it every day. We would have a different performance. It was absolutely incredible to see. And he would start improvising the script and I wouldn’t know what he was saying.” Mel Torme mentioned in his interview that while everyone in the cast began rehearsals with simple line readings, Rooney “gave a full blown performance every time we rehearsed the material.” Mickey’s energy and improvising caused some concern for the director. “I recall one day going up to Mickey and saying ‘these lines are not in the script.'” John Frankenheimer then does a Rooney impression of “listen Johnny Boy the only guy you do line for line is ole Billy Shakespeare,” adding that he told Rooney, “well Mickey I’m just a stupid SOB because I got written at the end of this line in the script, close-up Mickey Rooney. See it? Unless you say this line there ain’t going to be no close-up of Mickey Rooney. He was letter perfect from then on, absolutely letter perfect.”
Rooney has always been known for the incredible amount of energy he puts into his performances, but in this live telecast he is on overdrive. Frankenheimer points out that there was a practical reason for the accelerated pace of Mickey’s performance. The show was running two minutes long and he was trying to help his director out. In the interview Frankenheimer shakes his head in wonderment, saying that Rooney had picked up three minutes in the first act and now they were one minute short; Frankenheimer relayed this information to Rooney, who obligingly slowed it down, and they finished right on time.
There is a point in the program when Lester, who has been thwarted in his plan, wanders onto the live broadcast of the show-within-the-show to confront Sammy on camera. Sammy ad libs as long as he can before he picks Lester up and throws him over his shoulder, then runs offstage carrying him until he can throw him down and begin to pummel him. All of this is done on live TV, with no breaks, no doubles, no stunts. “It was working without a net,” Rooney remembered. “Once the show started, you were live all the way. What went wrong went wrong.” Frankenheimer worked with six cameras, and he had his shots so carefully planned that you never would have thought it was all happening in real time.
Mickey makes the monster that is Sammy human with little gestures and looks. He gives Lester an anniversary present and is noticeably ill at ease doing it. He is awkward doing something nice for his brother, and we see in Rooney’s face a kind of sadness that this little gesture is so painful for him. When Edmond O’Brien tells him off by speaking the truth that Sammy’s hunger is for something he will never have – love – we see the pain and hurt on Rooney’s face as he comes close to tears even while he is screaming at O’Brien. In the final scene, after the show is over and the set has been stripped to an empty sound stage, Sammy spots Lester and his wife comforting each other. Sammy looks on in silence and envy for a moment before yelling for Lester to come to his dressing room. Lester slowly and reluctantly moves away from his wife as she reaches out for him, but it’s no use. Sammy’s hold on his brother is too strong. Sammy wins again, but he will never be happy.
In the interviews for the rebroadcast, we learn that Rooney got feedback on his performance the very night it aired. “After I had gotten home and gotten several calls from friends and then I received a telegram … a telegram I still have today and it is framed, and the telegram was from Santa Barbara, California and it just simply said – thank you for the acting lesson – Paul Newman.” Newman was a new, young actor in town in 1957. Even though Rooney had been making movies for about thirty years by that point, he was only a few years older than Newman. They were contemporaries. But Newman was about to make a movie about the boxer Rocky Graziano called Somebody up There Likes Me, and his movie career was about to be launched. Mickey would next do a musical version of Pinocchio for TV in which he played the puppet. Mickey was a great actor, but his lack of physical stature meant that he would not get the meaty roles that his immense talent was worthy of. Perhaps this is why so many commentators have said that he had a chip on his shoulder and that his personal life was so volatile. It’s not an excuse, but a possible reason for his behavior.
Probably the best thing that happened to Rooney was growing old and fat. He no longer looked like an adolescent and could play some character roles that could show his depth as an actor. Certainly Bill was the fruition of that. Many people are astonished to learn that Norman Lear’s first choice for Archie Bunker was Mickey. Lear recounted in an interview for the Archives of American Television his conversation with Rooney. He called Mickey’s agent and Rooney was in the office at the time, so they spoke. Lear told him, “This is about a bigot. About a guy who calls them spade, kikes, wops …” Rooney was horrified. He told Lear, “They’re going to kill you in the streets, Norm, they’re going to kill you. They’re going to shoot you dead in the street.” Lear laughed as he recounted Mickey’s idea of a good show: “Norm you want to do a show with the Mick, let me tell you, an ex Vietnam Veteran, blind, private eye with a large dog.” Sounds like a hit to me. It’s hard to think of anyone but Carroll O’Connor as Archie, but it is astonishing that the song-and-dance man and the juvenile Andy Hardy would develop into such a wonderful character actor that he would even be considered for the part.
Mickey Rooney continued to work through the decades, and it is now clear that it was for more than financial reasons. Sugar Babies was a huge Broadway hit and enjoyed a long run, and then it was taken on the road for several years. That, combined with the fact that Mickey stopped getting married, made him rich once again. He continues to work because he has an insatiable need to perform. I went to see Mickey Rooney and his eighth wife when they appeared in Clearwater, Florida, a few years ago. The show was called One Man, One Wife. Their act consists of a little comedy; Rooney does a few impressions, and his wife, Jan Chamberlain, belts out a few Patsy Cline songs. They also show film clips from Mickey’s career. I think I went because it was a chance to see a living link to so much of our popular culture over the past century. The Mick has worked in every discipline of show business. In the ’70s and ’80s he did a lot of dinner theater, with shows like The Odd Couple andThe Sunshine Boys. He almost made it to Broadway before Sugar Babies when he was to play W. C. Fields in a projected musical with Bernadette Peters, but it fell through. He even did his first nude scene in a commercial that was supposed to air during the 2005 Super Bowl, but the censors decided that it was a bit too risqué. I’ve seen it, and it is pretty tame. Mickey is in a sauna with some other old men and there is a young woman who is sitting behind Rooney. She coughs and Mickey turns around, and when he sees her he rushes for the exit; as he reaches the door, his towel falls and we see his bare bottom as he leaves. The commercial was for a cough syrup and is very funny.
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“For good and ill, Mickey Rooney was what this whole movie thing was about. And in his gargantuan, monstrous need to entertain us he exemplifies the show in the business.” – David Thomson
I remember reading an article about the resurgence in Rooney’s career in the early ’80s. The writer interviewed him backstage as he was getting into costume to go onstage in Sugar Babies. The article described Rooney as being as relaxed as if he were preparing to go to bed rather than going out onstage to perform in front of a few thousand people. He has always needed to perform as much as breathing. He noted in the interview for the rebroadcast of The Comedian, “I am an extemporaneous actor, an attacker of what I do which is not my work but my fun.” He has always needed to get the gang together and “put on a show.” The Mickey/Judy musicals were just a very elaborate version of the neighborhood kids playing make-believe in their backyards. Most of us leave that behind as we get older and get further and further away from that purest form of ourselves, when we thought anything we could imagine was possible. Life tends to kill the optimism of youth in almost all of us, and God knows life dealt Mickey Rooney many severe blows, but he has always bounced back. More than any other performer, he has never lost that connection to his inner child. We see this clearly in the final scene of Bill. Bill has a job in the cafeteria at the University of Iowa making coffee and talking to the students. We see him sitting and talking to one of the students, who is showing him how to write his name. Barry comes over and the girl leaves so they can speak privately. Bill has a large marker in his fist, as a child would hold it. He scrawls out Bill on a piece of paper. He is proud of his accomplishment. Barry tells him that he has to move away again and wonders if Bill would like to come with him. Bill turns away his eyes, growing moist, and we see the concern in that wonderful, rumpled potato face as he measures what he is going to say. He tells Barry, “You know I wouldn’t hurt you for the world but I can’t go with you. I have a job now too.” In that moment Bill Sachter with his childlike qualities becomes an adult, and through the artistry of a great actor we witness this profound transformation. When Mickey Rooney found his great role, “he delivered,” and those of us who knew of his remarkable talent were vindicated in our admiration. He became a great man by keeping his inner child alive for almost a century. The clips tribute to the Mick preceding the presentation of his Oscar in 1983 ends with Puck addressing the audience.
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– A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V Scene II
Puck makes a deep bow to the audience and disappears into the Athenian night.