Monday, April 7, 2014
I Remember Mickey Rooney
Once asked to name the best actor and actress in movies veteran James Mason instantly said "Mickey Rooney and Margaret Rutherford."
Odd choices to be sure but right on in terms of acting ability.
I have this feeling Mason wasn't joking at all. In Rooney's case the guy always delivered.
Mickey Rooney who has just died aged 93 had a range few actors could match.
He was a brilliant 14-year-old Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) climbing from tree to tree with such abandon that "I slipped and broke my foot at the end of one wild take."
By 1939 he was voted the world's most popular movie star, aged just 18.
"The next day I walked into the MGM commissary and had to walk past Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Bill Powell all of whom had lost to me. It was the longest walk I ever took."
Watching old Rooney performances on TV's Late Show makes for a breathtaking experience. Just watch The Human Comedy (1943) or National Velvet (1945) and you'll be amazed it's the same actor.
Meeting up with the Mick was an altogether different experience.
I first had to interview him in a New York city hotel room in late November 1982 where he was promoting one of his short lived TV comedies that went nowhere fast.
This one was for NBC titled One Of the Boys and it faded fast.
Also in attendance were two up and comers named Nathan Lane and Dana Carvey who looked totally apprehensive as the Mick answered each and every question addressed to them.
Carvey was so nervous he stuttered a lot --he kept searching for the Mick who'd be running in and out of doors, banging on plates, singing a song from one of the musicals he'd made with Judy Garland.
Rooney was then red hot again following his smash comeback on Broadway in Sugar Babies.
In fact he was still doing the sold out Broadway gig by night and doing his sitcom out in some Brooklyn studio by day.
The very next year in the very same New York hotel (The Plaza) I interviewed him again, splendidly cast as an autistic man struggling with the world in the TV movie Bill: On His Own (1983).
This time he copped an Emmy for his sheer brilliance. Again when I interviewed his co-stars Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid they were apprehensive he'd come storming into their hotel suite at any moment --which he did.
Born Joe Yule Jr. in 1920 in New York, he said he'd been acting since his vaudevillian parents had him teeter on stage at age three.
"I always said I'd willingly take 10 years off my life if the Lord would only make me six inches taller."
What about all those luscious starlets he'd romanced in the Andy Hardy movies: Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Donna Reed, and series regular Ann Rutherford?
"All taller than me. Esther was stronger, too, she'd toss me in the pool if ever I got fresh which happened frequently."
Rooney had a theory why the Andy Hardy movies were so popular: "We celebrated the ideal family. MGM built an Andy Hardy street on the back lot. Almost all the films were directed by Uncle George Seitz. But we stayed too long at it. By the end I'd been divorced several times and my talks with Lewis Stone who played my dad were so wholesome the preview audiences laughed out loud."
Rooney admitted to me "I became a bit of a prick. I asked them to cast me as a prize fighter (in Killer McCoy) but it wasn't plausible and then the musical version of Ah Wilderness titled Summer Holiday tanked. And so I was deservedly fired, a has been aged 27."
As he told me "Many lean years ensued. I'd do any kind of a film just to earn enough for my alimony payments."
But the only film Rooney regretted making was his bizarre appearance as Audrey Hepburn's Japanese neighbor in Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961).
"It was racist humor and we didn't know it at the time. But I should not have done it at all."
Gradually Rooney worked his way back to such "A" list films as Requiem For A Heavyweight (1962) opposite Tony Quinn and Jackie Gleason and he garnered another Oscar nomination for 1979's The Black Stallion.
He finally had a successful TV series with The Adventures Of The Black Stallion which ran from 1990 through 1993.
I interviewed Rooney one last time when he was appearing in dinner theater in Toronto --he'd already breezed through town several times on road tours of Sugar Babies. All I can remember is his co-star was Canadian actress Linda Goranson and I think the original title was something like Man With The Dirty Mind which he insisted be changed on the marquee.
But he appeared at the CNE within the last five years at Ontario Place in a song and dance act with his eighth wife Jan. They subsequently divorced and he died a single man after eight failed marriages.
His first wife was 21-year old Ava Gardner who complained in her divorce petition he was never home.
About his womanizing constant co-star Ann Rutherford told me "He never thought of the consequences. He had a slew of children he never knew.
"I was on a British version of This Is Your Life in the Seventies and some of the kids were there. I told them to cash in their first class air tickets for coach and pocket the cash. That's all they'd ever get from their father anyhow."