Sunday began with a prophetic Facebook post. Big Screen devotee Rob “Colonna” Martinez placed an article on my wall from the December 15, 1959 issue of Time magazine that dished the backstory on a drunken appearance by “the Mickiruni” on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. A few hours later news arrived that the showbiz sovereignty, and one of the last remaining silent film stars, had gone to his reward. His passing, at the ripe old age of 93, leaves behind an unfinished remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde co-starring his old Metro stablemate, Margaret O’Brien.
In spite of a few rather unflattering stories that may transpire during this hole-digging, let me make one thing clear at the outset: there was a reason the dynamic, energetic Mickey Rooney’s career spanned a remarkable 87 years, and not one of them spent on the disabled list, I might add.
Eyeball the list of 337 film and television appearances IMDB credits Rooney with, and it’s certain that more than a few clunkers will come surging back. But if the material was good — as was the case with Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson; Richard Quine’s Drive A Crooked Road and Operation Mad Ball; Carl Reiner’s sorely neglected The Comic; Ralph Nelson’s Requiem for a Heavyweight; and Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion (for which he received an Oscar nomination), to name but a few — the diminutive Rooney was capable of rousing giant performances.
Case in point: Playhouse 90’s live broadcast of Rod Serling’s teleplay adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s novel The Comedian, directed by John Frankenheimer. Mick stars as Sammy Hogarth, a beloved TV superstar who looks upon humanity — particularly his weakling brother played with drippy acquiescence by Mel Torme — as his personal verbal punching bags. Mick told an interviewer that the character was wholly fictional in spite of persistent rumors that Hogarth had been modeled after the notoriously difficult Sid Caesar. Mickey described the vituperative Hogarth as “a mean brash guy; everything I’m not.” That’s not what his ex-wives said.
The son of vaudeville partners, Joe Yule and Nell Carter Yule, Joe Yule Jr. — aka Mickey Rooney — was born on September 23, 1920. He made his stage debut at the age of 15 months. Mom forgot to close the dressing room door, and little Joe decided to toddle on stage where the diaper-clad tyke proceeded to bring the house down by standing on his head and upstaging all around him.
By the time he turned three, New York governor Al Smith had issued a special work permit for Rooney to join his parent’s act. At age six he made his first film appearance and a year later secured the lead in a series that would be his ticket to stardom. Auditions were held for the role of Mickey McGuire and Mick placed first in a field of 275. For the next six years Rooney starred in 78 shorts, even going so far as to follow series producer Larry Darmour’s advice by legally changing his name to Mickey McGuire.
Once he outgrew the role, the Mick returned to vaudeville. Since Darmour owned the rights to the character’s name, Mickey went from McGuire to Rooney. Mickey was 100% Scottish, not Irish. “Real name’s Joe Yule,” Mickey would proudly proclaim. “And ‘Yule’ is as Scotch as a kilt. The confusion started when I did Mickey McGuire as a kid, and was cinched when I took the name Mickey Rooney.”
It was his performance opposite Maureen O’Sullivan and Robert Montgomery in Hide-Out that caused M-G-M to “discover” 12-year-old Mickey and place him under contract.
Mickey was 21 when he stepped to alter for the first of what would amount to eight trips. At the time the biggest star in Hollywood, he took as his bride 19-year-old Ava Gardner, the most desirous virgin on the planet and future major box office draw. When Rooney’s mother met Gardner, the first thing she said was, “Well, I guess he hasn’t been in your pants yet, has he?” Mom knew. Studio head Louis B. Mayer did not give his approval, nor was he pleased when the couple went splitsville a year later.
How anyone could possibly stray from a pristine Ava Gardner boggles the mind, but a world of conquests awaited the notorious pygmy stud. According to her bio, Ava called it quits after she allegedly caught her frisky husband attending to a 15-year-old starlet. Martha Vickers, wifey #3, was the only other one of Rooney’s spouses to have a showbiz connection. You’ll remember her as Lauren Bacall’s thumb-sucking nympho sister in The Big Sleep.
Mick’s eight year marriage to the fifth Mrs. Rooney, former model Barbara Thomason, 29, ended in murder/suicide. Milos Milosevic, a 25-year-old actor known professionally as “Milos Milos” (he had featured roles in The Russians Are Coming and Incubus), shot Mrs. Rooney, then turned the pistol on himself. The Mick was in a Santa Monica hospital at the time being treated for an intestinal infection acquired in the Philippines during the production of Ambush Bay.
Upon returning from the location shoot, Mickey discovered the missus had been swinging with Milosevic, a friend of the family for approximately one year. Rooney filed divorce papers accusing Thomason of “permitting, encouraging, or harboring” the actor in their sprawling Brentwood home. Two days prior to her murder, Rooney, then 45, persuaded his wife to reconcile. When Thomason broke the news to her paramour, Milosevic responded by killing the messenger then taking his own life. Even though a maid and three of Rooney’s four children were in a bedroom no more than 30 feet from the killings, no gunshots were heard. “The poor children…” Rooney sobbed when told of the tragedy, followed by “And the poor little girl…” in reference to Thomason.
In 1961, Rooney testified in court that all that remained of the $12 million he had amassed since his Mickey McGuire days was $7800. “None of that ‘poor Mickey Rooney sob-stuff,’” he told a UPI interviewer. “Out of the money I earned, I’d say 10 million went to taxes. The rest is an open book. I’ve been married five times and had four divorces.” He closed by quoting the title of his then current release for Columbia co-starring Buddy Hackett. “Everything’s ducky,” he said with feet propped on desk. “The stories last month said I only had 90 cents in my pocket when I showed up to court. That’s not true. It was 95.”