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.
There was more than a little of Rooney's real-life nastiness sewn into the lining of The Comedian's Sammy Hogarth.
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.
Exhibitor's Herald and Moving Picture World, May 18, 1928.
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.”
Insert your own gag reflex.
Desperate to raise case — and sensing a desire on the part of most American males to smell like a pint-sized, washed-up sex-addict who was, from time to time, addicted to liquor, prescription drugs, and the Bible — Rooney invested in a line of men’s fragrances called “Me.” Their slogan was “Put Me on Him,” but after one whiff, all people could say was “That?”
Then there was a line of watermelon-flavored soda that Canfield’s put out under the name Mickey Melon. For years the product lined Chicago supermarket shelves. One sip of the sickly sweet artificially flavored taste sensation was all it took. As a beverage designer, Mick was a great second banana to Buddy Hackett. And who will ever forget the “Weenie Whirl,” a round hot dog designed with hamburger buns in mind?
During a 1961 interview, Mickey told syndicated columnist Bob Thomas, “What this country needs is a good school in every city where we can develop the stars of tomorrow.” For decades it was his dream to usher in The Mickey Rooney School of Entertainment — aka “Talent Town, U.S.A.
“Think of it!” enthused the anything-but-idle American icon. “For $30 a month, youngsters can get training in tap, ballet, singing, drama, and so forth. Then we’ll have regional contests to pick the best talent, ending in a televised show in Madison Square Garden for the world series of entertainment.” Mick’s entertainment institution was greeted with failing grades from investors and students alike.
Rooney later expressed regret. The Leader-Post, April 19, 1961.
Much was written about Mickey Rooney San’s “Oriental” makeover to play Holly Golightly’s constantly put-upon landlord, Mr. Yunioshi, in Blake Edwards’ otherwise spotless Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In 2008, Rooney was shocked to learn that the film was pulled from a free screening because it drew complaints from Asian-American groups.
Rooney told the Sacramento Bee’s Stephen Magagnini in 2008, “Blake Edwards...wanted me to do it because he was a comedy director. They hired me to do this overboard, and we had fun doing it.... Never in all the more than 40 years after we made it — not one complaint. Every place I’ve gone in the world people say, ‘God, you were so funny.’ Asians and Chinese come up to me and say, ‘Mickey you were out of this world.’“ He went on to say that if he’d known people were going to take such offense, “I wouldn’t have done it. Those that didn’t like it, I forgive them and God bless America, God bless the universe, God bless Japanese, Chinese, Indians, all of them, and let’s have peace.”
When Mick wanted to, he could out-maudlin Jerry Lewis. Count on tears of laughter when the Mickster pleads to save Pee-Wee’s life in the sickeningly schmaltzy Boys Town, and his similarly mawkish behavior in its unintentionally uproarious sequel, Men of Boys Town. (Needless to say, the teensy trooper took home a special Oscar as the outstanding juvenile of the year for his work in BT and as titular head of the woefully cheery Andy Hardy films.) Ditto for his work as the firecracker of a father looking to find his son’s killer in the impossible to see Platinum High School, a movie so deliciously awful that friends and I once ponied up $75 to cover the weekend rental of a 16mm print we proceeded to study a half-dozen times.
Lest we forget Sugar Babies, the musical revue that, beginning in 1979, brought about a career resurgence. After a successful three-year run on Broadway, Mickey and co-star Ann Miller took the show on the road. A tribute to burlesque, the show consisted of ancient comedy routines interspersed with musical numbers. I was fortunate enough to catch it at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theatre during its final run. I’ve been taking insulin shots ever since.
His best work, and by that I mean his worst, came in the starring role in the made-for-TV movie, Bill. It’s been over 30 years since I’ve seen Mick’s Golden Globe-winning turn as the intellectually challenged man set free after living most of his life in a mental institution. Anything I say about his performance would only result in more hate mail, so I’m not going to give you the satisfaction. A copy of the long out-of-print DVD, which includes its equally insipid sequel Bill: On His Own, will set you back $130 on Amazon. Well worth it when you realize that averages out to 50 cents per involuntary laugh.
And you thought Bob Filner was a fanny-pincher?
Were the Mickster’s spontaneous on again, off again religious rants a calculated part of the act, a way of genuinely atoning for past sins, or both? According to a 1995 interview published on GrandTimes.com, Mick first came to Christ over breakfast at a casino coffee shop in Lake Tahoe: “He was greeted by a busboy with ‘blond curls, a white-rose complexion, and shining teeth.’ When the man called his name, Rooney started to stand, thinking he had a telephone call. But the busboy leaned toward him and whispered in his ear, ‘Mr. Rooney, Jesus Christ loves you very much.’ Then he left. Minutes later, Rooney looked for the busboy, but nobody knew of one who met Rooney's description and he was nowhere to be found.”
Several years ago Mickey was invited to attend a screening of one of his films at a gathering of Andy Friedenberg’s Cinema Society of San Diego, which at the time boasted a predominantly Jewish membership. The house lights came up and once the ovation died down, Mickey and Andy began fielding questions from the audience.
“Mr. Rooney,” came an effusive voice from the crowd. “What was it like working with Judy Garland at M-G-M during the Golden Age of Hollywood?”
“Well,” Mickey piped up after clearing his throat, “it was wonderful working with Baby Gumm and for Mr. Mayer, but today I want to speak to you about my undying love and passion for our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.” A hush fell over the crowd. For the next 20 minutes, no matter what question came his way, MR’s comeback was a steadfast, “Jesus is the answer.”
Radio Annual and Television Year Book 1959.
So, why did Mickey show up drunk on Jack Paar’s The Tonight Show? Rooney was still lit from staying up to celebrate his wedding anniversary the night before when he arrived for the broadcast. When asked what Ava Gardner was really like, a belligerent Rooney replied, “Well, Mr. Paar, may I say this, she is more woman than you will ever know.” After a few thick-tongued utterances from his guest, Paar observed, “I think you’re loaded.”
Rooney then proceeded to express disdain over the previous night’s show. “Do you enjoy it tonight?” Paar asked. “Not necessarily,” Rooney grumbled. Before Paar could finish asking “Would you care to leave?” Mickey had up and walked out. The next day Rooney responded to the headlines with, “A man would have to be drunk to appear on that show. Paar is the dregs of television.”
His last great performance came before a Congressional hearing where Rooney’s dramatic, to say the least, testimony shocked onlookers. Rooney alleged stepson Chris Aber and Aber’s wife, Christina, of withholding basic necessities such as food and medicine while putting a vacuum to his bank account. If the entire debacle wasn't so sad, it would have been hilarious.
Rooney’s will disinherited the actor's eight surviving children, as well as his estranged wife, Jan. In his last will signed just weeks before death, Rooney left his modest estate to a stepson who had been his caregiver.