The high-water mark for Rooney, who died yesterday at 93, may well have come in 1939, when the world’s top box-office draw was not Clark Gable but “a rope-haired, kazoo-voiced kid with a comic-strip face,” as Time magazine described him at the time.
When Rooney and his wife, Jan (right), attended the Movies for Grownups Awards Gala in Beverly Hills in 2007, the pair laughed at each other’s jokes like high-schoolers, occasionally breaking into spontaneous song. Rooney got a little teary-eyed remembering his longtime costar Judy Garland, but the nostalgic smile never left his face.
And he wanted this middle-aged whippersnapper to remember one thing:
“I was the biggest movie star in the world,” he declared, leaning forward and squinting for emphasis. “And then…”
He mimed holding a pin in one hand, then used it to prick an imaginary balloon held in his other.
“SSSSSSSSSSST!” he hissed.
If you live for 93 years, you’re going to have your ups and downs. For most of us those highs and lows are something like tidal motions. For Mickey Rooney, they suggested an out-of-control roller coaster unequipped with safety bars.
The son of a vaudeville couple, Rooney first crawled onstage at 14 months of age. For the next 92 years, he was rarely off it.
For five bucks a day he worked as a child actor in Hal Roach’s silent comedies. In the 1920s and ’30s he starred in a series of low-budget film comedies, playing a scrappy kid named Mickey McGuire. (Rooney contended that Walt Disney had named Mickey Mouse after him – unlikely, but Rooney never backed off from a good yarn). In 1937 he landed a featured role in what was conceived as a series of B-movie quickies. The first installment was called simply A Family Affair, but once audiences got a load of the fresh-faced, fast-talking kid at the center, MGM recast the title of every episode to carry his character’s name: Andy Hardy.
That same year Rooney starred in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, playing a wisecracking jockey (what else?) opposite a youngster named Judy Garland. They made a total of 10 movies together, and remained close friends for the rest of her tormented life.
“We could’ve come from the same womb,” he later said. “It’s very, very difficult to explain the depths of our love for each other.”
From 1939 to 1944 Rooney was nominated for two Oscars – for Babes in Arms (1940) and The Human Comedy (1943). He also received a special “Juvenile Award” Oscar in 1939.
When World War II came, Rooney surprised those who saw him as the perpetual child by enlisting in the Army. His career was never the same when he returned, possibly because it was hard to reconcile his boyish looks with his undeniable adulthood. He kicked around on TV – often in deeply dramatic roles – and in substandard movies. The notable exception was The Bold and the Brave (1957), for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His one big movie hit was Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but in it he played a comical Asian neighbor – the buck-toothed, nearsighted Mr. Yunioshi – who in later years became an excruciating archetype of Hollywood’s racial stereotyping.
The year after Tiffany’s, Rooney filed for bankruptcy. Four years later his wife of eight years, Barbara, was found dead with a boyfriend, the victim of a murder-suicide committed with Rooney’s own gun.
The juicy roles may have largely dried up, but Rooney’s fans never lost their affection for him. He turned up often as a guest on TV shows, and in 1980 he made a triumphant return in The Black Stallion, earning his fourth acting Oscar nomination. He didn’t win, but in 1983 he received a bookend for his 1939 Juvenile Oscar: a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award.
For all his career exploits, Rooney’s most famous real-life persona was as a serial groom. He married eight times, starting with Ava Gardner and finishing up with Jan Rooney – his wife of 35 years. But even that long relationship ended in separation last year. The split came amid a tangle of legal troubles that arose after Rooney filed a restraining order against one of Jan’s sons from a previous marriage and claimed, before a Congressional hearing, that he had been financially abused by an unnamed family member.
No such strife was evident on the 2007 night when I met the couple in Beverly Hills. For the moment, at least, Mickey Rooney was basking in his role as Hollywood’s elder statesman, and his wife was his radiant First Lady. Listen here for their impromptu rendition of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
After we chatted, Rooney glanced to my right and noticed a woman whose scalp shone under the lights, her hair gone due to chemotherapy. He jumped to his feet and rushed toward her.
“At last!” he gushed. “Someone at a Hollywood party who’s as bald as I am!”
She laughed. At his most impish, Mickey Rooney was still irresistible. The woman? My wife, Cindy, who was at the beginning of a long, losing battle with ovarian cancer.
About three months later, we came home to find a phone message. It was Mickey and Jan, calling to see how Cindy was doing.
That act of Hollywood-style kindness touched both our hearts. I never got to thank Mickey Rooney for it, so I hope this will do.
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