R.I.P., Mickey, spinner of dreams

Remembering Rooney, and other brushes with the real world of make-believe

News on Sunday that Mickey Rooney had died at age 93 sent me rustling through dusty newshound memories. I met Rooney, once, when he was a grand old manchild still barnstorming with dancer Ann Miller in Sugar Babies, Broadway’s hit mash note to the old burlesque revues. I interviewed him in one of Portland’s downtown hotels for the city’s then-daily newspaper, and it was a pretty one-sided affair. (ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson has a similar recollection of an interview with Rooney, also during a tour of Sugar Babies.)

Mickey and Judy, America's sweethearts.

Mickey and Judy, America’s sweethearts.

I don’t remember anything either of us said, or anything I wrote. I do remember that Mickey, who even in his Social Security years was still a brash fireplug with a barrel chest and an Andy Hardy rooster’s strut, did most of the talking. He spoke, or orated, in a decades-rehearsed, let’s-get-this-over-with patter, quick and crusty, with the rat-a-tat-splat! of a drummer doing a rim shot in a vaudeville show. It was the rhythm, the energy, the boom-boom-boom! that stayed with me. Rooney, I realized, was always acting, always onstage. He was born to it. His parents were vaudevillians, and he first appeared onstage when he was only a little over a year old. I’m not sure that after a while the thin line between show business and “real” life didn’t just disappear for him.

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Treading that hazy line between reality and make-believe is an occupational hazard for actors and other performers, especially if they’ve reached a certain level of celebrity. Once they’ve become television or movie stars, it becomes almost a defense mechanism. Everybody wants a little piece of them, not least reporters for the dozens of newspapers in the dozens of towns they flit through when they go on the road. Any reporter who thinks he’s getting fresh bursts of insight during the inevitably routinized interview sessions that litter actors’ lives like chores on their managers’ to-do lists is either a virgin or a fool. I learned very early in the game that those brilliant nuggets I thought I, and I alone, had unearthed were in fact lines the actors had memorized and delivered many times. I could tell when I saw stories by other writers in other towns who interviewed the same stars for the same shows and quoted them the same way I had, often word for word.

Who could blame the actors? A performer has only so much to give, and needs to save her energy for the important stuff. Besides, charm is a movie star’s stock in trade. Any star worth her salt will make you think you’re the only person in the room. Politicians trade in the same stuff, charisma with a veneer of sincerity. Warren Magnuson, the late senator from Washington state whom I interviewed a few times early in my career, was even more charming than he was smart, and he was very, very smart. Jimmy Carter, whom I watched from close range as he was campaigning for the presidency in 1976, had a magnetism in person that the camera never caught.

Still, those quick interviews can give a sense of who a star wants to be, or wants the world to think he is, or even actually is, however muddled those distinctions might become. Richard Harris (a Broadway tour of Camelot): lean, droll, adventurous, a bit bedraggled, a little boy playing dangerous games and having a lark. John Travolta (some forgettable movie romance with Lily Tomlin): eager, accommodating, aw-shucks, pleased to meet you. Tomlin: sharp-edged; possibly real. Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet): an amused and amusing college prof, smart and insightful and aware he’s adored by coeds and their boyfriends alike. Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis, on the occasion of their dual appearance in Jamie Lee’s early screamer, John Carpenter’s The Fog: a mother-daughter comedy team, having a ball as they happily pass and accept the torch. Cigar-chomping softcore movie mogul Russ Meyer: a byzantine blend of Groucho, the Godfather, and a used-car salesman.

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A few interviewees stand out in my memory because somehow, for one reason or another, they broke the rules. Anthony Hopkins, making yet another stop on an endless tour to publicize a dim horror flick with Ann-Margret called Magic, was clearly exhausted and morose by the time he hit Portland. He looked haggard, as if he hadn’t slept in days, and spoke morosely about quitting the acting game: it just wasn’t worth it. Soon enough The Elephant Man came along, and then The Silence of the Lambs and Howards End and all the rest; and I was very glad he had somehow found a way through.

One morning, after I’d written about a road-show version of Damn Yankees, my phone rang. “Bob? Jerry!” Jerry? I wondered. Jerry who? “What did you mean when you wrote …” And then the inflection and the nasal tone sank in, and I realized it was Jerry Lewis, who was starring as the wicked Mr. Applegate: I was talking to the Devil himself. Jerry wasn’t happy when he started, and the Devil could bark. But 40 minutes and a lot of strenuous sparring later, we called it a draw and parted as best friends – at least, for a day.

Cloris Leachman, whom I revered for The Last Picture Show and Young Frankenstein, came through town in a stage show about Grandma Moses, and while the show clearly was important to her, it also clearly wasn’t working very well. Like Lewis, she called me the next morning. Unlike Lewis, she didn’t want to vent. She wanted to talk. What wasn’t working in the show? What was missing? What didn’t come across? What was working? She was interviewing me, I realized, and her questions were a working theater person’s questions. I’m wrestling with this thing. I’m not sure about it. I’m looking for a way in. In the end, the show never did click in. But it wasn’t because Leachman didn’t try. She was immersed in the craft of the thing, an actor in the honest and admirable sense.

Dean Paul Martin, the singer Dean Martin’s son, had gravitated to show business as a teenager in the pop group Dino, Desi, and Billy, and later took up acting. But he loved tennis. He played a young tennis star in a dismal movie called The Player, opposite Ali McGraw, and when we sat down to talk, he didn’t really want to talk about the movie. For some reason, maybe because we were about the same age, he opened up. He was unhappy. He was searching. He didn’t really want to do movies. He wanted to play tennis, and in fact he’d turned pro. But he knew he wasn’t good enough to be top-rank. What should he do? I didn’t know, of course. But a few years later, when he died in a plane crash, I grieved just a little.

I interviewed Candace Bergen in New York for some movie I can’t recall. It was before Murphy Brown, and she was still known as much for being Edgar Bergen’s daughter as for her own work. But she was rising. We were in a hotel suite, and my daughter, who was 2 years old, was there, too. She had the sniffles, and was toddling around while Candace and I talked. It was all very cordial and pleasant and predictable: rote questions, rote answers. Then my daughter walked up to Bergen and soberly handed her a used Kleenex: she was in a strange place, she wasn’t sure what to do with it, and Candace, as an adult, surely would know. Bergen laughed gleefully, accepted the gift graciously, stood up, walked to the nearest wastebasket, deposited it, then walked back and sat down again. The interview was over. The chatting began. She was thrilled to have a break in the routine – something real happened! – and I’ve followed her career with something like familial pride ever since.

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All of which is a roundabout way to say that what’s genuine and what’s show with show people isn’t always easy to figure out, and sometimes show people don’t seem to know the difference themselves. I’ve spent most of my career writing about local artists, the citizen-artists who are our friends and neighbors and probably hold down a day job, which means they might serve us our coffee, too, and are in it less for the glamour (there isn’t really very much of that, when you get down to it) than the craft itself. There’s something more grounded about art that rises from a community, and maybe that helps ground the artists, too. The movies are dreams, and although making them requires intense craftsmanship, their dreaminess is apt to unmoor their practitioners and let them float away. Fame is more than a bitch goddess. It’s a catapult into an untethered place.

Mickey before he was Mickey, with Colleen Moore in 1927's "Orchids and Ermine."

Mickey before he was Mickey, with Colleen Moore in 1927’s “Orchids and Ermine.”

But wherever it comes from, the performance itself is a genuine gift. Mickey Rooney acted onstage or in the movies in ten decades, ending with this year’s not-yet-released Night at the Museum III. It’s astonishing, when you stop to think of it. Show business was his life. He began before there were talkies, first on the vaudeville stage and then in the still-adolescent Hollywood, starting in a 1926 short called Not To Be Trusted and making his feature debut the following year in the silent comedy Orchids and Ermine, about a flapper who worked as a telephone operator in a cement factory. Mickey, all of seven years old and still known as Joe Yule Jr., played a smooth-talking midget and carried a dapper cane. He played a memorable Puck in a movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream all the way back in 1935, and in the ’30s and ’40s he and Judy Garland became America’s sweethearts, in spite of and maybe partly because of what we knew of their private lives.

Yes, Rooney was married eight times. Yet some sort of American innocence shone through everything he did, and I like to imagine that somehow, that surface reflected something deeper within. In an odd way, his aura of innocence seemed even more appealing to me as Rooney gained experience. He seemed to become, again, a particularly American kind of optimist, still innocent in spite of everything he’d been through. (I’m talking here of his screen persona, not necessarily his life.) I’m particularly fond of some of his later movie roles – as the slightly sozzled lighthouse keeper in the live action/animated curiosity Pete’s Dragon, and especially as the old horse trainer in Carroll Ballard’s magical film version of The Black Stallion.

After all these years, the rat-a-tat-splat has gone silent. But here’s a round of rim shots to Mickey, whoever he was: thanks for all that.

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2 Responses.

  1. Carrie says:

    Bob, thank you for a totally unexpected and refreshing commentary. Your insight is, as always, intelligent and poignant. Having been in the role of convincing artists to do interviews, I often saw the routine played out numerous times. But occasionally a connection was made and reality shone through. Often with a writer of merit like you. Carrie

  2. Eva says:

    Wonderful recount. The double edged of stardom. Mickey leaving takes me through memory lane as well. For me, it was the Nostalgia craze of the late 60s/early 70s, which may have started with Judy’s death. Embracing old Hollywood, just looking at the photos is compelling, beautiful – yet it hurts.

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