Cloris Leachman

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.

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