Monday, April 7, 2014

Meeting Mickey Rooney: The Larger-Than-Life Talent

Mickey Rooney in his prime was the most successful actor in Hollywood.

I was in the newsroom at WESH-TV, Orlando, Florida, when we got the news that actress Ava Gardner had died. It was January 1990, and I was working then for a man who really understood news: news director Steve Ramsey, whom we fondly called Rambo. One of us--and it might have been me--noted that Ava Gardner had once been married to MGM star Mickey Rooney and that Rooney himself was in town with his hit Broadway show "Sugar Babies."

While I anchored the 5:30 PM newscast, the producer called his hotel to see if he would be available for an interview. Available? Were we bringing a camera? He just happened to have an opening in his schedule.

I also had to anchor the 11:00 o'clock news that night, which meant that my co-anchor and I had to write the whole broadcast--no union writing teams in Central Florida. So, I rarely dashed out between newscasts to do an interview because it added pressure to the rest of the night. But I had been a classic film fan for many years and I really wanted to do this one.

The photographer and I went to his hotel in downtown Orlando, lugged the gear in and out of the elevator and down the hall to his room. When we knocked on his door, there he was, in khaki slacks and an Oxford shirt, looking slightly rumpled, the way we all look (or feel) in hotel rooms. He was not very tall--I don't mean that as a dig: Rooney's screen presence was so big it was surprising to discover that he really was only 5' 2" tall. He was chubby, balding and by then, more than a little jowly. But, when he welcomed us in, he still had Andy Hardy's unmistakable, thousand-watt smile. 

Looking back on days like that, I often shake my head at my own cluelessnes.  I remember thinking what a really old man he was. He was only 68. 

At the time, in another clueless moment, I also remember thinking, rather cynically, what he really recalled and whether he cared one way or the other about Ava Gardner--the marriage had barely lasted two years and was behind him half a century at that point. Also, for him, it was just the first of eight marriages. Now I realize, that for most of us, the people we love remain a part of us forever and time changes almost nothing about that. 

He was a chatty fellow with an opinion on everything and I didn't have to ask him much. He had spent his lifetime before cameras, loved being interviewed, and you just had to give him the cue ("OK, we're rolling.") and off he went. All I had to do was to rein him in and focus him back on the subject at hand, from time to time.

But he said some very gracious things, and a few insightful things, about Miss Gardner, which was both the gentlemanly and the newsworthy thing to do. 

He was a big star when they married in 1942 and she was just a little starlet on the make. But she moved up quickly--on to her second husband, the much-married band leader Artie Shaw, and then, into a volatile marriage with Frank Sinatra. As the years went by, there was Europe, fewer pictures, more alcohol, and the sad years of an aging beauty. Hard to believe she was only 67 when she died. 

In the twenty-first century, some unpublished memoirs of Gardner's have surfaced in which she recalled being truly in love with Rooney. She also reported that he was a fabulous lover. And, she said, if he hadn't been so frequently unfaithful to her, she would have stayed with him. But I only read this recently--and anyway, back in 1990, I wasn't going to ask Mickey Rooney about his sex life with with the late, former, screen goddess for her obituary on the 11 o'clock news. (They may do this now, though.)

Early in the interview he did speak about her with a certain sweetness. And he said: "I think these last years were difficult for her. It is very hard for women like Ava when the years go by and the phone stops ringing." He didn't say it in a mean or patronizing way. He said it like the trooper he was about the trooper she was. And, of course he was absolutely right.

By the time I interviewed him him, Rooney had been up and down so many times he was the Energizer Bunny of the entertainment world. Because he would not quit, his career endured long beyond Gardner's. He'd won two Oscars and was nominated four more times: one nomination came when he was 58, for his role in the 1979 film, The Black Stallion. Afterwards, in 2006, I just about fell off my chair when he turned up in A Night at the Museum, with Ben Stiller. He was terrific in the part. And he was 85 years old by then. 

I know now that it is not in little interviews with talents like Rooney that we get the measure of the entertainer. It is in watching the arc of their work. "Most actors aren't very intelligent," said Truman Capote. "I think if they are, it holds them back." Well, perhaps that's true. But watch any of Rooney's films and you will see this small man's huge talent. Over the top, sometimes. But never lacking. That was his gift. It was a gift he loved to share and we're lucky so much of it is preserved on film. And I was so lucky too: just to meet him before he was gone. 

RIP Joseph Yule, Jr, also known as Mickey Rooney. He lived a remarkable life. And he died with his family around him at the age of 93. 

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Cynthia Riordan said...

Engaging story affectionately written about Mickey Rooney

Robin Chapman said...

Thanks Cynthia. We sometime forget that these icons are where they are thanks to their talent and drive. None of them is a perfect human being!

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