Saturday night Mickey Rooney was very much on my mind. Sunday he died of natural causes at his home in Hollywood.
Saturday night I was watching “The Set-Up” (1949), one of the great all-time boxing films. What knocked me out — because it was the first time I had seen director Robert Wise’s noir on the big screen — was the black and white cinematography. The story of Bill ‘Stoker’ Thomson’s (Robert Ryan) final fight is filmed in glorious black and white. Every shot could be framed and hung in the center of your living room.
Because my memory is so bad, it sometimes takes an experience like that remind me of something I had forgotten completely…
A few years ago, while still living in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to catch a screening of “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962). What triggered this memory wasn’t the similarity of the plots (both “The Set-Up and “Requiem” are about exploited, bottom-rung, not-very-bright boxers in the twilight of their careers), it was the stunning you-are-there black and white cinematography.
Watching “The Set-Up” reminded me of sitting in that theatre a few years ago watching “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and thinking, “Man alive, this movie is gorgeous.” I wasn’t alone, either. Others who were there and had never seen it on the big screen said the same.
Anyway, while remembering that particular moment I then remembered that at the time, separated only by a couple of rows, I was sitting directly behind Mickey Rooney — one of “Requiem’s” co-stars. That was the only reason I had bothered to fight L.A. traffic on a weeknight. I wanted to be in the same room with The Mighty Mickey Rooney, one of the few living legends who represented an era in American filmmaking that I have been in love with and obsessed with since I was 12 years-old.
And there he was, in his late eighties, all 5 foot, 5 inches of him.
As “Requiem” unspooled I couldn’t help but snatch a few glances at the back of the gray, bald head of a man watching himself give one of the best dramatic performances of his career. You had to wonder what was going through the mind of someone pushing 90 watching himself as a 42-year-old.
The amazing thing about Mickey Rooney, though, is that his career was such that it would have been just as fascinating to watch a 42 year-old Mickey Rooney watch one of his then-25 year-old Andy Hardy movies.
That was the kind of amazing career Rooney had; by 1962 he had already been in show business for nearly 40 years. He had already stood alone on the summit of fame, served his country during WWII, won 3 Oscar nominations, been married 5 times (there would be 3 more), and hit the kind of personal and professional bottoms that would make him the Lindsay Lohan of his time.
Mickey Rooney was born Joseph Yule in 1920. By 1924 he was on the stage. By 1926 he was making movies. For almost 90 years he never stopped performing, never stopped chugging along until the day he died — which was yesterday.
Rooney’s fame is unimaginable in today’s fractured society. With contemporary culture sliced and diced by 500 channels, a dozen different digital platforms, and divisive politics, it is impossible to conceive of a single someone capturing the imagination of the entire American public. But that was Rooney’s place in our culture some 75 years ago.
For three years, from 1939 to 1941, Rooney was the top box office draw in the country — beating the likes of Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn. In 1938 he was awarded a special Juvenile Academy Award. In 1940 he was on the cover of Time Magazine.
So powerful was Rooney in 1942, he openly defied his boss, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (then the most powerful man in Hollywood) to marry an unknown MGM starlet fresh off the bus from North Carolina. Rooney and Ava Gardner wouldn’t make it two years.
Between 1939 and 1943, Rooney starred in 21 feature films.
And what films they are.
Seven serenely innocent and entertaining Andy Hardy entries and four endlessly energetic and charming “let’s put on a show” musicals co-starring Judy Garland (where Rooney proved he could play any musical instrument available to him). There was also “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Young Tom Edison,” “Men of Boys Town,” and the masterpiece that won Rooney a Best Actor nomination, “The Human Comedy.”
Then, knowing it would likely kill his career, Mr. Rooney enlisted during WWII. For 21 months he would spend his time in the service entertaining the troops, and did so in places so dangerous he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal. Ever after, he took every opportunity to speak out on behalf of veterans, even when it was unpopular during the Iraq and Afghan wars.
After he came home from the war, Rooney’s worst fears came true. America had moved on.
The man who had known Valhalla now had trouble finding a job.
The closest Rooney would come to that kind of fame again would be on Broadway in 1979, with fellow MGM musical-alum Ann Miller in the successful “Sugar Babies.” Before and after, Rooney mainly made a living as a character actor on television and in movies.
There would be another Oscar nomination for his support work in 1979’s “Black Stallion,” and an Emmy for his lead performance in “Bill,” a 1981 television movie. Mostly, though, Rooney kicked around picking what work he could. There were memorable appearances in “The Twilight Zone” and a knock-out performance in “The Comedian, ” a 1957 Playhouse 90 telecast.
Kids today probably remember Rooney as Gus in 2006’s “Night at the Museum” or as the voice of Santa Claus in a number of animated Christmas specials that still rerun every year. Thanks to a Criterion release, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) is finally earning the respect it deserves, and Rooney is fabulous in it — low-keyed and hysterical in a film packed with hams.
You would like to believe that after all the matrimonial and career turmoil, Rooney found some peace in his later years. That his life faded to black on the kind of upbeat and victorious note Louis B. Mayer would have demanded. There is some evidence of that. Rooney’s turn to Christianity in 1975 apparently solved his drinking and gambling problems. But In 2011, Rooney testified before a Senate committee about the physical and emotional abuse he had suffered at the hands of his stepson. Just last year, Rooney and his wife of 35 years separated.
Life isn’t a movie.
After the “Requiem” screening Deadline’s Pete Hammond attempted to do a Q & A with the still spry and alert Rooney. He wasn’t cooperative. He didn’t want to talk about “Requiem” or his career. He wanted to talk about Judy Garland, his Christian faith, and especially Boys Town — not the movie he had starred in 60-plus years earlier, the actual Boys Town, a charity still near and dear to his heart.
As awkward as that half-hour Q & A was, I was impressed Rooney didn’t want to talk about himself. I was also delighted for that short time to share the rarified time and space of a man who for ten glorious years clowned, sang, danced, cried, emoted, and enchanted a Depression-ravaged America out of their troubles … if only for 90 minutes at a time.
For those of us not made cynical by modern times, Rooney’s magical work still has that effect.
And now, the man Sir Laurence Olivier reportedly called,”The best single film actor America ever produced,” has finally run out of energy and returned to Valhalla; maybe reunited with Judy.
And if we’re lucky, they’re already scheming to put on a show.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC