It’s almost impossible to believe Mickey Rooney is gone.
Even at 93 he was everywhere. A Hollywood fixture, as well as a legend. We last saw photos of him sharing laughs with Bruce Dern and Martin Landau at the Vanity Fair party following the Oscars just last month. In fact I often saw him around during Oscar season at many different events including Disney’s memorable Mary Poppins sing-a-long event in December with Richard Sherman at the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge in honor of their film, Saving Mr. Banks. He was one of the oldest active Academy members. And he was still working. With a film career that started in 1926 and going right through to the currently filming Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, his span in front of movie cameras went 87 years — the longest active career of anyone in motion picture history. And every time I saw him it was almost as if he never stopped being Andy Hardy or any number of those characters he played in films so long ago opposite Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Lassie and others. He started young at age 17 months in his parents’ vaudeville act, and he never lost that youthful kick in his step.
Related: R.I.P. Mickey Rooney
What Rooney, who died Sunday at the age of 93, accomplished simply won’t be repeated. In 1939, the year of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz among others, he was the No. 1 box office draw in the world. He was on the cover of Time magazine at age 20. He may have been short in stature but he was bigger than anyone including that other famous Mickey — Mouse. That same year he shared a juvenile Oscar (a miniature one) with Deanna Durbin for their “contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement.” Durbin had just passed Shirley Temple as a box office draw. She died last year and we also lost Temple earlier this year. Now with Rooney, an era has truly gone with that wind.
Still in 1939 — and still in his teens — Rooney was also nominated as Best Actor in Babes In Arms against the likes of Clark Gable and James Stewart (Robert Donat won for Goodbye Mr. Chips). It was the first of four nominations ending in 1979 with The Black Stallion. He didn’t win a competitive Oscar but did get an Honorary “grown up” statuette to go with that junior model in 1982. His acceptance speech was memorable as he related the highs of the business when he was the No. 1 star to the lows when no one would hire him. But nothing stopped him and he amassed at least 340 screen credits, but probably many more. Just last week it was revealed that his earliest leading role in the 1927 silent short, Mickey’s Circus, long thought lost, had just been unearthed in a Netherlands film museum and was being restored. To put it in perspective, that was the same year the movies discovered sound and films were first honored with Academy Awards.
On his long list of film, TV and stage credits there were many you would know and just as many you may never have heard of. He liked to work. A lot. Among my own favorites: all the Andy Hardys, National Velvet, The Human Comedy, Girl Crazy, The Bold And The Brave, Baby Face Nelson, Requiem For A Heavyweight, It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (he was just at its 50th anniversary at Cinerama Dome in October), The Black Stallion and some extraordinary TV performances as Sammy Hogarth in 1957’s classic The Comedian on Playhouse 90 and his 1981 Emmy-winning turn in Bill among so many others. One of my all-time favorites of the films he was in (I see it all the time) is 1961’s classic Breakfast At Tiffany’s, but in retrospect his stereotyped landlord Mr. Yunioshi — in there for obvious comic relief — seemed out of touch with the rest of the movie. It understandably became controversial in the Asian American community and is really the only part of the picture that, as seen today, is tone deaf. Rooney personally didn’t count the role among his proudest achievements. But really it’s not surprising Blake Edwards cast him. After all, there really wasn’t anything this force of nature could not do. He was as adept at heavy drama as he was in comedy or musicals (including his Tony-nominated work later in his career in Broadway’s Sugar Babies). It’s surprising to me he never latched on to a real hit TV series, though he had brief flirtations in the ’50s (The Mickey Rooney Show), the ’60s (Mickey) and the ’70s (A Life At The Top). Reportedly, Norman Lear toyed with the idea of casting him as Archie Bunker in All In The Family but when Lear told Rooney the idea of having him play a bigot, Rooney was said to reply that “if he went on the air in that he would be killed dead in the streets.” At least that is according to the account in Eila Mell’s book Mickey Rooney As Archie Bunker – And Other TV Casting Almosts. Interesting to contemplate where that would have taken his career.
In his ever-colorful personal life Rooney was probably as well known for his eight marriages as anything else. One-time wife Ava Gardner said “he went through the ladies like a hot knife through fudge.” Four years ago I had my own encounters with the indefatigable Rooney: I signed a deal memo to write a planned documentary on his career that would be released in concert with his 90th birthday. The great cinematographer-director Caleb Deschanel (who shot Black Stallion) was directing, Oscar winner Fred Roos (The Godfather Part II) was one of the producers, and Ben Stiller, who starred with Rooney in A Night At The Museum, was going to be the narrator and on-camera presence. Rooney was on board and was to be fully involved since we planned to take him back to many landmarks in his life and career. It would be expensive as film clips aren’t cheap and the money it would take never materialized, though we did meet a couple of times at Musso and Franks in Hollywood to thrash out ideas. It’s a shame it never happened. Rooney’s career was one of a kind. I did get to do a trial run with Rooney, moderating a Q&A between an American Cinematheque double bill of a couple of boxing pictures he did — 1947’s Killer McCoy and 1962’s Requiem For A Heavyweight — but, Mickey being Mickey, he seemed more interested in reminiscing about another of his favorite films, 1938’s classic Boys Town, and kept bringing the conversation around to that even though it wasn’t on the bill! Gotta love him.
Indeed it is impossible to think he’s gone, but he’s not is he? No one has left a larger legacy on film, in every conceivable kind of film from silent to talkies to digital, in every Golden Era, in every medium, and at every age of their life. As with that first starring role I trust he will keep getting restored, keep looking better, and keep retaining that never-ending youth for generations to come. That’s the power of true stardom. It lasts forever. So will Mickey.