In Memory of Mickey
1920 – 2014
Words & Photos by PAUL ZOLLO
Mickey Rooney died last night. His career spanned almost the entire life of the movies themselves. Like Buster Keaton, he got his start as an infant in vaudeville – at 17 months already used in slapstick routines – and he made his first movie appearance in 1926, in the heart of the silent era. He became one of the greatest movie stars ever in Hollywood, eternally beloved and linked in our mind’s and hearts with Judy Garland, his childhood partner.
I met him twice. When I was working on my book Hollywood Remembered, I wanted very much to interview him, along with many of his friends who I interviewed for their memories of old Hollywood. I attended a memorial service for Stanley Kramer in February, 2001 at the Director’s Guild on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. And there was Mickey. Okay, I recognized this wasn’t the ideal venue for a meeting – the funeral of a friend. But I approached him anyway, when he was leaving, out in the glaring sunshine on Sunset Boulevard. He scowled at my attempt, and walked away.
But that was my fault. Though he was only in his 80s then, and had years to go, it was an inopportune time for such an attempt. But I was redeemed on May 17, 2013, when Mickey joined famous friends like Jane Withers and Buzz Aldrin at a 95th birthday party for their friend, and mine, A.C. Lyles. A.C., who was friends with most people in Hollywood, was friends with everyone in Hollywood from Johnny Depp through Ronald Reagan. That Mickey would show was evidence of A.C.’s adoration.
We were at Musso & Frank’s Grill, the ideal venue for a classic Hollywood party as it is the most legendary restaurant in town, a place of great history and also present-day greatness. And people waited patiently for the chance to talk with Mickey, and to have a moment with this great legend.
I will admit I annoyed him by taking too many photos with my bright flash flashing, but in the company of Hollywood greatness I want to not take any chances of missing a great photograph.
I took several when Mickey was talking to Adolph Zukor, Jr., the son of the founder of Paramount, and Mickey’s face shone with joy at early memories. Though he was most famous for his MGM movies, he spent a lot of time among the Zukors at Paramount.
When it was time to go and the party was over, he went out the back of Musso’s, and sat down in a lawn chair there as he waited for his car and driver. It was my chance. I asked him if I could take a photo, and he said okay, though he didn’t smile. I then told him what I know to be true – that he is the greatest star of all.
He smiled brightly at this, and clearly liked that someone so many decades younger than him recognized who he was, and why he mattered. “Who do you work for?” he asked, and I told him about my book, and my love of Hollywood history, and I had my moment with Mickey. “It’s a history gone by fast,” he said with sad wonder.
When I big him goodbye, I raised my camera in the universal sign for “Can i take one more photo?” and he smiled that famous, million dollar smile, that smile that has cheered movie screens since before movies could talk. And he waved goodbye.
Statement from Mickey Rooney’s family:
“Mickey passed away from natural causes at the age of 93. Two years ago he requested through the Superior Court to permanently reside with his son Mark Rooney and Mark’s wife Charlene. With them he finally found happiness, health and a feeling of safety and was able to enjoy life again. In an effort to provide Mickey with a better life, Mark and Charlene reunited him with both old and new friends. Even someone of Mickey’s iconic statue was quite star struck and was extremely thrilled to attend Vanity Fair’s Oscar party recently. Just last week Mickey was ecstatic when they surprised him by reuniting him with one of his great loves, the race track. There they spent time with Mel Brooks and Dick Van Patten. He had exceptional care and a new lease on life. Recently, Mickey was proud to be part of Night at the Museum 3 with Ben Stiller. He had the time of his life and the utmost respect for the cast and crew. Mickey was finally enjoying life as a bachelor and the morning of his death they spoke of all their future plans. He loved the business he was in and had a great respect for his fellow actors. He led a full life but did not have enough time to finish all he had planned to do.”
He was born Joe Yule Jr. on September 23, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York. He first took the stage as a toddler in his parents’ vaudeville act at 17 months old. He made his first film appearance in 1926. The following year, he played the lead character in the first Mickey McGuire short film. It was in this popular film series that he took the stage name Mickey Rooney. Rooney reached new heights in 1937 with A Family Affair, the film that introduced the country to Andy Hardy, the popular all-American teenager. This beloved character appeared in nearly 20 films and helped make Rooney the top star at the box office in 1939, 1940 and 1941. Rooney also proved himself an excellent dramatic actor as a delinquent in Boys Town starring Spencer Tracy. In 1938, he was awarded a juvenile Academy Award.
Teaming up with Judy Garland, Rooney also appeared in a string of musicals, including Babes in Arms (1939) the first teenager to be nominated for an Oscar in a leading role,Strike up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), andGirl Crazy (1943). He and Garland immediately became best of friends. “We weren’t just a team, we were magic,” Rooney once said. During that time he also appeared with Elizabeth Taylor in the now classic National Velvet (1944). Rooney joined the service that same year, where he helped to entertain the troops and worked on the American Armed Forces Network. He returned to Hollywood after 21 months in Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (1946), did a remake of a Robert Taylor film, The Crowd Roars called Killer McCoy (1947) and portrayed composer Lorenz Hart in Words and Music (1948). He also appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. Rooney played Hepburn’s Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi. A sign of the times, Rooney played the part for comic relief which he later regretted feeling the role was offensive. He once again showed his incredible range in the dramatic role of a boxing trainer with Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). In the late 1960s and 1970s Rooney showed audiences and critics alike why he was one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. He gave an impressive performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film The Black Stallion, which brought him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He also turned to the stage in 1979 in Sugar Babies with Ann Miller, and was nominated for a Tony Award. During that time he also portrayed the Wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with Eartha Kitt at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which also had a successful run nationally.
Rooney appeared in four television series’: The Mickey Rooney Show (1954-1955), a comedy sit-com in 1964 with Sanunee Tong called Mickey, One of the Boys in 1982 with Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane, and the Adventures of the Black Stallion from 1990-1993. In 1981, Rooney won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of a mentally challenged man in Bill. The critical acclaim continued to now for the veteran performer, with Rooney receiving an honorary Academy Award “in recognition of his 60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances”. More recently he has appeared in such films asNight at the Museum (2006) with Ben Stiller, and The Muppets (2011) with Amy Adams and Jason Segel.
His personal life, including his frequent trips to the altar, has proven to be just as epic as his on-screen performances. His first wife was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, actress Ava Gardner. Mickey permanently and legally separated from his eighth wife Jan in June of 2012. In 2011 Rooney filed elder abuse and fraud charges against stepson Christopher Aber and Aber’s wife. At Rooney’s request, the Superior Court issued a restraining order against the Abers demanding they stay 100 yards from Rooney, Mickey’s stepson Mark Rooney and Mark’s wife Charlene. Just prior, Rooney mustered the strength to break his silence and appeared before the Senate in Washington D.C. telling of his own heartbreaking story of abuse in an effort to live a peaceful, full life and help others who may also be suffering in silence.
He requested through the Superior Court to permanently reside with his son Mark (a musician) and Charlene Rooney (an artist) in the Hollywood Hills.
When news of his death swept through Hollywood and the world, his friends remembered Mickey.
Liza Minnelli: “Mickey was somebody that everybody loved, but to me he was part of the family. He was one of a kind, and will be admired and respected always.”
Rose Marie: “Showbiz has just lost one of the great talents that our industry has ever had. We were very good friends. I shall miss him and the world will miss him.”
Carol Channing: “I loved working with Mickey on Sugar Babies. He was very professional, his stories were priceless and I love them all … each and every one. We laughed all the time.”
Rip Taylor: “Mickey was such a friend and pro, that he even gave me advice, when I replaced him inSugar Babies. … As if it could ever be possible to replace Mickey. It was the treat of my life, to receive tips from the great Mickey Rooney.”
Margaret O’Brien: “Mickey was the only one at the studio that was ever allowed to call me Maggie. He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Singing, dancing, performing … all with great expertise. Mickey made it look so easy. I was currently doing a film with him, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — I simply can’t believe it. He seemed fine through the filming and was as great as ever.”