By Eleanor Ringel Cater
True story: Mickey Rooney was starring in a series of two-reelers modeled after the Little Rascals, in which he played a character named Mickey Maguire. Brash, energetic, smart-alecky, stubborn — Maguire wasn’t all that different from young Rooney himself.
One day he noticed a slight young man with a pencil-thin moustache sketching. The Mick asked what he was drawing and the man answered, a mouse. Then he asked the little boy his name and when he heard it, the artist said, “Well, I’m going to call this mouse Mickey, after you.”
Then the man introduced himself. “My name is Disney. Walt Disney.”
An animated mouse is immortal. So in a sense, is Mickey Maguire, born Joe Yule Jr., better known to us as Mickey Rooney.
Yule/Maguire/Rooney died last weekend. He was 93.
There was only one Mickey Rooney and if you asked some people, one was quite enough. I interviewed him once and the encounter was, well, memorable.
Rooney began his career at a whopping 15 months. Between 1939 and 1941, he was biggest box office draw in the world. Yet, he was almost as famous for his 8 marriages (wife No. 1 was Ava Gardner) as he was for his peppy, lets-put-on-a-show personality. He may have been shaped like a fireplug, but on-screen and off, he was a firecracker.
The woman he was most often associated with was Judy Garland, his constant co-star in a series of successful MGM musicals like “Girl Crazy,” “Babes in Arms,” and “Strike Up the Band.” He treated Garland like a sister — unlike Lana Turner who reportedly had to have an abortion thanks to a fling with Rooney.
He also became America’s favorite teenager, playing Andy Hardy in a string of pictures that presented America with an extremely idealized version of itself, courtesy of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
Rooney, it seemed, could do it all. From song-and-dance man to earnest teenage (he was still playing Hardy at 24) to estimable dramatic actor. He held his own against Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town,” made a Huck Finn Mark Twain would’ve been proud of in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and gave class to a tawdry ‘50s programmer like “Baby Face Nelson.”
How did he go from Tracy to Tawdry? Simple. He served in World War 2 and he grew older (but not taller; he topped out at 5’3”).
But that same pluck that carried him through 43 movies between 1938 and 1944, kept him going when Hollywood didn’t want him.
As he once said, he was on top of the world in his 20s and unemployable at 40.
Or so the West Coast power-brokers decreed. Rooney never stopped working. He played in “The Comedian,” directed by John Frankenheimer; shtick-ed it through “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” with a flotilla of Borscht Belt and Broadway veterans; sparred with Anthony Quinn in “Requiem for a Heavyweight”; and made a memorable grotesque as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese upstairs neighbor.
When the movies let him down, he did television (winning an Emmy for “Bill”) or returned to the stage, making his Broadway debut at age 58 in the successful review, “Sugar Babies,” for which he was awarded a Tony nomination.
His diminutive size made him a natural for pictures about horse racing. He was a jockey, trainer or exercise boy (or all three) in movies like “Stablemates,” “Down the Stretch,” and “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry.” Rod Serling even wrote a “Twilight Zone” for Rooney called “Requiem for a Jockey.”
Late in his career, Rooney was unbeatable as the former jockey/aging trainer in “The Black Stallion” (another Oscar nomination; he’d already been nominated twice and won two honorary Oscars)
In “National Velvet,” opposite a young Elizabeth Taylor, he is extraordinary, imbuing his disgraced jockey-turned-trainer with something as close to Irish magic as I’ve ever seen. He’s tough, sentimental, wary, fallible, and ineffably moving.
However, my favorite Rooney role is as Puck in the celebrated Max Reinhardt version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He’s like a spirit from another world — savage and primitive, mischievous and ingratiating. Only 15 years old, he effortlessly upstaged a star-studded cast led by James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell and Joe E. Brown
Allegedly, it was Rooney who coined the famous Hollywood haiku:
Who is Mickey Rooney?
Get me Mickey Rooney.
Get me a Mickey Rooney type.
Get me a young Mickey Rooney.
Who is Mickey Rooney?
It never applied to Rooney himself. He was the one, the only..and it’s unlikely he’ll ever be forgotten.