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Remembering The

Irrepressible Mickey Rooney

Images courtesy of Reel to Real.

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Special Contributors Reel To Real Recount An Interview With The Hollywood Legend More Than Two Decades Ago While Also Relating Some Of The Struggles He Faced Near The End As Told By His Family

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By David Fantle & Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

April 19, 2014 — Mickey Rooney, who died April 6 at the age of 93, was many things: singer, dancer, comedic and dramatic actor, America’s boy-next-door and Tinseltown survivor. He was also (during a 1998 interview) the closest we’ve ever come to spending time with a live-action cartoon.

Mickey didn’t just enter the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in Westlake Village, Calif., near where he lived at the time; he trundled in like a miniature tank and waved us down with such theatrical exaggeration, we thought he was in the finish step of a Busby Berkeley dance fantasia at MGM.

“My car ran out of gas down the street and I had to get a refill can from the filling station,” he wheezed. “I’m almost never late, and I hate when other people are.”

We were winded just witnessing him scuttle from one topic to the next with the same manic energy in jumping over fence posts with Judy Garland in those lovable, ridiculous Andy Hardy “let’s put on a show” epics.

“I’ll tell you anything you want to hear, including how bald I am,” he laughed. “I’ve had a 76-year career in movies. I was in show business when I was one year old. I’m a writer, director, painter and pilot. I play golf and tennis. That’s the secret of remaining forever young and getting through the tough times in life. And believe me, I’ve had a few. You need to be enthusiastic.”

For three consecutive years during the 1930s – including the pivotal blockbuster year of 1939 – movie exhibitors voted Rooney the number one box-office star in the country. It was a fact not lost on Rooney even decades later.

“At MGM all the contract players had a home,” he said. “And nobody was coddled despite what a lot of leading ladies have said. We were considered part of the family. We had a place to hang our hat; a place to sleep. We had a job when a lot of people around the country were on the breadlines.”

It was a valuable perspective that kept Rooney grounded during a career with more ups and downs than, as he said, the roller coaster on the Santa Monica pier.

Postscript: Even in death, Rooney’s estate, reported to be valued at a paltry $18,000 and his final resting site were embroiled in controversy. Various family factions were fighting for the scraps, including his last wife, Jan.

We had a few recent e-mail exchanges with his stepdaughter Charlene Rooney, who along with her husband, Mark, said they took the aging entertainer into their care at their Studio City, Calif. home.

In a June 7, 2013 e-mail she wrote: “His (Rooney’s) wife (Jan) has done a lot of damage to him physically and emotionally but fortunately he doesn't ask to see her anymore. He has never lived in a peaceful environment before and he said he admires our relationship and he has learned that living in fear is unacceptable. He just knew no other way for years.”

Sad final words for an audience-pleasing talent that exploded across the stage and screen with the ferocity of a stick of TNT.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com

Dana Carvey on One of the Boys and Mickey Rooney.

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