SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Mad about Mickey

WHEN I met Mickey Rooney in Los Angeles in 1997, he did not want to do a lengthy interview with someone from the other side of the world. He wisecracked, "Life is too short to be doing interviews when one is 77!" (The title of his autobiography is Life Is Too Short.) Well, he's still alive and kicking at 84 and was recently given a Special Award for his services to the American Army during World War II.

Once a Hollywood box-office star, he earned $5,000 a movie in his mid-teens, winner of many awards including Oscars, and married as many as eight times, including to one of the world's most beautiful women, Ava Gardner, a brilliant actor who could put maestros likes Spencer Tracy in the shade, one who made millions and spent them all equally fast to be declared insolvent. Such a person was Mickey Rooney!

He soared to the dizzying heights of fame when he appeared in the 15-movie series "Andy Hardy", which was immensely popular. The first came out in 1937 and the last in 1958 — a unique record in movie history.

The fictional "Hardy" family was America's favourite before and during the World War II years. The father was a small-town judge keen that everyone should fight for the U.S. especially the young son (Mickey Rooney) who was always getting into trouble. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, the producers were given a Special Oscar in 1942 "for representing the American way of life" through the films.

Mickey Rooney was born Joe Yule Jr. in Brooklyn, New York, on September 23, 1920. His parents were vaudeville performers and young Yule went on stage as an 18-month infant. The father soon abandoned his son and wife, who made their way to Hollywood to try their luck.

Mickey Rooney took his bow in Hollywood in 1927 in a two-reel comedy series "Mickey McGuire", which was so successful that it ran to 50 episodes for six years! In 1932, he acquired the name "Mickey Rooney" given to him by the studio.

He shot into prominence in 1935 when he played Puck in "A Midsummer's Night Dream" starring James Cagney, and Olivia de Havilland, but Rooney made a mark against such stiff competition. His fame began to soar with the successful "Andy Hardy" series, which were eagerly awaited in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Then came the memorable "Boys Town" (1938). It was the story of a dedicated priest (Spencer Tracy) who runs a school for juvenile delinquents. Mickey Rooney as one of the delinquents rose to great heights and, according to many critics, put the great Tracy in the shade! While Spencer Tracy received the "Best Actor" Oscar, Rooney was nominated for a Special Oscar.)

Though still in his teens, he was by now a major star. He appeared in several films like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1939), "Babes in Arms" (1939, Oscar nomination), and "Strike Up the Band" (1940), a Busby Berkeley musical with Judy Garland.

In 1943 came the best of his career, the classic "The Human Comedy", based on a novel by the noted writer William Saroyan. It was about life in a small town in the U.S. during the World War II years.

Mickey Rooney played a telegram delivery boy who carries news of deaths and injuries of young men far away on the battlefield to their homes. Ultimately he carries a telegram to his own home about the death of his elder brother (Van Johnson) whom he loved.

A highly sentimental tale that touched the hearts and minds of Americans and others during the tense War period, it was a great success. Besides Rooney and Johnson, it starred Frank Morgan (of "The Wizard of Oz" fame) and young Donna Reed (later she won an Oscar for "From Here to Eternity").

The movie won the Oscar for the Best Original Story and was nominated for "Best Picture", "Best Director", "Best Cinematography", and "Best Supporting Actor" for Mickey Rooney. Many were disappointed that Rooney did not get the Oscar that he deserved. "The Human Comedy" is often revived on television and in retrospectives on War movies and never fails to move the audience.

Another film was "National Velvet" (1945) on children who train a horse to win the Grand National. Besides Rooney, it had young Elizabeth Taylor and the film was a major box-office success.

Mickey Rooney's other movies include "Bold and the Brave" (1956), which won him an Oscar nomination for "Best Supporting Actor". In this, Rooney was cast with noted actor Wendell Corey in a wartime adventure about three American soldiers — one played by Robert Taylor — on the Italian warfront.).

"Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962) was about an unscrupulous manager trying to exploit the drunken boxer Anthony Quinn, with Rooney as the trainer trying to help the boxer.

"It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963) was a star-studded comedy with Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Durante, Buster Keaton, Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers and Milton Berle. "Pulp" (1972) was a comic thriller that had Rooney as a veteran star who hires Michael Caine to help him write his autobiography.

"The Black Stallion" (1979) saw Rooney give a stunning performance as the cautious old trainer charged with helping a boy to keep faith with an Arab horse, which he saves from shipwreck and takes to New York.

Mickey Rooney also had memorable roles in "Baby Face Nelson" (1957) and '' "Breakfast At Tiffany's" (1961).

In his fifties, he entered theatre and in the late 1970 had a successful debut in the hit musical "Sugar Babes". He also worked in television and won fame.

Mickey Rooney created yet another kind of history by marrying eight times. His wives included Ava Gardner and noted actress Martha Vickers.

With his wide — wild — and varied experience of life from New York to Hollywood, he turned writer. With his bubbling sense of humour and frankness, he wrote a bestseller autobiography Life Is Too Short.

Now in his early eighties, Americans still fondly remember him. Mickey Rooney is not just a movie star and an icon of American cinema. Indeed, he is considered an American institution.

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