It seems that everyone in the entertainment world is lining up to praise the many talents of Mickey Rooney, who died this week at the age of 93. He certainly had a long and mostly successful career, and the public loved him. Obituaries have described his ability to play any role. He could be endearing. He could be a stinker. It didn't matter who the character was; if Mickey played him, you believed him. That's the Mickey Rooney the public saw, and that's how it should be. They paid their money and he gave them their money's worth.
There was another Mickey Rooney – probably several others – but I'll tell you about the Mickey I met. Let me preface this by saying that I'd read stories about how difficult he could be on the set; that he used one specific profanity so frequently that within the industry that word became part of a nickname for him. I have an audio recording of him rehearsing a song – one that he wrote – in which he keeps forgetting the lyrics. Eventually he simply replaces the missing lyrics with a naughty word that I won't spell out here, and he wasn't doing it for laughs. None of this is to imply that Rooney wasn't a terrific actor, in fact one of the greats, but while the public enjoyed his talent, working with him could be less than a pleasure.
Some time ago, I was helping produce a Los Angeles Emmy Awards show. Nearly two dozen celebrities, including Rooney, were to present awards to local broadcasters. We had scheduled a rehearsal period where the celebs could go to the podium and read their lines off a TelePrompTer, which is a TV monitor on which the script is reproduced. When I saw Mickey slowly shuffling to the stage with apparent difficulty I offered to let him rehearse before the others. He nodded, and moved very slowly, cautiously, to the podium and in a weak, almost inaudible voice asked the prompter operator to make the type larger. She obliged, and then he said, "I need it larger." The words on the screen got bigger…and bigger…and bigger until only one word at a time would fit on the monitor.
And then Mickey slowly and weakly mumbled, "Good…evening…ladies…and…gentlemen," and so forth. It was excruciatingly painful to hear him struggle through the script, and by the time he finished going over his lines, all the rehearsal time was used up. None of the others got a chance to practice.
Show time arrived. Toward the middle of the program the announcer introduced Rooney. I was watching from the balcony, expecting to see Mickey slowly inch his way to the microphones. Instead, he BOUNDS onto the stage and nearly skips up to the podium, and in a strong, LOUD voice proclaims, "Good evening ladies and gentlemen…" He was brimming with energy. It was Andy Hardy putting on a show. I'd been tricked, duped. I'd fallen for his "shuffling old man" act.
We all know that on a bus or subway we're supposed to give up our seats to an older person. Clearly, that courtesy never should apply to actors.