|At 82 and after eight marriages, this motion picture icon knows the true “meaning of life” and how to inspire audiences. He was the first to recognize his successes and his failures and did something about them.
Mickey Rooney is a legend. He has done some 300 films, played Broadway and won a Golden Globe and an Emmy. And eighty-two years later, he is still a kid at heart. Born Joe Yule, Jr. on September 23, 1920 in a rooming house in Brooklyn, New York, he jokes, "The Chinese doctor patted me on the bottom and said, ‘OK kid, you’ve been resting for nine months. Now get to work."
And get to work he did. He made his vaudeville debut at eighteen months with his parents, Joe Yule (a comic) and Nell Carter (a dancer). Less than five years later he made his film debut and from 1927 to 1933, starred in more than fifty episodes of the comedy series Mickey McGuire.
It was in 1932, that the young actor adopted the name Mickey Rooney and began getting parts in feature films. This led to a contract with MGM in 1934. Rooney’s career was on a roll. He became a star as the brash lead character in the Andy Hardy series (1937-47) while all the world took notice. In 1938, he starred opposite Spencer Tracy in Boys Town as Father Flannigan’s most troubling kid.
But Rooney is probably best known for his musical talent. He was soon at the top of his game, starring opposite Judy Garland in Babes In Arms (1939) and Girl Crazy (1943). He was nominated for an Oscar four times and received an honorary Oscar from the Academy in 1983.
A Little Bit Personal
Rooney was an impish youngster. Maybe that is why audiences became so endeared to him. He is always impeccably dressed. He comes from a generation of actors who believe a performance is a tribute to their audiences who have paid to see them. His first wife was Ava Gardner. “She was glamorous. There wasn’t anything I didn’t love about Ava. But we were so young. It’s a sad thing watch love fall apart.” But love, for Mickey, was to fall apart many more times. In all there were eight marriages, seven sons, four daughters as well as grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“They always ended one way, with me on the porch with my bags. The funny thing is, I never wanted to go...never!”
Eighth Was The Charm
Mickey met Jan Chamberlain some thirty years ago. She married him in 1978, bringing him the much needed stability to his life.“Until Jan came along, I didn’t know what real love is. She made all the difference.” According to Mickey, respect, enjoyment and just listening to each other has made the real difference in their lives together. “Men should listen to their wives more. We have a lot of fun. That’s the key to life. Being a celebrity is wonderful but the most important thing is to be a nice guy.”
Jan will tell you, “I never wanted to get married again, let alone to an older man. Mickey just came along and swept me off my feet.” These days Mickey and Jan spend at least half of their time traveling across the country. She joins him when he does his show for corporate clients. According to Jan, the traveling does get hard. “That’s simply how you live when performing is in your blood. We’ve tossed around the idea of retiring, but it never sticks.”
When not doing shows, they make their home in Westlake Village, California with their two macaws, Cookie and Crackers. They’ve added a Jack Russell to the family and over the years their dogs have had names like Andy Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, and Gloria Swanson.
Mickey and Jan also share other common interests. They both love to paint and while Jan favors abstracts, Mickey’s preference is landscapes. But mainly they love spending time with their animals, family and friends.
At night, sometimes Jan will come across one of Mickey’s old movies on television. “I’ll always sit and watch them. I do that more than he does.” Their preference is the older movies, but they watch contemporary films as well. “We love Gladiator and the work of Anthony Hopkins (who is a close personal friend).” Mickey thinks that today’s movies are not up to the same standards due to America’s appetite for special effects. “Change is change. What can you do about it. But there are a lot of wonderful stars today. Anthony Hopkins is one of our best friends. We like Liam Neeson, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks.”
Probably one of the hardest questions you could put to a star is “what is your most favorite part?.” “Out of 300, how can you pick just one? I loved National Velvet (with Elizabeth Taylor) and The Big Wheel and Black Stallion and Pete’s Dragon and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. As far as co-stars Spencer Tracy was wonderful and Judy Garland was great.”
AND HERE'S THE SHOW!
Mickey’s show weaves together songs, movie clips and one-liners about age and marriage. He narrates his life story beginning as the son of parents who travel the country as vaudeville performers. “I was on the road two weeks after I was born and I have been on the road ever since.” You will find anecdotes sprinkled with the names of legends like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Bogie and Jimmy Stewart. “MGM became my real home.”
Mixed between all the stories and the memories, he will offer you music that he made famous. Familiar lines like “I like New York in June, how about you?”...“They’re writing songs of love, but not for me...” and“I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island....” Then Mickey will sit down in a chair onstage as famous movie clips appear on the screens, projecting his former life in films like Huckleberry Finn, National Velvet and Boys Town.
As a prelude for the real love of his life, Mickey comes back to the mike to talk about Ava Gardner. Then “Number Eight” arrives on the stage bringing the show a whole new vibe and a quick wit. She belts out tunes like “Makin’ Whoopee” and “You Made Me Love You.”
As Chamberlain departs from the stage, the mood goes calm one more time as Mickey quietly reveals, “There’s another woman in my life,” and everyone knows whom he’s talking about. “We were the best of friends from the day we met,” and this segues into a tribute to Judy Garland.“We weren’t just a team, we were magic.” And as Mickey talks, the screens capture some of that magic and Rooney and Garland sing and dance side by side. In these times of conflict, sometimes Mickey will talk about how proud he was to serve in World War II. “I won an Emmy once, but it is not as important as my Bronze Star.” And with this, he leads his audience (standing) in the singing of “God Bless America.” It seems like a fitting ending to a most memorable show.
One thing you can say about Mickey Rooney is that he is the genuine article. He is thankful for an outstanding career and he does have a heartfelt love for this country. He worked hard and has played hard, losing several fortunes. But he has always come back. He got rave reviews for his performance in the Broadway musical revue Sugar Babies.
I watched a few weeks ago as he was the subject of a few puns at the 2003 Academy Awards show. Mickey took the ribbing with the professionalism you might expect from a veteran performer. As the camera returned to him on various occasions, he exuded the dress, demeanor and friendly personality for which he has become famous. In a world where the norm is to stir something up, Mickey Rooney has always been the calming storm.