“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

April 7, 2014

Rooney - 1
“Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy ….”
Mickey Rooney fiddled with his makeup kit and muttered those words again and again as though we weren’t in the room.
That was in 1973. My colleague, Andy Kudrick, and I had entered Rooney’s dressing room a few moments before and had introduced ourselves. The ritual seemed to send Rooney into a meditative trance in which we had provided the mantra: “Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy ….”
When the actor again became conscious of our presence, he said, “Sit down, but don’t ask me about Judy Garland. I don’t talk about those days. I don’t live in the past. I look forward to the future!”
Judy Garland hadn’t been on our minds, so we were comfortable with this ground rule.
Rooney - 2
Apparently, Mickey Rooney himself was not comfortable with it. We were there to talk to him about a stage production of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which he was cast as Bottom. Rooney, who died yesterday, had played Puck in the 1935 film version of that play.
But before we could begin the conversation, he launched into a rambling invective against unspecified demons who, in his view, had used Judy Garland for their own profit and advancement and ultimately had destroyed her. I had read about her life, so I had some idea what he was referring to. “I loved her,” he said when he had exhausted the topic, at least for then: “I really loved her.”
Andy and I were unsettled by this outburst, because we felt as if it were an intimate moment that we had no business witnessing and because, in the seconds that followed, we didn’t know if we should remain silent, speak, or quietly leave the room.
But Rooney recovered from his reverie without so much as a “Chuck and Andy,” broke into a grin, and engaged us in a lively conversation about Bottom, Puck, and things besides.

"Miss Golightly, I protest!"

“Miss Golightly, I protest!”

I was relieved. Although entertainment personalities were part of the raw material of my profession, I had approached this particular encounter fully conscious of what an iconic figure Rooney was. He was also a personal favorite, and that was because of his enormous range as an actor, something that helps to account for a career that lasted 88 years. He became a star through what now appear to be overblown characters in both musical comedies and dramas, but over time he showed that he had a capacity for subtlety, too, as witness his performances in the feature film Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) and the television movie Bill (1982).
Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, and Mickey Rooney in "Requiem for a Heavyweight"

Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, and Mickey Rooney in “Requiem for a Heavyweight”


One Response to ““Lord, what fools these mortals be!””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I always enjoy your personal reminiscences, but this one’s especially nice. Other than the obligtory sentence or two, the only discussion of his life and death I happened across came on a sports talk program. Strangely, the two late-twenties hosts were fans, and quite capable of recalling the highlights of that long career.

    On another note entirely — my local marine wholesaler stopped stocking my favorite varnish brush, so I had to go online to see if I could order them directly. I could, and in the process I discovered my fine Elder & Jenks ox hair brushes are not only made in the USA, they’re manufactured in Bayonne, New Jersey. It’s another reason to appreciate the state.

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