An hour with Mickey Rooney

"So you want the secret to a happy marriage?" Mickey Rooney asked, perking up.

After 55 minutes, he had finally gotten a question he seemed to care about.

One hour had been allotted for an interview, which was conducted over lunch in a North Michigan Avenue restaurant, and toward the end of the hour, right on schedule, Kevin Pawley, Rooney's agent, looked at his watch and announced, "Mr. Rooney will have to leave in five minutes."

The reporter who had been attempting to "conduct" the interview felt the onset of panic. The interview hadn't exactly been a disaster; in some ways, it had been delightful, memorable.

It was just that Rooney had been Rooney. He had graciously, and perhaps compulsively, talked and talked and talked, as he is wont to do in interviews.

Alas, also as he is wont to do, he had told long, rambling stories that didn't always seem to have a clear point or to be based, in every aspect, on absolute fact. He had begun and abandoned other stories before they really got going, and he had shown only minimal interest in responding directly to basic, who-what-when-where-why questions -- or, for that matter, to any question. Thus, with time running out and fearful that his tape recorder had captured little that was usable in an article, the reporter asked Rooney for some tips on marriage.

This is a subject that Rooney has had experience with, having been married eight times. (His first wife was Ava Gardner, to whom he was married in 1941 when he was 20 and a big movie star and she was 19 and a studio starlet; his eighth, and current, wife is Jan Chamberlin, a former country-and-Western singer to whom he was wed in 1978, when he was 57 and she was 39.)

You quickly realized why Rooney was happy to get this question; he'd obviously been asked it before, probably many times, and had developed a routine for his reply.

"Do not tell your wife that you love her," he said.

He paused, letting his shocker sink in. And when he got the look of surprise he wanted, he lowered his voice to a theatrical whisper:

"You say, 'I like you.'"

A one-beat pause. "It's a different word!" he said, his voice rising dramatically. "Love lasts only for months, sometimes only for minutes. But if you like somebody it's for a lifetime!"

So what if his insight was corny and simplistic, that it relied on equating lust with love? And so what if not everything was salvageable from the interview?

There would be enough for a quick study of this remarkable artist, an artist who at 77 is still performing, still exulting in the spotlight and, most miraculously, still in demand, still a star.

Indeed, it is his stature as a phenomenon of American show business that alone makes him noteworthy.

To call him a living legend is to engage in understatement. He has been entertaining audiences for 75 years, since he was 17 months old and made his debut on a vaudeville stage at Chicago's old Haymarket Theater.

During the interview, Rooney had meandered into a discussion of the old days in Hollywood, when an actor's career and salary were strictly controlled by movie studios.

"Here's a hypotheticism," Rooney said. (He has a habit of using words that you have never heard but immediately understand.) "If Barbra Steisand wants to make a picture called 'My Pink Fingernail,' the studios will go, 'Gee, Barbra, what a wonderful idea! Money is no object! Take two years in preproduction and write the music and you'll direct.'"

He then crooned an imagined title song: "My pink finger-n-a-a-a-i-l, it came apart at the seams ..."

People in the restaurant began looking around as he belted out the song. My gosh, it's Mickey Rooney!

"My point is," Rooney said, "if Barbra wants to make a movie, she makes it. The same for Tom Cruise. And Michael Douglas, Tom Hanks. Some people today are studios unto themselves."

And in your heyday?

"Barbra would be under contract at $5,000 a week, and the studio would assign her to 'My Pink Fingernail.' It would be shot in three weeks, and she wouldn't direct. Now I'm not saying she isn't a magnificent directrix. I'm saying this is the way it was."

Everyone has heard this assessment of the difference between the Hollywood of yesterday and today, but this was Mickey Rooney talking, someone who knows more than most about what it was like.

In his 1991 autobiography, "Life Is Too Short," he writes about taking stock at the beginning of 1956:

"I was 35 years old. ... I'd been in show business for 33 years. I'd made 152 films. I'd earned more than $600 million (for others, not for me) and I had managed to save $2,345.33.

"And I was still only 5 feet, 3 inches tall."

Rooney was asked if there was an upside to the studio system.

"You became a family," he said. "You know, when you stop and think about it, nobody really does care. I made 27 Andy Hardy pictures. ..."

He is mistaken. There were 15; they began with "A Family Affair" in 1937, when he was 17 (it was his 37th feature; he also made 64 two-reel comedies as Mickey McGuire) and ended with "Love Laughs at Andy Hardy" in 1946, when he 26.

"I've probably made more pictures than anybody in the industry, but in the end ... "

He let the thought drop and began talking about some children's book he plans to write -- "The Adventures of Lucky the Leprechaun."

He has many plans. His autobiography devotes a chapter to his numerous moneymaking ideas, none of which took hold.

His most valuable asset is his life. It reads like an old-fashioned movie script, the kind where the hero climbs his way to the top and then plunges into the depths and then claws his way back.

In the real-life Rooney story, the hero's motivation seems transparent. His wistful comment during the interview about how the studio was like a family suggests the reason for his drive to perform, for he never knew the support and stability that a good family provides.

While tempting, such probing seems irrelevant. These days, Mickey Rooney should be appreciated, not analyzed.

He was born Joe Yule Jr. A ring on his left hand reads, "Joe Yule."

As an infant, he actually slept backstage in a steamer trunk. His mother, Nell Carter, was a chorus girl, his father a vaudeville comic with a drinking problem.

Nell would leave Joe Sr. and take their talented son and only child to Hollywood to put him in the movies. "Sonny" Yule was 5.

In 1938, when he was 18, he was the nation's top movie star, bigger at the box office than Gable or Tracy or Cagney.

He garnered a special, miniature Oscar in 1940, but his highest awards have come after he hit bottom personally and professionally in the 1960s and '70s, after his comeback in the Broadway musical, "Sugar Babies," which opened in 1979.

Also that year, he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in "The Black Stallion." In 1980, he won a Tony for "Sugar Babies"; in 1982, he received an Emmy and a Golden Globe for "Bill," a CBS drama in which he played a retarded man; and in 1983, he at last won a full-size Oscar, for Lifelong Career Achievement.

And at the moment in Chicago, as the interview was ending, he was beginning to hit his stride.

"Today I'm one of those early-to-bed, early-to-rise fellows," he said, as Pawley, his agent, took his arm and began guiding him toward the door of the restaurant. "I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't drink coffee. Starbucks is not going to make any money on me."

Suddenly the topic was boxing. "Joe Louis was one of my closest friends. ... I'm a great boxing fan. I used to go to the American Legion Stadium in Hollywood, every Friday night for 15 years. Down the aisle would come Lupe Velez, Johnny Weismuller, Mae West. All at ringside. And Gabby Hayes was a few rows back."

He began imitating the ring announcer: "And now, 10 rounds of boxing. In the black corner, weighing 165 pounds and wearing purple trunks, Severino Garcia ..."

"Excuse me, Mickey," said Pawley. "I don't mean to interrupt, but we need to be moving forward."

Rooney looked over his shoulder as he headed to the door, continuing as the announcer: "And in the red corner, wearing white trunks and weighing 163 pounds, the Harlem Windmill ... "

He was at the door. Then there was silence. Mickey Rooney had left the building.