Mickey Rooney dies: Why we won't see a performer like him again

Many of the obituaries and appreciations for Mickey Rooney pay deference to his diverse skills: singing, family comedies, musicals, dramas and even the movement to TV, all while being a serious box-office draw. As my colleague Kenneth Turan wrote, few now comprehend  “how large this man loomed over the American film landscape.” 

Much of that is the function of his enthusiastic on-screen persona — the word irrepressible comes up a lot. But even as that Andy Hardy-ish appeal faded in postwar America, Rooney was able to move with it, or at least find surprising relevance, segueing to other genres and modes with a certain ease. He could do musicals with Judy Garland (“Babes in Arms”) but also wartime drama (“The Human Comedy”), character acting (“The Bold and the Brave,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight”), family uplift (“The Black Stallion”), TV melodrama (“Bill”) and even Shakespeare (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”).

In doing so, he has proved himself the rare five-tool player, the entertainer with the rare set of skills who can do pretty much anything if a camera is involved.

PHOTOS: Mickey Rooney: 1920-2014

It’s so rare these days, in fact, that it verges on the extinct.

That’s in part, of course, because Rooney was a singular talent and a tireless worker who was willing to put in the time many decades after most actors would have traded script pages for a golf scorecard.

But it’s also because the entertainment world we inhabit is so different — more limiting, more ghettoized. You hear it in the run-up to the Oscars every year: Where’s the all-purpose host, the personality who is a bona fide movie star but can also can sing, dance and joke, who has gravitas but also is comedic and fun? The man who, as was often said of Rooney, can simply put on a show?

He doesn’t exist.

We talk lately about TV and film and the fluidity between them. But that’s versatility of a very limited sort. For one thing, musicals are almost non-existent, so the chance for anyone to hone or showcase those kinds of skills are limited.  (Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres come closest, though neither of them is exactly a huge box-office star.) And even if TV and film are close, comedy and drama are kept at more of an arm’s length than ever.

REACTION: Social media lights up at news of Rooney's death

The fact is, most actors these days are pigeonholed: When a comic personality wants to do a drama, he or she has to fight for the chance because a financier or studio executive would say her currency is “lost” outside of comedy. And there are so many fewer films made that even when actors do get a shot, they are unlikely to get another one. (As a top box-office star who can also do music and (some) comedy, Hugh Jackman is perhaps a slight bearer of the mantle, though many aspects Rooney pulled off easily, such as grittier character acting, have yet to be proved by Jackman.)

On the other hand, with MGM cranking out as many movies as it did, and with the marketing segmentation that drops actors in different boxes nowhere near what it is now, Rooney was able to do it all.

The actor’s passing after such a long and rich life is worth a moment of reflection — a lament, even. That should be for Rooney, but also for an entertainment world that is unlikely to allow for another.


Mickey Rooney, with gumption and grit, put on a show

Mickey Rooney: A long and remarkable career in film, TV

Mickey Rooney dies: Five of his most memorable movie roles

Mickey Rooney appreciation: Remembering an American icon on screen

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