“You always pass failure on your way to success.” — Mickey Rooney
After Shirley Temple, who passed away just two months before he did, Mickey Rooney was arguably the last of the great childhood stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. A classic little-man compensator at just a smidgen over five feet tall, he burned his way through eight wives, starting with the much taller (and gorgeous) Ava Gardner. As such, his real-life persona was at odds with the on-screen image that catapulted him to international fame: the teenager whose moral lessons, learned in each of the Andy Hardy films, made him an American that audiences loved and emulated.
His talent was exquisite and his energy infectious. To watch him and Judy Garland dance and listen to them sing in movies like Babes in Arms (1939) and Babes on Broadway (1941) is to appreciate how America diverted its attention from a world at war. Mickey Rooney himself served in the Army for almost two years, entertaining and lifting the morale of his fellow soldiers. When he came back from overseas, he found himself too old to be a teenage idol, yet too short to become a leading man. So he had to reinvent himself as a serious actor.
Although he lacked the Actor’s Studio preparation of Marlon Brando, Mickey Rooney shared one of the legendary method actor’s frustrating techniques: he refused to learn his lines. True spontaneity doesn’t occur, so the reasoning goes, when an actor knows exactly what he’s going to say.
Rooney’s work as a serious actor became notable. His diminutive height seemed to give him a certain desperation, an urgency to be heard and to be taken seriously. In the 1962 feature film Requiem for a Heavyweight, based on Rod Serling’s masterful teleplay, he turns in a performance every bit the equal of that of co-stars Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason. In The Comedian, a 1957 Playhouse 90 teleplay, he plays a dyed-in-the-wool son of a bitch, and gives us a hint of how show business can twist the fortunes and personality of a show business luminary.
Acting teachers like to use the word “colors” in describing the subtleties in character of particular roles. In a career that spanned over 90 years, Mickey Rooney offered us an entire spectrum.