Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mickey Rooney on Television

Mickey Rooney, who died on April 6, 2014 at the age of 93, was a show business legend.  He was not a Hollywood leading man like Clark Gable or Cary Grant.  He was not tall, dark and handsome. In fact, Rooney was fair-haired and stood only about 1.57 centimetres tall (5 feet, 2 inches).  Nevertheless, he was an extremely talented and versatile entertainer.  He began as a child actor in a career that spanned over 90 years, from the silent film era until the 21st century.

Born Joseph Yule, Jr. on September 23, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York, Rooney performed in vaudeville as a youngster.  His first film role was in the 1926 silent comedy short called Not to Be Trusted in which he played "The Nephew." He was six years old at the time and he went by the name of Mickey McBan.  From 1927 until 1934, he called himself Mickey McGuire.  It wasn't until the 1934 film Beloved that he was billed as Mickey Rooney.

Rooney went on to appear in a prodigious number of stage productions and motion pictures.  At the age of 19, he was nominated for an Oscar for his lead role in Babes in Arms (1939), alongside Judy Garland.  He also starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor as a former jockey in National Velvet (1944) and he achieved stardom on the silver screen with the popular Andy Hardy movies he made with Garland in the late 1930s and into the 1940s. For many years, Mickey Rooney was one of MGM's most celebrated actors.

By the end of World War II, Rooney was no longer able to play the teenage roles that had made him such a big box office star.  As an adult, his short stature prevented him from being cast in romantic leading roles. That didn't stop Mickey, though.  He was tenacious and determined.  He adapted to the situation and achieved success by taking on many supporting roles.  When the new medium of television came along, he found new opportunities.

Although Mickey Rooney was primarily known as a movie and stage actor, he certainly made his mark on TV, mainly in guest roles and TV movies.  His own television shows were not particularly successful and they did not last long.  From 1954 to 1955, Rooney starred in The Mickey Rooney Show: Hey, Mulligan, a situation comedy on NBC.  He played Mickey Mulligan, a young who takes a job as a page at a fictional television studio in Hollywood.   The series chronicled Mulligan's misadventures as he tried to break into show business.

According to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946 - Pressent, Mulligan's aspirations "went far beyond his lowly position.  He really wanted to be a serious dramatic actor, and was using the page job as springboard to bigger things."  He went to drama school at night and he received encouragement from his father, Joe Mulligan (Regis Toomey), a longtime Los Angeles officer, and from his girlfriend, Pat Harding (Carla Balenda), a studio secretary.  Mickey's mother, Nell Mulligan (Claire Carleton), was a former burlesque star who met her husband when he arrested her.

The cast of The Mickey Rooney Show was rounded out by comedian Joey Forman, who played Freddy Devlin, Mickey's best friend and fellow page; English actor Alan Mowbray, who played his drama coach, Mr. Swift, and John Hubbard, who portrayed his boss, Charles Brown.  The series aired for one season and only 33 episodes were broadcast.  It was co-created by director, producer and screenwriter Blake Edwards, the late husband of Julie Andrews.

Rooney in first episode of The Mickey Rooney Show,

From 1961 to 1963, Mickey appeared in four episodes of The Dick Powell Show, an hour-long dramatic anthology hosted by Powell.  In 1963, he appeared in one of my favourite Twilight Zone episodes, "The Last Night of a Jockey" (Season 5, Episode 5, Air Date: October 25, 1963).

In "Last Night of a Jockey," Rooney played the part of Grady, a one-time champion jockey who has been been barred from riding due to his involvement in fixing races and drugging horses.  Grady has declared his innocence and launched an appeal with the racing commission.  His agent, however, is not optimistic about his chances of winning the appeal.  As the washed-up jockey writhes in anger over his predicament, he starts to hear his own voice speaking to him.  Unexpectedly, he is granted his greatest wish.

Rooney was the sole actor in "Last Night of a Jockey" and his performance in the episode was a one-man tour de force.  It is interesting to note that in real life, Mickey was an avid horse racing fan and throughout his career, he appeared in many horse-related movies and television shows.

Mickey Rooney in Twilight Zone episode

From 1964 to 1965, Mickey Rooney starred in another television comedy, this time on NBC.  It was entitled Mickey and it was also short-lived.  Only 17 episodes of the show were produced.  In Mickey, Rooney was cast as Mickey Grady, a Coast Guard recruiter in landlocked Omaha, Nebraska, who yearns for a life at sea.  Mickey and his family relocate to Newport  Harbor, California when he inherits the Marina Palms, a beachfront hotel there.

Emmaline Henry played Grady's wife, Nora, the mother of their two children.  Mickey Rooney's real-life son, Tim Rooney, portrayed their eldest son, 16-year-old Timmy Grady, while Brian Nash was cast in the role of the younger son, eight-year old Buddy Grady.  The part of hotel manager Sammy Ling, was played by character actor Sammee Tong.

Tim Rooney (real name: Timothy Hayes Yule), died on September 23, 2006 (his father's 86th birthday) at the age of 59.  Sadly, Tim suffered from a muscle disease known as dermatomyositis.  He was born on January 4, 1947 in Birmingham Alabama and his mother was singer Betty Jane Baker (known as B.J. Baker).  Baker, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 74, was married to Mickey Rooney from 1944 to 1949.  She and Rooney had another son, Mickey Rooney, Jr., born on January 3, 1945.  Rooney, Jr., a former actor and musician, is now a Christian evangelist with a ministry in Hemet, California.

Emmaline Henry, who died in 1979, went on to play Amanda Bellows, wife of Dr. Bellows, on the hit 1960s comedy series, I Dream of Jeannie, starring Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman.  Sammee Tong, who died of an overdose of barbiturates, is best remembered for his portrayal of Peter Tong on Bachelor Father (1957-1962). He played Bentley Gregg's (John Forsythe) house servant on the series.  At the time of his passing on October 27, 1964, Sammee Tong was appearing in Mickey.  He was 63 years old.

In 1964, Mickey Rooney made guest appearances on Rawhide and Burke's Law.  In 1966, he had roles in episodes of The Fugitive ("This'll Kill You," Season 3, Episode 18, Air Date: January 18, 1966) and the very first episode of the Jean Arthur Show, entitled "Lament of a Horseplayer" (Season 1, Episode 1, Air Date: September 12, 1966).  In "Lament of a Horseplayer," Rooney played Eddie Julian, an elevator operator with a gambling problem.  Eddie is accused of murder and retains attorney Patricia Marshall (Jean Arthur) as his lawyer.  He takes the Jean Arthur character to the horse races in search of a defence witness.

In 1966, Rooney appeared on television with another show business legend - Lucille Ball.  He was a guest star on The Lucy Show in an episode entitled "Lucy Meets Mickey Rooney" (Season 4, Episode 18, Air Date: January 24, 1966).  In the episode, Mickey wishes to obtain a bank loan in order to purchase an acting school.  He ends up getting Lucy and her boss, banker Theodore J. Mooney (Gale Gordon), as his students and they do a take-off on silent movie comedies.  Lucy imitates Charlie Chaplin while Rooney plays "a kid."

Mickey with Lucy on The Lucy Show

Mickey with Gale Gordon and Lucy on The Lucy Show

During the 1970s, Mickey's TV appearances were less frequent and his career seemed to be stagnating.  In 1971, he had a guest role in the Burt Reynolds detective series, Dan August.  He played a character named Kenny O'Malley in an episode entitled "The Manufactured Man" (Season 1, Episode 22, Air Date: March 11, 1971).  The cast list for that episode is quite impressive.  Besides Rooney, it includes Harrison Ford, David Soul, Billy Dee Williams, Gary Busey (as a hippie) and Norman Fell of Three's Company and The Ropers.

In 1972, almost a decade after his memorable performance on The Twilight Zone, Mickey made an appearance in another Rod Serling series, Rod Serling's Night Gallery. He played a mobster named August Kolodney in an episode entitled "Rare Objects" (Season 3, Episode 4, Air Date: October 22, 1972). Kolodney, a target for other criminals, visits a man, Dr. Glendon (Raymond Massey), who offers him peace and a security - at a price.

Rooney in Night Gallery episode (1972)

Mickey's career rebounded in the 1980s when he won an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of a mentally disabled man in the 1981 TV movie Bill.  Bill was based on the real life story of William "Bill" Sackter of Minnesota who spent 44 years in of life in in the Faribault State School for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic (That odious name was changed to the Faribault State School and Hospital in 1955 and The Fairbault Regional Center n 1985.  The institution closed in 1998).

Sackter, who was born in 1913, was placed in the hospital at the age of seven and didn't venture out into the world until he was in his fifties.  In 1964, he was placed in a halfway house and found employment as a handyman at a country club.  He was befriended by filmmaker Barry Morrow.  Morrow, who was played by actor Dennis Quaid in the TV movie, helped Bill adjust and became his guardian.  When Morrow took a post at the University of Iowa, Bill followed him there and became the owner of Wild Bill's Coffee Shop on campus.

Bill Sackter died on June 16, 1983 at the age of 70.  Mickey Rooney portrayed him a second time in a sequel to the original TV movie.  The sequel, Bill: On His Own, aired on November 9, 1983.  It dealt with Bill's struggles after Barry Morrow (again played by Dennis Quaid) and his wife move away.

In 1982, Rooney starred in yet another short-lived television series called One of the Boys.  In the series, Mickey played Oliver Nugent, an energetic senior who leaves his retirement home and moves in with his grandson, Adam Shields (Dana Carvey), a student at Sheffield College in New Jersey.  Nathan Lane played Adam's roommate, Jonathan Burns, and Meg Ryan portrayed Adam's girlfriend, Jane.

One of the Boys was shunned by television audiences.  In 2002, TV Guide ranked the series Number 24 on its list of "The 50 Worst Shows of All Time."  That same year, Dana Carvey appeared on David Letterman's talk show and told Letterman that he did "some of the worst TV you've ever seen."  When he mentioned One of the Boys and the TV Guide list, Letterman asked, "Could it really have been that bad?"  Carvey replied, "It sucked!"  He then went on to describe Mickey Rooney as "eccentric" and carefully added, "I don't want to meet his lawyers."  Letterman offered the description "high strung" as an alternative and Carvey went on to parody Rooney saying, "I was the Number One star in the world."

Left to Right: Dana Carvey, Nathan Lane and Mickey

In 1988, Mickey Rooney had guest role on The Golden Girls in an episode entitled "Larceny and Old Lace." (Season 3, Episode 21, Air Date: February 27, 1988).  He played Sophia's (Estelle Getty) boyfriend, Rocco, who tries to impress her by claiming to be a retired Gangster.   From 1990 to 1993, Mickey Rooney starred in another horse-themed show called The Adventures of the Black Stallion and it ran on The Family Channel. Black Stallion was a Canada/France/New Zealand co-production  and was filmed on location in those three countries and in the United States.  The Canadian portions were shot in British Columbia.

The series was loosely based on the stories of Walter Farley, who wrote a series of horse novels, primarily for children. The Adventures of the Black Stallion chronicled the lives of an Arabian stallion named "Black" and his teenage rider, Alec Ramsay (Richard Ian Cox) as they became teammates in the horse racing circuit. Mickey Rooney played the role of Black's trainer, a retired jockey named Henry Dailey. Rooney had previously portrayed Dailey in the 1979 motion picture The Black Stallion.

Mickey worked steadily throughout the 1990s.  In 1993, had a role on Murder, She Wrote in an episode called "Bloodlines" (Season 10, Episode 6, Air Date: November 9, 1993).  He played a retired horse trainer Matt Cleveland, whom Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) visits at a stud ranch in Virginia.  In 1998, he made guest appearances on such series as E.R., as Dr. George Bikel in an episode entitled "Exodus" (Season 4, Episode 15, Air Date: February 26, 1998) and on Mike Hammer, Private Eye, in "Lucky in Love" (Season 2, Episode 11, May 3, 1998).

Mickey Rooney led a tumultuous personal life and he was married eight times.  His last days were quite difficult as he was a victim of alleged elder abuse and a family feud between his estranged wife and his stepsons. At the time of his death, Mickey was separated from Jan Chamberlin Rooney, his wife of 35 years. Jan, 74. a former nightclub singer, learned of his passing from the media.  She was quoted by Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter as saying that she hadn't seen her husband since April of 2013.  "Someone from TMZ called me," she stated.

November 30, 2000 photo of Mickey Rooney and Jan

When he died, Rooney left an estate of only $18,000 to Mark Rooney, his stepson and caretaker.  He apparently disinherited his wife, Jan, and his eight surviving children.  Much of his fortune was dwindled away due to alleged elder abuse and financial mismanagement by another one of his stepsons, Christopher "Chris" Aber. Chris Aber and Mark Rooney are brothers, although Mark goes by the name "Rooney" rather than "Aber."  They are Jan's sons by a previous marriage to Lynn Aber.

Despite his personal problems, Mickey Rooney was a consummate entertainer and he always carried on. In March 2008, he told The Associated Press, "I always say, 'Don't retire - inspire." and he declared, "There's a lot to be done."  That was his philosophy and he lived it until the end.  He continued to work into his 90s and appeared alongside another veteran performer, Dick Van Dyke, in Night at the Museum (2006), staring Ben Stiller.  In fact, when Mickey passed away, Night at the Museum 3  was in production.  This past February, the 93-year-old was was pushed through Vancouver International Airport in a wheelchair to prepare shooting the movie.  He was cheerful and enthusiastic about reprising his role as Gus, one of the night security guards at the museum.

The feisty nonagenarian was as busy as ever.  He loved entertaining.  It was in his bones and in his blood.  At the time of his death, he was also working on another film entitled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  This retelling of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale is due for release in the United States in October of 2014.  Mickey Rooney never stopped working.  He left a legacy of quality films and distinguished television performances for generations to come.

- Joanne

1 comment:

  1. a very nice article about an actor who provided wholesome entertainent