Rooney kept working until the end

April 10, 2014 

I got to know Mickey Rooney, who died Sunday at 93, on TV.

KYW TV in Cleveland would run old black-and-white movies every afternoon, and, as a young kid, I was an avid fan. I watched Tarzan movies, war flicks, comedies with Red Skelton or Hope and Crosby, and classic horror movies like “The Thing” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

And the station also ran old Andy Hardy movies, starring Rooney as a teenager growing up in the all-American town of Carvel, located somewhere in the Midwest. The plots were fairly consistent: Andy falls in love, wins girl, loses girl, wins girl back.

The girl, in a few of those movies, was played by Judy Garland, with whom Rooney would star in other films later.

If Andy ran into trouble along the way, it usually could be solved with a man-to-man talk with his stern but loving father, Judge Hardy, played by Lewis Stone. The series featured 15 movies, and Rooney milked the role of America’s favorite teenager from age 16 to 25.

Rooney could pull that off because he was just a shade over 5 feet tall and sported eternally boyish looks. His stature also was his most limiting feature. He famously said that he would have given 10 years of his life to be six inches taller.

But he certainly made the most of what he had. He was innately talented – he could sing, dance, play the piano and drums expertly.

Above all, though, he was a gifted actor, outlandishly expressive but also capable of real subtlety. No wonder he was voted top box-office star three years running, from 1939 to 1941, beating such heavyweights as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.

Another of the afternoon movies I caught on TV was “Boys Town,” in which Tracy played Father Flanagan, founder of the famous orphanage, and Rooney played the cocky young punk, Whitey, who refused to be reformed. Contrary to the Boys Town motto, there apparently was such a thing as a bad boy.

But (spoiler alert) everything works out OK. At one point, Rooney’s friend, Peewee, is hit by a car, and Rooney puts on an operatic display of remorse and despair.

I was watching the movie with a friend of mine, and I was trying to choke down the lump in my throat. I looked over at my friend, and the tears were rolling down his face.

When Rooney’s death was announced, a common response was, gosh, we thought he was already dead. But while Rooney might have slipped from the public eye, he never really slowed down.

When he wasn’t reviving his career, he stayed busy wrecking it, drinking too much, gambling too much, getting married too much. He married eight women, including the 19-year-old Ava Gardner, before finding the right one.

And he kept going until the end. He had parts in “Night at the Museum” in 2006, “The Muppets” in 2011, and was working on two movies at the time of his death.

For those who know Rooney only from the Andy Hardy movies – or not at all – I would recommend watching him in “The Black Stallion,” from 1979. He plays a former jockey who helps a young boy win the big race at the Santa Anita racetrack on the “mystery horse” (almost a variation of Rooney’s role in “National Velvet” with a young Elizabeth Taylor).

“The Black Stallion” is a terrific movie in its own right, but Rooney, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role, grounds the movie with a dextrous, detailed and polished portrayal of a guy given a second chance at glory. He could have been maudlin or over the top, trademarks he perfected in his younger years, but instead kept it low key and quietly intelligent.

Andy Hardy was nowhere in sight.

Rooney had enough energy to carry him across the finish line a winner, leaving bad luck and bad decisions in the dust. In the end, he had perfected the role of playing his tumultuous self, which, as it turns out, was quite a gift.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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