By Mitchell J. Near
Mickey Rooney is a bona fide show-biz legend. And from the look of things, he is not going to retire. Ever.
The 81-year-old star of vaudeville, stage, TV and screen was born Joe Yule Jr., and made his stage appearance as a 1-year-old in his parents' vaudeville act. He started working in films as a 5-year-old and appeared in almost 80 silent films before taking the name Mickey Rooney and moving on to a career in what were then called talkies. He doesn't even count the silent films among his credits of 300 pictures.
For two decades he's been on the road in his spare time, performing a retrospective of his career, alongside his wife and fellow performer, Jan Chamberlin Rooney. It's a big hit with movie buffs and musical fans, and the Rooneys' current version of the show is booked through the end of the year.
"I always say you should inspire, not retire," Rooney says during a recent interview from his California home.
His project "One Man, One Wife Show" runs the gamut of his performing life in about an hour and a half. He offers tributes to vaudeville, and to his legendary screen partner, Judy Garland. He sings songs from his films, along with numbers he wrote himself. He tells jokes and reminisces. And for cinema buffs, he shows behind-the-scenes home movies he took over the years at various film sets. The footage is culled from his personal collection and has not been shown in any other venue. His wife joins him in song and dance skits throughout the evening.
Rooney's mantra of inspiring people is backed up by his efforts during the past few weeks. The couple canceled only a few of their gigs after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and even though they could not travel by air, they chose to continue the tour by driving hours at a stretch to partner with their back-up band. Cross-country road trips are tough enough on college students, and Rooney is a bit tired, though the curmudgeonly actor will never admit it.
"The only thing you can do is pull up your boots and do it," Rooney says. "We try to do our best."
His wife, Jan, concurs with him: "You can't fall into the doldrums. Life must go on. That was a crazy trip, with 10-hour days in the car, but Mickey really lit up people's faces. He's a real strong guy with a big heart. He was just so cute on stage the first show after the attacks. He told jokes and did a little dance, and really lifted the audience's spirits."
Rooney's social life has been in the headlines for decades. He was married eight times, and during his heyday as the No. 1 box office draw, he was known as much for his night clubbing with spouses like Ava Gardner as he was for his screen work.
Later in life, he and Jan Chamberlin hooked up while filming a commercial. They've been married for 20 years since, collaborating in performances all over the world.
So what is it about Jan that made him finally settle into a matrimonial groove?
"That's no secret. We love each other," he says simply. "And we work well together."
"Separate bathrooms," his wife deadpans.
Though he could have long ago retired, Rooney still embraces the theater lifestyle, even if that can be a little spartan in its accommodations.
"On the first show back, we had no band. They could not get there in time, and the piano player had to use this broken-down piano to play on," Jan says. "But we had to go on and play. There were quite a few people there."
Although he's played his share of lovable characters, Rooney can get downright stern when talking about some subjects. His love and admiration for his co-star Judy Garland is well-known. Needless to say, he was less than impressed with the latest TV biography of her career, "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," which was produced by her daughter, Lorna Luft. The two-part telecast portrayed the singer as a desperate, pill-popping, child-ignoring mother.
"I hated it; didn't like it all," Rooney says brusquely. "I thought Lorna should never have produced it. It made Judy look harsh."
He speaks more fondly of the times he spent with Garland and other co-stars. He played the title character in the vast Andy Hardy film series, along with roles in "Boys Town" with Spencer Tracy, which won him a special juvenile Academy Award, and "Babes in Arms," his first pairing with Garland, which landed him another Oscar nomination. He picked up a Best Supporting Actor nod for 1979's "The Black Stallion." He also appeared in classics like "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the recent "Babe: Pig in the City."
Rooney has answered the call of Broadway as well, landing in musicals like "Sugar Babies," "Lend me a Tenor," "The Will Rogers Follies" and "Crazy for You." He even picked up an Emmy award for his appearance in the 1981 TV film "Bill."
But with so much history behind him, Rooney refuses to select a favorite memory from his work.
"I was in 'National Velvet' with Elizabeth Taylor, 'Captain's Courageous' with Lionel Barrymore, 'The Black Stallion,' 'Babyface Nelson.' As a group, they've all been wonderful experiences," Rooney says.
"He's performed with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy -- he knew them all during their day," Jan adds. "He knows everybody, that's for sure."
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