This excerpt from Rooney’s moving acceptance speech upon finally receiving a full-sized honorary Oscar (he received a miniature statue as a juvenile) in 1983 referred to his paltry output in films over the previous twenty-five years. In his speech he mentions that it was the Broadway play Sugar Babies that resurrected his career, but that the payoff wasn’t more good film roles but rather a remarkable performance in a made-for-TV movie, Bill. Rooney’s success on Broadway and in Bill in effect shamed the Academy into this belated acknowledgment of his stunning talent.
Many people are puzzled by the high regard Rooney has attained late in his career. Writers Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams were huge fans. Vidal spoke highly of Mickey in his book Screening History. Vidal appeared as a guest programmer on Turner Classic Movies to introduce the 1935 Max Reinhardt movie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and said that Rooney’s performance as Puck changed his life by stimulating his love for Shakespeare. Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Anthony Quinn, and Laurence Olivier have also paid tribute to his gifts as a performer. Yet probably the last really good films Rooney was in prior to The Black Stallion in 1979 were Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). And since his beautiful, Oscar-nominated performance in Stallion, there have been very few films of note. Much of the esteem Rooney has garnered in recent years is for his entire body of work, which has included some incredible work for the small screen, particularly his performances in some of the best dramatic programs during the so-called Golden Age of Television in the late ’50s and into the early ’60s. A few of his best-remembered roles are in The Comedian (1957) and “Last Night of a Jockey” (1963), and the highlight of his seemingly endless career came in the TV movie Bill in 1981.
“I was a 14-year-old boy for 30 years.”
— Mickey Rooney
One of the Mick’s very best performances was as Grady, the washed-up jockey in “Last Night of a Jockey” on Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (1963). Rooney is the sole performer in this episode. The story concerns a jockey who has been suspended from racing for horse doping and race fixing. Early in the program, Grady looks at himself in the mirror with revulsion. He screams at his reflection with self-recrimination, calling himself a runt and a shrimp with a palpable self-hatred. Grady is alone in a rooming house with a bottle of booze close by. Suddenly Grady’s subconscious produces an apparition in the mirror who talks back to him. His alter ego takes over the recriminations with glee. Grady’s reflection taunts him with a list of the mistakes he has made in his life, and Grady responds defensively to the heckling. At first he tries to physically remove this voice by striking himself in the head. Rooney is working very close to his own subconscious here. He is, after all, playing a performer who is a has-been, banned from his work, and at times over the decades Rooney must have felt the same way about his own profession. It is chilling to watch this great actor literally bludgeoning himself with vicious words like runt and shrimp knowing all too well that his lack of physical stature hindered his own career greatly.
How aware was Rooney that this role was so close to his real-life predicament in so many ways? It’s hard to know. Even though he has written two autobiographies (the first in the early ’60s was ghost-written by sportswriter Roger Kahn), his version of the truth has always been somewhat unreliable. It’s not that he is deliberately lying but that he has such an emotional commitment to make-believe that he tends to see the world the way he would like it to be rather than the way it is. So the Mick is not very good at introspection. This is a major reason he is so bad on talk shows. In fact, he has never even appeared on Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton. That show is now in its 18th season and literally hundreds of actors have appeared on it, but not Rooney. There have been some great actors interviewed, and also scores of mediocre ones, but many of them went to drama school and/or college and can therefore converse intelligently and often charmingly about their rather ordinary careers and their “craft” in a way that Rooney cannot. In his interview for the Archives of American Television, he is asked to speak about his work in Bill, but he finds it difficult. Beyond giving the outline of the story and saying that he played the role “to the best of my ability,” he is reluctant to talk about the issue of institutionalizing the mentally handicapped, just saying that “he was an impaired man. How do you talk about that?” It’s as if Mickey felt sorry for the real Bill Sachter and didn’t want to tarnish his memory (Bill died in 1983) by discussing him. He is a completely intuitive actor. I doubt that he does much analyzing of his work either before or after the performance. He just does it without thinking about it. And for him that approach has worked magnificently. Mickey’s education has been show business ever since he busted out of his basinet at 17 months and pranced out onto the stage in the middle of his parents’ vaudeville act. The only formal education he had was at the little school for child actors on the MGM lot.
In “Last Night of a Jockey,” Grady’s alter ego torments him throughout the show’s first half, but then offers to grant him any wish. Grady ruminates on the possibilities and decides that he wants to be big. The sight of Rooney-Grady standing in the middle of the room, arms at his side, looking upward and with all his power shouting to the heavens “I want to be big” is truly moving. The second act opens with the sound of thunder and a flash of lightning as Grady wakes up. He wipes the sleep from his eyes and immediately senses something a little odd. He looks and sees his feet dangle over the end of the bed. He picks up the phone, and it disappears into his huge hand. He begins to giggle as he realizes this Swiftian turn to his life. He mumbles, “This is wild,” as he giggles with delight. He stands up and the room shrinks around him. He is big! The first thing he does is call up an old girlfriend who jilted him to let her know that he is a changed man. She rebuffs him again. She thinks he’s crazy when he tells her about his growth spurt — “I must be six, seven, eight feet tall. The Lakers will be scouting me soon.” She doesn’t buy it, and he hangs up in anger.
This being The Twilight Zone, the payoff comes when Grady gets a call from a racing official telling him there was a meeting of racing officials, who agreed that he should be reinstated. Grady is of course ecstatic at the news, but as soon as he hangs up the phone he hears his alter-ego cackling madly. It slowly dawns on Grady that he is now too big to be a jockey. Grady’s alter ego torments him further: “Your dreams were really quite small. Now if you wished to win the Kentucky Derby cleanly, that would have been something.” Grady staggers around the room in angry disbelief. He begins to trash the room like Godzilla on a rampage. He collapses in a heap on the floor crying in anguish, “I’m too big … I’m too big …”
Mickey didn’t even receive an Emmy nomination for stripping himself psychologically naked as Grady. Many of his performances were underappreciated at the time. Just a few years prior to The Twilight Zone episode, he gave one of his greatest performances in the biopic Baby Face Nelson. Director Don Siegel used Rooney’s lack of stature throughout the story. In one scene Nelson has a meeting with some gangsters in a playground. Rooney is sitting on a swing below a sign saying “children over 12 not allowed on swings.” But this low-budget movie did almost no business when it was released, and Rooney received bad reviews. Newsweek‘s movie critic wrote, “This one offers pocket-size, Puckish Mickey Rooney in the unlikeliest role of his career — that of Public Enemy No.1, vintage 1933. It is as incongruous as Edward G. Robinson playing Pinocchio.” But this movie is now considered a classic of the genre. David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film writes that it is one of the greatest performances in screen history and that it “achieves a fearful poetry because of Rooney’s seizure of part of his own appalling destiny.”
“Special thanks to Mickey Rooney. He said, ‘Kid, when the time comes to deliver, I’ll deliver’ and he sure did.”
— Corey Blechman, acceptance speech on winning an Emmy for his script for Bill
Rooney’s work in Bill is a masterpiece of physical acting. He said in an interview that everyone was telling him how to play the part of a mentally challenged man, but “I told them to shut up”; he pounds his chest, “I’ll do it from here.” There is a scene early in the movie when Barry Morrow (Dennis Quaid), who is doing a documentary on the real-life story of Bill Sachter, a mentally handicapped man who was warehoused with schizophrenics and people with every manner of mental impairment for forty-six years, has foolishly taken him back to Granville to see how he would react. When Barry goes on a tour of the institution, he leaves Bill with one of the patients he remembers from his decades there. Bill soon misses Barry and wanders off to try and find him. Barry becomes concerned when he comes back and finds him missing. He eventually locates Bill hiding in a corner and comforts him. Bill is frightened out of his wits and rushes back to Barry’s car. On the drive home Bill is sure he sees his sister, Sara, walking down the street and forces Barry to stop the car. Bill gets out and approaches the woman, who runs away. Bill follows her, calling Sara … Sara. He finally catches up to her, and she tells him she is not Sara and that her name is Ida. The look on Rooney’s (Bill’s) face reminded me in its total anguish of Munch’s The Scream. People talk about the actor’s mask; nowhere has it been more compelling to me than in that scene.
“We’re all just grown up little children making believe.”
— Mickey Rooney
One of the most remarkable things about Mickey Rooney is how he has been able to maintain an almost childlike emotional connection to performing. Film critic David Thomson has called it an almost “psychic identification with fantasy.” Nowhere is this childlike sensibility more evident than in his performance as Bill Sachter. He plays the character as if he were a child with very adult problems. We see this quality in the way he moves, walks, sits, and talks. There is a scene of Bill sitting on the floor with Barry’s young son, Clay, playing with a toy. Bill’s posture is that of a kid, with short legs outstretched on the floor. He pulls the string on the talking toy and bends toward Clay so they can both hear the message.
But Bill is not a child. He is an adult with severe limitations. When Barry and his wife have to move away to take another job, leaving Bill essentially where they found him, he is alone again. There is a scene with Bill on the phone trying to call Barry but getting confused by all the numbers. The operator tries to help him, but he keeps telling her different numbers. He is so pitiful trying to do a simple thing that we all take for granted. He has a pained look on his face as he struggles, and the operator finally tells him she can’t help him, and when he hangs up the phone his entire body sags with disappointment. He seems so much a child, but his pain is that of an adult failing at something he desperately wants to do — communicate with his friend. Bill walks with a limp because he has an ulcerated leg that was not taken care of at Granville. His gait is slow and then quickens, like a kid who doesn’t quite know what he wants to do and then all of a sudden remembers. He is hesitant when he speaks because as an adult he is self-conscious about his communication skills, but his words pour out quickly when he gets excited and feels secure with the person he is talking to. Rooney used all the skills he had acquired as an actor to, in essence, play a child. British director Anthony Page was at the helm of Bill
. Page’s background had been largely in the theater, but here he directs Rooney to a marvelously restrained performance that does justice to the story. It should be noted that the real Barry Morrow went on to win an Oscar for co-writing the story for Rain Man
. It has essentially the same theme as Bill
(am I my brother’s keeper), and Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for playing an autistic man. Rooney deservedly won an Emmy and Golden Globe for this, the greatest performance of his career. He went on to receive another Emmy nomination for the sequel, Bill on His Own.
The Mick has continued to work steadily since, which is a far cry from the period when he couldn’t find employment at all. Things at one time were so bad that he would actually take jobs appearing at parties for cash. Robert Osborne, one of the hosts of Turner Classic Movies, has interviewed Rooney for his show Private Screenings and has mentioned that he is surprised that Mickey has not received an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award or even a Kennedy Center Honor. Those awards have gone to actors whose careers and personal lives have not been so messy. As great as Rooney has been when working with good material, he has probably also been in more bad movies than any other major actor. Films like How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, and countless other bottom-billed drive-in movies don’t help when reviewing his body of work. He has been married eight times, and the boyfriend who did not like it when Rooney’s wife decided to go back to her husband murdered Rooney’s fifth wife. The killer of Barbara Rooney was a Yugoslav actor named Milos Milosevic, who then shot himself after the deed. This, of course, devastated Rooney but didn’t kill his insatiable desire to perform. A big part of the reason Mickey did so many bad movies was because he was in desperate financial straits. He had lots of alimony to pay over the decades, a gambling problem, and got involved in all kinds of crazy business ventures that included a mail-order Self-Study Acting Course and a food line headed by Mickey Rooney Macaroni. None of these business ventures panned out.
Mickey Rooney was awarded the Telluride Medal in 2005. Telluride is known as the American Cannes and to say that choosing Mickey Rooney for this prestigious award raised a few eyebrows is an understatement. Roger Ebert interviewed him for the tribute. The clips package that was shown included, of course, his work as a young man at MGM, the musicals with Judy, Andy Hardy films, and a few of his later dramatic roles. Telluride makes a specialty out of surprising its audiences with unexpected treasures, and in connection with Rooney’s tribute, the festival showed The Comedian, a 1957 live-on-TV Playhouse 90 drama written by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer (who called Rooney “the best actor I’ve ever worked with”). The video, recently released on DVD, is a revelation for anyone who identifies Rooney with Andy Hardy. The Comedian was rebroadcast in 1981 as part of an anthology series on PBS called The Golden Age of Television. An added bonus to the program were interviews with director Frankenheimer and surviving cast members Rooney, Kim Hunter, and Mel Torme.
The Comedian is a scathing portrait of the behind-the-scenes turmoil of putting on a weekly live comedy/variety series. Rooney plays Sammy Hogarth, the star of the show who browbeats everyone around him into submission. His favorite target is his weakling brother Lester (Mel Torme), whom he keeps around as a gofer and to be the butt of jokes in his weekly monologue. Lester has grown tired of the abuse — or rather his wife (Kim Hunter) has — and she has threatened to leave him if he doesn’t stand up for himself. Edmond O’Brien plays the dried-up head writer who in desperation uses the work of a dead colleague to infuse life into the show that by midweek was going nowhere. Lester finds out about the plagiarism and threatens to take this information to a columnist who is out to get Sammy unless the jokes at Lester’s expense are dropped from the monologue. The acting is superb from the entire cast, but it is Rooney who steals the show. His Sammy Hogarth is a despicable human being, but a recognizable one.
Mickey Rooney in BILL, 1981 – perhaps Rooney’s crowning achievement and a glimpse into his own troubled life.