Commences now another in the nine lives of Mickey Rooney, who is still in phase three of his amazing, daunting career: the beloved old hobbit phase that probably began with his splendid performance in "The Black Stallion" and continued, impressively, with his role in the recent TV movie "Bill." In "One of the Boys," the new NBC sitcom premiering at 8 tonight on Channel 4, Rooney is at his pushily lovable best, and he has been astutely teamed with another hale veteran, Scatman Crothers.
Perhaps Rooney is not universally irresistible; it's just that there is no longer any point in trying to resist him. He's safely in the legend class, and his clowning and camaraderie with Crothers is extremely appealing; this is a Super Bowl of ham, and so a fairly routine comic vehicle is elevated into a rarefied plaything, just right for bouncing on the national lap. Experience does count, after all.
Rooney plays Oliver Nugent, a 66-year-old forced retiree who lives with his grandson on a college campus. In the premiere, he knocks around looking for a part-time job, something useful and demanding to do (though he is advised to be content with "puttering"). He runs into Crothers, as Bernard, at an employment office, and soon, in the show's niftiest moment, the two of them team for a jaunty vaudeville rendition of "Ain't She Sweet," which is marred only by director Peter Baldwin's stupid refusal to get in close.
Jokes about Rooney's height are kept at a merciful minimum ("I'm not short; I'm just economically packaged") and while this is not an occasion for falling out of chairs and slapping the rug in hysterics, the script by Don Flynn is certainly more humane and less panicked than most sitcoms now on the air. Like "Love, Sidney," Rooney's show is taped in New York, and the absence of a frantically cackling L.A. audience is a highly positive influence.
As the grandson, Dana Carvey underplays compatibly, but Nathan Lane's line readings are too formula-snide as he plays the kid's roommate, who doesn't like Oliver and reels off sub-par insult jokes about him. It's very forced friction, and not amusing, and you keep wishing Rooney would belt the kid. Producers are in error when they think a sitcom must have abrasive rat-a-tat to be funny, but Rooney and Crothers still succeed in keeping the show breezy and infectious. Ain't it sweet!