Mickey Rooney can't remember the name of one of his ex-wives. It is Martha something. Not Martha Raye, dammit. What the hell is it? He bites his lip. Martha . . . Martha. He is drawing a blank. "Dammit, she was in 'The Big Sleep.' She died about five years ago. My son Teddy came from that marriage."
Ah, he has it. Martha Vickers. He seizes on the name, bolting forward on the couch like a bounce-back toy with a weighted bottom you go ka-pow to. "She was my third, I think. Lovely lady."
There's a gator on his web belt and another on his purple polo shirt. Alas, he is wearing white socks. As he talks he jams a ballpoint in his ear. His specs are shoved up on the pink pate. There's a copper bracelet on one wrist, a huge watch on the other. The features have thickened, the face is a moon, the mop has thinned to a string of white fringe. Though the body has gone haunchy and potbellied, the spirit seems spry as a mongoose. Blink and it's Andy Hardy tossing his fedora on the back seat of his pop's roadster so he can make out with Polly Benedict.
This is an American story, full of love and squalor. He is 61 and he has been in the business 59 years. He has had eight wives. He has made vast fortunes and lost them. He is a man who made it to the summit before he was 20, and to the River Styx before he was 40. He has gone from No. 1 box-office draw in the world to walk-ons in two-reeler beach movies. At the top of his first roll he got more mail than Clark Gable or Robert Taylor. And now, four decades later, born again to his fans as well as to God, round, broad in the beam, cocky but mellowed, too, what we have is Rooney Redux, Rooney in his second circle.
6:45 p.m., a cold, cruddy Monday on the Great White Way. Where else would a true fan wish Mickey Rooney to be sitting but in funnels of frowsy light in a dressing room on Broadway? Another day, another buck, another show. This one is not out in the barn. This one is in the Mark Hellinger theater, and the house will be howling tonight again at the top banana of "Sugar Babies." The show hit its 1,000th performance on Feb. 28, and who knows, maybe they'll never close the damn thing. Rooney is rumored to be making more than $20,000 a week from the show (there are other reports it is far in excess of $20,000), plus a percentage of the profits. Garland is gone and Ronald Reagan is in the White House, but Rooney troupes on. He is Broadway's sugar baby, the grinch who stole hearts and eight wives. Curtain goes up in 75 minutes.
Behind him there is a tiny tapping. It's the steam in the radiators starting to come up. Pay it no mind, he instructs: part of the atmosphere. Presently the tap will be a hellacious clang and bang, symphony for a fireplug.
Mickey Rooney loves talking about Mickey Rooney in the third person. Maybe it's a twist on the papal we.It goes like this: "Rooney used to listen to a lot of people, but now he only listens to one--God."
Or: "Rooney was never meant to be a leading man. He's always been a short, energetic kind of guy who faced up to every sort of misery thrown at him. Now the first mountain came too early. Rooney was a kid. Rooney thought he was king. He threw himself around. And the attitude was, 'Who is this fresh punk who thinks he's king of the mountain? Let us get him down off the mountain.' Even when they got him down off the mountain, there was never a time when Rooney was out of work. I was just a very famous has-been. You want to know what the down period was? Here was the down period: 'What are we going to do with this short, balding man who won't leave us alone? He's never going to play opposite Deborah Kerr. But where does he belong in the scheme of things?'
"I believe there are a lot of Andy Hardys still left out there, a lot of Polly Benedicts," says Mickey Rooney. "Oh, sure, that will sound saccharine in print, but I don't care. I just love this country. The catastrophic conditions of our country cry out. We are in violent need for a laugh. I just cried when my great friend Ron Reagan got elected president. And now his critics are starting to devour him, you say. Well, that's all right . . . because he devours them. The moment the wolves start baying and the dikes start breaking, this man . . . thrives."
Mickey and the prez were never like that in Hollywood, you understand. But just a little while ago Rooney got a personal message from Reagan. The president wanted to know the secret of "my incredible energy." Not so much of a secret, really. When you've been "on" all your life (he toddled onto the boards with a rubber cigar in his mouth when he was barely a year old, claim the mythmakers), there are gigantic needs for love, holes to be filled up.
The Rooney renaissance, as his publicist might call it, started several years ago. He's on Broadway, he's on TV, he's in the movies. He gets Tony nominations and Oscar nominations. He has fast-food franchises and something called Talentown, U.S.A., at the moment one on each coast. He soft-talks love and Jesus on talk shows. He dreams of starting a university in his own name. (When you ask where and when, he says, "That's a hypotheticism.") He's writing his life story, negotiated, he says, at big bucks by agent Swifty Lazar. "I got the same deal Steinbeck had." The story will be told from the vantage point of a man standing in the footlights while an orchestra plays the overture to "Sugar Babies."
Through it all, like a Sinatra song, he has done it his way: big promise. Failed dream. Bigger recovery. His is the kind of schmaltzy show-biz parable Americans have always been crazy for. If Mick made it back, can't we all? He is an American gargantua-type, at 5 feet 3. He is part of our culture and kitsch, as much as Hula-Hoops, Gene Autry, Grable's legs. Rooney, why the name itself provokes grins. He has long been with us, though to a forgiving public, apparently not long enough.
His greatest role, of course, was as Andy Hardy. Can it be possible he began playing it 45 years ago? The film was a 1937 MGM release called "The Family Affair." It was about a small-town judge named Hardy and his Tom Sawyer son named Andy. To a country climbing out of a depression, Andy Hardy, the boy next door, was faith, hope, and goodness itself. It was the perfect Hollywood illusion, for there was nothing either small-town or boy-next-door about Rooney's own life.
In a sense, the Mickey Rooney story is all there in the clips, at least the gaudy version that has served as one of our national paps. HOLLYWOOD, May 2, 1943: "For the second time in nine months Ava Gardner today filed suit for divorce from pint-sized actor Mickey Rooney." (In the accompanying wirephoto, Mick mugs maniacally.)
BIRMINGHAM, Sept. 30, 1944: "Mickey Rooney, motion picture actor now a private in the army, and Miss Betty Jane Rase, the Miss Birmingham of 1944, were married here this afternoon after a whirlwind courtship of less than a week."
HOLLYWOOD, June 4, 1949: "Mickey Rooney married Martha Vickers today and commented on his third marriage: 'If this one doesn't work there must be something wrong with me.'"
"HALF-PINT TAKES A FIFTH" bled a New York tabloid in the amber of another newspaper day.
LOS ANGELES, June 12, 1962: "Mickey Rooney, broke after earning $12 million in 30 years of show business, filed a bankruptcy petition in U.S. bankruptcy court here yesterday."
So is he bitter about this heady roller-coaster ride of his life, about the national historic trust for Mickey Rooney marriage-and-height jokes? ("Rooney's always the last to know when it rains." Or: "The only man in America whose marriage license is made out 'to whom it may concern.' ") It's a little like asking a man if he's happy. Yes and no and maybe. "I could have been president of the United States had I not been married so many times," he says without the least hint of joke in his voice.
And later: "I could have lived with eight women, huh? However, I chose to do the moral thing and marry them. By the way, I never paid any alimony in my life. Never mind what you've read. That's because I married ladies, not trollops. I've paid a lot of child support, true. But I've played that alimony thing like a Jack Benny joke."
Yet ask him about Judy Garland, his old playing partner out in the barn, and Mickey Rooney grows tender. "I never think of her as gone. I often hear her talking to me. You know, we used to dream about being on Broadway together. Judy and I were here in New York once. We played the Palace. That was in 1940. She sang with the Georgie Stoll orchestra. There were 11 blocks of fans, nine wide, lined up at 7:30 in the morning. They were waiting for the 9:30 a.m. show. We used to do 10 a day. Did you hear what I said? ELEVEN BLOCKS OF PEOPLE, NINE WIDE."
He is off the sofa talking just noses from the visitor's face.
Mickey and Judy never married. In a sense they were closer than that. When Judy and Mickey hit New York, 80,000 lovesick fans waited and cried at Grand Central Station. At least this is how he remembers it.
Mickey musing. Maybe Judy's just playing in another show. Maybe she's in dressing room B. Maybe she'll turn up in tonight's show.
"When I did a personal appearance in Oklahoma City there were 100,000 people waiting to meet me, plus the University of Oklahoma band. Did you hear what I said? A BAND. Here I am, a normal guy who's never been to Oklahoma, putting on my pants one leg at a time, going to the bathroom like anybody else. I thought all along it was going to last."
Pause. "Actors and actresses are just grown-up little children. The only family I've ever really known outside my mother is an audience." It isn't said sadly, but it sounds sad.
Deft shift of voice, of gear. He has moved from the studio moguls, from the jackal columnists who rarely understood him, rarely printed the whole story. He is back to softness. The voice is purring up against your pants like a cat. "Oh, how I've put up shows in the barn, and how many times they've collapsed. You see--and I think you'll agree with me here--I believe God chastises those he loves very much. I'm much more content with Rooney now. I like him better at 61 than I did at 19. There is that wonderful word called timing. God has given a 61-year-old, short, balding man another chance."
Ah, says the visitor, we're talking internal success.
"That's wholly true." With both hands he draws a small neat invisible circle. "That's wholly true."
Back to the studio moguls. He is talking about the great star Jimmy Cagney, and how he once won a battle of wills for more money with the calloused studio heads. Cagney was the biggest there was when he walked out. "And who do you think caved in, huh? Every stockholder in the joint was on his knees screaming, 'Give it to him, give it to him!' " (He is down on one knee, miming a panic-stricken stockholder.) "That's what Judy and I should have done. We should have gone right into Louis B. Mayer and said, 'Mr. Mayer, Judy and I are going to walk out unless you put $20 million in the bank. You're not going to give it to us? Well, sir, we'll just have to go out and put on a show.' "
Mickey Rooney could be said to fit into an American type: The star who shone too soon and didn't know what to do with success. The culture is replete with names who burnt like comets too early across the firmament: James Dean, Janis Joplin, Bix Beiderbecke, Jimi Hendrix, Montgomery Clift and, most recently, John Belushi, their talent and miseries mixed as one. Call it the cult of the failure of success. But Rooney, as with a handful of others, had a second act. He had four or five second acts. F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn't have been dreaming of a Mickey Rooney when he said there are no second acts in American lives.
"Yeah, well, I blew hell out of his story, didn't I?"
"Sugar Babies" reincarnated Rooney in his fifth decade in the business. But so did the film "Black Stallion," in which Rooney played a broken-down horse trainer with some grit and heart left. The role got him an Academy Award nomination. "It was the most beautifully photographed movie I've ever seen. I think it was a change-up for Coppola after 'Apocalypse Now,' which tore his heart out." Recently, on TV, Rooney showed his serious side, and emotional power, in a movie about retardation called "Bill." Ask him if it's his most serious role and he says: "Yeah, in the last couple of years."
Tony Buonauro, the star's dresser, opens the door holding Rooney's costume. Part of his getup is a fire-engine-red union suit. Rooney rises, still talking, peeling from the polo shirt, the pants. "No, no, no, stay where you are. I'll let you know." He gets down to his jockey shorts. He is pink and hairy and unabashed. He won't wear makeup for the show. "It takes me 40 seconds to get ready. Out there's where I live."
Less than 50 seconds to curtain. He'll make it easy.
Out the door: "I've got these Talentown schools, y'know? We'll take them in at 3 years old, teach them piano, dance, TV, videotape. It'll be great. Can you imagine 'Othello' put on by 15-year-olds? I've made Tony here my president."
He is being ushered by the arm. Exit Rooney, still talking, still mugging. The orchestra is in its overture. In seconds the only thing left down the dusky hall is the echo of an eager, irrepressible, ever-American voice writing the last chapters of a big autobiography.