Monday, April 7, 2014

Hollywood Stamina: A Few Words About Mickey Rooney


One of the great things about starting in entertainment news with The Hollywood Reporter in 2001 was that the magazine itself was a legacy publication that had been around as long as the luminaries who used to make its pages from the start. As I started gaining more and more entrĂ©e to the awards and event circuits on behalf of the magazine, it was always a huge pleasure to meet and shake hands with Hollywood’s legends, people who may not be getting the daily headlines but were Still Here - people who knew there was really nothing new under the sun. The formats may have changed and the technology with which to view it, but as I always say: ‘Same popcorn, different box.’

     I last saw and talked to Mickey Rooney in the winter of 2003, leading up to the Oscars at The Kodak Theater. Hollywood was going throwback with the upcoming Oscar show, eschewing red carpet spectacle and what-are-they-wearing kitsch in solidarity with the rest of the country as the Iraq War loomed.

     The event was at The Hollywood & Highland complex in a new restaurant-bar and somewhat informal. It felt more like a fast rest area from the six-month grind that is every awards season. I took stock of the room, picking a point to start a clockwise revolution around the room, shaking hands, handing out business cards for editorial news, checking in with talent and heading home after a 12-hour shift.

     I saw an Oscar-nominated actress of another decade having a drink. She’d been to THR’s Wilshire Blvd. editorial offices before, which is how I knew her. She’d been in the acting game long enough to not take much too seriously and I was a fan of her nominated work and episodic ‘70s TV appearances. She asked me about work and I asked her about the upcoming Oscar ceremony. This wasn’t an interview, just conversation, so I asked if she was ready for the truncated red carpet?

“I’m STILL walking the red carpet, dear! I don’t care, war or no war – why should I not be able to wear and show off my bee-yoooo-tiful dress?!”
“And if there’s no red carpet?” I asked.
“Then I’ll just stay home! I mean, what would be the point?” 

     Uh..solidarity with the audience not even two years after 9/11? Layoffs, a war-time economy not affording most people the luxury of five-figure one-time wearables? 

     I didn’t say any of this, just listened and smiled. She wasn’t buying Hollywood’s momentary tasteful moment  for one solitary second, at least on the surface.

“Karl, I want you to meet someone!” she said, leading me over to a seated older man whose feet rested above the floor. “Mickey, I want you to meet someone. Karl this is Mickey Rooney. Mickey, this is Karl Gibson and he’s from The Hollywood Reporter.”

     In less than two seconds, the 82-year old Rooney was on his feet in one upright movement and reached over and shook my hand. It still is the firmest handshake I’ve every received from a man, the kind that squeezes your entire hand to the wrist and could pop your arm off at the socket from sheer pressure. I was impressed enough with that, much less to meet a man who’d been around since I could remember turning on a TV.

    We shook hands and I sat down and talked with him for a short while. It’d been 76 years since he started in the business and I found him fascinating. A short, weathered fireplug of a man, I remember being extremely impacted by so much that Rooney represented professionally. 

     Here was a guy who’d seen every ‘disruption’ in the business there was: sound in films, color in films, a multitude of wars (he served in World War II), TV, cable, VCRs, DVD players, TiVo…and more... and he was still working. Did he want to be relegated to loopy characters or America’s jubilant grandpa? It didn’t matter, he was working. I was 33 years old at the time and had started as a stage actor at scale at 14 – no stranger to the basic existential concerns of anyone trying to work and maintain hard-earned credibility in what is an angst-ridden business for many. Mickey Rooney had tasted plenty of success, earned it. 

     Sure, he’d been a box-office star who’d been the top of his era’s A-list for a moment in time, but for many of the decades he’d not been... and he still kept working. All I could think was ‘Imagine 50 more years of this!?' That's a lot in any media profession: remaining viable, supporting your lifestyle, keeping yourself and your family taken care of no matter the paradigm shifts and maturation of subsequent audiences wanting to see their own stars get their moment.

    I remember A.C. Lyles, the long-standing Paramount producer, telling me in 2009 about coming to Hollywood on a train from Florida because he’d fallen in love with the movies via the film Wings. He wrote letters to Paramount from Florida, looking for any minor job he could get and ended up taking a train to Hollywood and being given a candy vendor job on the studio lot. Lyles was just two years older than Mickey Rooney,  by then studio royalty, and he said it was Mickey Rooney who took an interest in him, saw to it that he could get rides to Rooney’s home and start mixing with Hollywood’s younger power crowd. He recalled Rooney’s generosity, comparing his tutelage under Rooney with that of someone coming to town and being shown the ropes by someone of Tom Cruise’s influence. Lyles’ recollection was one of the surprising generosity that someone at the top of their game can extend to someone with the same passion but no connections.

     Back to the 2003 Oscar party: I left the event incredibly impressed by Mickey Rooney, because his professional trajectory is what many of us can expect if we’re fortunate to make a lifetime working and living in a business that we love. To many of my peers whom I told of meeting him, there was some polite laughter - Mickey Rooney? - the one who’d been a magnet of some of the town’s legendary beauties (Ava Gardner!), the marriages, the drama, growing old, a skosh daffy.

     All I saw was a man who knew this industry in his sleep, who knew the possibilities behind a routine handshake, had an interest in people who wanted to produce material he could have a role in. Someone who wanted to work. It takes stamina, humility, and a hell of a lot of common sense and I am glad to have met him. I have many heroes I've been fortunate to have the professional occasion to meet - Hollywood's legends of the past, the many African-American musicians and actors who remember closets as dressing rooms and entering through the back door, segregated casting agencies and worse.  They're survivors and they remember history. Mickey Rooney's story was different, but he worked his ass off and you have to admire the kind of hustle and nerves that takes in a business that requires constant momentum.

    You won’t see a star like Mickey Rooney anytime soon. Eight decades spent working in this business deserves props, no matter how you slice it. Rest in peace, Mickey. Ya did good, kid.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

L.A. On The Real, Vol. 1: Christmas In Babylon

Preface: This is a true story. Names have been changed, of course, but nothing else!


     It's December 23, 1996 - I've been in Los Angeles for 9 days by way of the East Coast and a nine-year theatrical career in Chicago. I have a roommate, in these early days, and we don't even have a refrigerator at this time (Note to future settlers: refrigerators don't come standard with L.A. apartments)I'm living in Los Feliz and it's Christmas season, doesn't  remotely feel that way; it's in the '70s weather-wise and most of the folks in the hills are in St. Barts, the East Coast, or the Midwest (quiet as it's kept).  

     A present to myself is that I've finally made the move to Los Angeles and the sky's the limit. I'm unaware that my five-year plan will not come to pass until the fourth year and eleventh month of those 5 years, but that's the hustle: keep at it 100% until you get in.

     The roommate comes in this Dec. 23rd afternoon and says we've scored an invite to a Hollywood producer's house in the hills for Christmas dinner. He seems to not believe our luck. We'd be stupid not to go. 

     My Afro-Scandinavian practicality and logic makes me question the largesse of such an invite. Producer X doesn't know us, but he is inviting us to Christmas dinner. Why? My roommate is older than I am, definitely handsome, and he's an actor, too. Producers like actors for the most part, and even if they don't, it's their business to keep an eye out for them. Maybe this is an in-road for my roomie? I've been invited out of politesse, I'm assuming, but it's still very considerate. I'm reading a Bruce Wagner novel at that moment, so this ought to be interesting.
Christmas with industry vets!

     My buddy/roommate tells me what Producer X told him: Producer X worked at Paramount in the early '70s during the Robert Evans-era, in legal, before segueing into producing with TV movies in the late '70s and mid-'80s. He's semi-retired now, a Black man who's made it in a tough industry that is far less color-blind than most of its consumers could ever wrap their heads around.

      He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - feel free to look at it anytime. It's one of those stars you look at and don't know who he is, but he has one. He likes meeting other newcomers and, if he can be of any helpful advice, would like to get to know us and break bread. He's gay, nothing earth-shattering in Los Angeles, where sexuality is either one of three F's: financial, fluid, or fixed (wherever one determines they fall on the Kinsey scale). This is the intel Producer X shares.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Exhibit K: Kenan Thompson Said What?

     1998: I've just finished a show at The Tamarind Theater on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles (now the theater for Uprights Citizens Brigade) and my godparents came to the show. Both theater producers, they surprised me with dinner in Beverly Hills at an Industry eatery with late hours. We got seated, me looking at the photos of celebrities and iconic one-sheets lining the walls. We have a nice table and it's all good since I've still got on stage makeup and a wall of screaming bleached hair. The table next to us is empty until Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell are seated next to us.

      They're both 17 years at the time and have a couple of young lady friends with them. They're working teenagers with a TV series and, for the moment, like any giddy high-school age teens, except with more money. I clandestinely asked if my table could be moved. Not for any other reason than my table was talking pretty blue and it's awkward partying next to...teenagers! I'm 27 years old at this point and it's just odd, nothing personal. I'm sure they're cool but they're goofy and young and with our tables thisclose it feels like being at the kiddie table. There's no free tables so I sit next to them, silently happy for their success. They're Nickelodeon stars...and Black!...and God knows when I was of Nickelodeon age there was only like one Black kid on the whole thing, inYou Can't Do That On Television, so Keenan and Kel must be rock stars -and there's two of them in one cast. Wow! As an actor, casting is never as blind as thought, so there's progress.

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