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.