By: Sandi Durell
I had the honor of interviewing Mickey Rooney in September 2010 prior to his 90th birthday and below appears that interview with many personal photos sent to me, by his wife Jan, spanning Mickey’s illustrious career, along with photos taken at the birthday celebration.
The two time Academy Award winning legend Mickey Rooney died at the age of 93 on April 6th 2014. He was 18 months old when he first appeared in his parents’ vaudeville act. Born Joe Yule Jr., he took the name Mickey Rooney when he was 7 and it was at this age that he appeared in his first film, changing his life forever.
As the Andy Hardy character that began in his teens in 1937 (A Family Affair), he went on to play him in 14 more films, making him a top box office star. Mickey was 5’ 3” tall and worked with every leading lady imaginable including Elizabeth Taylor (National Velvet), numerous times with Judy Garland, as well as Audrey Hepburn.
He was nominated for an Oscar as a teenager after “Boys Town” (1938), garnering 4 other nominations. He appeared on Television in numerous shows (1954-2009), winning an Emmy for the movie “Bill” and 2 Golden Globes. He was married multiple times.
September 2010, Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency celebrated Mickey’s 90th Birthday with his wife Jan and an all star cast of celebrities during two evenings to packed audiences. Michael Feinstein presented the birthday cake to Mickey while Donald Trump read a special Proclamation.
MICKEY & JAN ROONEY: Self-Titled The Bickersons!
By: Sandi Durell (appeared in Cabaret Scenes Magazine Sept. 2010 )
What do Mickey and Jan Rooney generally fight about? “Oh everything. What program we should watch on TV; Mickey yelling, “You’ve got that damn CNN and Fox on again, that’s all you ever watch.” Jan retorting “All you ever watch is NBC… It goes on and on and on,” says Jan.
Well that’s not half bad after 36 years together and having just celebrated 32 years of marriage. Jan is the eighth, and, evidently, the last of Mickey Rooney’s wives.
Aptly self-dubbed *The Bickersons, Jan manages the relationship, “By doing your homework. He’s a character and can be a rascal, that’s what I call him. But we keep humming along together. Sure he can be pie-in-the sky, living in a fantasy, but there are two sides to this man and I prefer living with the down to earth side.”
They met at a barbeque in 1974 at the home of a mutual friend where Jan saw Mickey sitting at a piano playing some beautiful jazz. She sat down next to him and started humming along. Jan is an accomplished singer, yet despite her mellifluous tones, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. Mickey is nearly 20 years her senior. “I never would have married him but for the fact that I saw he was truly a family man and very down to earth. That’s what caught my eye.”
Jan grew up in a strict, somewhat sheltered environment and even taught Sunday school, a vast contrast in their lifestyles. Jan says that some of their first dates would be on a Sunday. “We would go to Church and then to the racetrack!”
This surprisingly old fashioned guy with “traditional values” didn’t start out that way considering his Hollywood legendary status and all that comes with it. In his own autobiography, Life Is Too Short, a reference to his diminutive 5’3” stature, he describes “The normal young man’s fantasies” and years of unattached sexual encounters. He writes, “Milton Berle showed me the ropes. It was he who took me to my first brothel,” the famed T&M Studio where the ladies were look-alikes for Hollywood starlets.
Born Joe Yule, Jr. in 1920, it seems as if Mickey Rooney slipped out of his mother’s womb singing and dancing. In fact, he made his stage debut at 18 months of age in his family’s vaudeville act, going on to perform in a series of short film comedies as the tough little Mickey McGuire. His mother even changed his legal name to Mickey McGuire! He was just 6 old when he appeared in Universal’s The Information Kid, the studio demanding he needed a new image and Mickey became Rooney.
But today Mickey Rooney is an adherent Christian. His religion is a central part of who he is and how he lives his life every day. “I try to be a gentleman to everybody,” Mickey tells me.
Jan was the push behind Mickey Rooney continuing to do what he does best – pleasing others. Mickey had tried other business ventures that were not as successful as his astonishing film career. Jan recalls, “That’s when The Bickersons were really at it.”
The two, individually and together, had many creative ideas that did not come to fruition. Jan Chamberlin was a country singer, working with a VP at Atlantic Records who suggested she record with big current artists like Steely Dan. “As we moved along in my career, he decided I should be singing Patsy Cline songs. I said I’d give it a try. People would come from all over to hear me sing.”
She came up with the idea to do the Patsy Cline life story. “I was able to contact her late husband Charlie and we went to Nashville to put together ideas for a movie. I was singing some of those songs at a party and someone from a film studio got wind of the fact that we were planning on doing her life story.” The idea was stolen and the part was given to a then budding starlet, Jessica Lange, who played Patsy Cline on film in Sweet Dreams where she was nominated for an Oscar in 1985. “She was the most fabulous actress,” Jan says graciously, but then follows that up with, “Jessica mimed the songs. It was heartbreaking to me.”
Jan decided her best bet was to focus on Mickey and his career. A good move considering their successes having made several films together including the multi award winning The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams.
When Mickey got on the phone I said, “Jan describes your relationship as The Bickersons,” to which he responded “Yes, everybody has to scramble once in a while, but we love each other.” “Do you know I made 362 pictures?” says icon Mickey Rooney, a remarkable number indeed, and Mickey assures me that it is. “Nobody else has made that many.”
Reminiscing with Mickey about some of his favorite films, he immediately recounts his top five: Black Stallion (1979), Bridges at Toko-Ri (1956), National Velvet (1949), Boys Town (1938) with Spencer Tracy and Young Tom Edison (1940). “I learned so much. You can’t believe the history of that man!” Mickey had a very close friendship with Wallace Beery. “We made only one picture together (Slave Ship, 1937) but we went to Chasen’s, talked about the business and how it was changing. A lot of people thought he was rough, but that’s not true. He walked the way he did because his bunions hurt. He was a real gentleman off screen, kind and gentle. His first wife was Gloria Swanson, you know.”
Mickey’s many natural talents are impressive. He never had acting or piano lessons, yet he was adept at both. When pressed about it he is modest and somewhat philosophical “I just did them.”
In 1963, Rooney filmed “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” with a bunch of his friends who he said made him laugh the most – Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Sid Casear – “They were funny people. They were class.”
Mickey is open about most things except one. Judy Garland. She was, admittedly, a difficult topic. “She was a wonderful entertainer, made 9 musicals. . .Girl Crazy, Words and Music. . . Unfortunately we lost Judy. Judy was a very unhappy girl. She wanted to get married. . . Vincent Minelli . . . I don’t want to get into it.” But he quickly changes the subject to another legend he knew. “You know I discovered Marilyn Monroe at a trumpet player’s house” says Mickey. “There was an actress, a long time ago, Marilyn Miller, and I wrote some scripts with a friend, Monroe Manning. Norma Jean was on the phone and asked me “what’s my name” and I gave her the name Marilyn Monroe. Well, you know I had three names!”
Mickey was always generous with young talent. In the 1950’s, he appeared with a young Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen on the David Susskind Show. He was backstage when Barbra confided she was concerned about her nose. Mickey told her not to be, that her nose was beautiful and to keep it the way it is, saying “Nothing will get in your way.”
References to his many marriages elicited the response “I was lonesome. It had nothing to do with sex. I married too early.” “Tell me about Ava Gardner,” to which he replied “Oh, I was too young. . . she was 20. We didn’t have a chance. I was looking for someone who would give me a life, give me a reason for living.” “She was very beautiful. I’m sure you couldn’t resist,” I said. Mickey answered “Everybody searches but I was lucky. I found the woman who really cares about me.” (referring to Jan). That relationship is as romantic as it is productive.
More recently, he and Jan completed filming “The Nightclub” with Ernest Borgnine and Sally Kellerman and they are also working on a reality show with Ben Stiller (Rooney was in “Night at the Museum” with Stiller).
Nowadays he adores his time with his two grandchildren, Harrison and Hunter. Both children belong to Christopher, Jan’s son. Yet despite no biological connection, Jan says that Harrison at age 6 looks and acts so much like Mickey, composing songs at the piano and performing for Grandpa. Hunter, age 8, is the brain and little genius of the family. Mickey, having had 10 children, has many other grandchildren living far and wide who they love dearly but, unfortunately, don’t get to see often.
Mickey Rooney is a living legend and an American treasure. Together with the love of his life, Jan, he will be offering up endearing tales from over 85 years of a very unique show business life with songs and a multi media presentation in “Let’s Put On A Show” Don’t miss them at Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency in New York on September 19th and 20th in an exclusive engagement in honor of Mickey’s 90th Birthday.
The most important thing Mickey wants his fans to know about him is “I’m grateful, thank you.”
*The Bickersons was a radio comedy sketch series, 1946-1951, with Don Ameche & Frances Langford.
*Photos/Video: Magda Katz