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Mickey Rooney: Always chasing applause

By Rich Heldenfels Published: April 7, 2014

"I will always be leading the cheers for life, and I hope that's the way people will always see me and remember me, as a cheerleader for life, out there in front of the crowd with a megaphone in my hand. ... But if I energize people, people in turn energize me. Applause got me started, it kept me going through my bad days, and it keeps me going still."

                                      -- Mickey Rooney, in his memoir "Life Is Too Short," 1991

Mickey Rooney could be a remarkable performer, not to mention the Man of a Thousand Comebacks. He was Andy Hardy, and Judy Garland's screen partner; decades later, he reminded people what he could do in "The Black Stallion," and dazzled stage audiences with "Sugar Babies," and won an Emmy in "Bill." But he was always looking for more: more love (he married eight times and claimed affairs with Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner and Norma Shearer), more respect ("LIfe's Too Short" is full of references to his movies' success), more applause. Between TV and movie roles, he would tour constantly, making more than one trip to NE Ohio, even if the work itself wasn't great. In the middle of one poorly chosen show, he said to a local audience, "I gave up 'Sugar Babies' for this?"

While his longing had its high points -- he also won an honorary Oscar -- it became more than a little sad in his later years. I saw that in 1990, when Rooney met the press to promote a TV series derived from "The Black Stallion" for what was then the Family Channel. At least, "Black Stallion" was supposed to be the reason for the press conference. Rooney used it to pitch a long list of other programs for the channel: a series where he would play Thomas Edison (he had played the inventor as a young man half a century earlier), another as Billy Sunday, an animated series called "Lucky the Leprechaun," an interracial comedy, a reality show ... on and on he went, unaware that the reporters present were stunned -- especially when he talked up a comedy called "Wait Till the Swelling Goes Down," about a man married to a champion woman wrestler. (If he said "Niagara Falls," she would throw him out the window.)

Rooney was full of ideas. A Family Channel executive in the room was full of amusement, since there was no deal for any of these shows, and the press conference was the first time Rooney had even pitched them. While "Wait Till the Swelling Goes Down" became a running punchline for some of us, the spectacle as a whole was quite depressing, an often fine actor off on a desperate tangent.

And some 15 years later, it happened again. PBS was promoting a show about TV pioneers. Carl Reiner was on the pane, and Sid Caesar, Red Buttons, Rose Marie -- and Mickey Rooney, for reasons that were not clear beyond his deciding to show up. And it did not go well at first. As I wrote at the time:

With his wife loudly applauding almost every time he spoke -- Rooney pontificated, reminisced and generally tried to steal the show from the other show-biz veterans.

At one point, when a reporter asked about Milton Berle and Fred Allen, Rooney said, ''Can I answer that?''

"I would be amazed if you didn't,'' a weary Reiner interjected.

Buttons finally save the day, needling Rooney and taking control of the press conference with his own jokes and impressions. Buttons knew how to play the room in a way Rooney no longer did. And while many of us left that room impressed by what Buttons had done -- at the age of 86, no less -- unspoken was how badly Rooney had failed.

It should not have been that way. In another time, Rooney might have been the one to read the room, to figure out what would play -- and to grab applause that he could cherish long after the session was over. After all, he had done it enough times before. But since the need never stopped, sometimes Rooney could not even stop himself.

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