When It Comes to Mickey Rooney, I’m With Marlon Brando: Rooney Was Underrated. Here’s Why

Apr 7, 2014

Marlon Brando, who knew something about acting, wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me”: “As I’ve observed before, acting talent alone doesn’t make an actor a star. It takes a combination of qualities: looks, personality, presence, ability. Like Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo wasn’t much of an actress, but she had presence. She probably played the same character in every film she ever made, but she was beautiful and had an unusual personality.

“Mickey Rooney, on the other hand, is an unsung hero of the actors’ world. He never become a leading man — he was too short, his teeth weren’t straight and he didn’t have sex appeal. But like Jimmy Cagney, he could do almost anything.”

The late James Agee, who may have been the toughest movie critic I have ever read — when he was writing columns about the movies for The Nation magazine in the 1940s — wrote this in 1944: “I am quite sure about Mickey Rooney: He is an extremely wise and moving actor, and if I am ever again tempted to speak disrespectfully of him, that will be in anger over the unforgivable waste of a forceful yet subtle talent, proved capable of self-discipline and of the hardest roles …”

Four years later, in 1948, Agee wrote about “Killer McCoy,” which was Rooney’s first adult role. Rooney plays the "Killer" of the title, a boxer. Agee said he found the film “almost … likable,” though he also said it was “a harmless, worthless movie about prize-fighting” — I told you Agee was tough. However, about Rooney’s role in “Killer McCoy,” Agee nailed it when he called it “a coolly magical performance.”

The late director John Frankenheimer worked with some of the finest actors ever, from Burt Lancaster to Robert De Niro, from Frederic March to Robert Ryan. Yet it was of Rooney that Frankenheimer said he was “the best actor I ever worked with.”

Frankenheimer was specifically talking about Rooney’s performance in a classic 1957 “Playhouse 90” program titled ‘The Comedian.” The teleplay was by Rod Sterling, who adapted an original story by Ernest Lehman. Rooney played the title role, a comic named Sammy Hogarth, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. Rooney’s kinetic, manic portrayal is spot on, as in his mania we fully understand both his cruelty and his insecurity.

The critic David Thomson, in the 2002 version of his “New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” writes about the actor, “Do we laugh or cry for Rooney? … Mickey Rooney is important, and yet he is ridiculous … .”

I think a lot of people have thought that about Rooney, though, most probably, few have even thought of him at all in recent years. Rooney died yesterday, April 6, 2014, at the age of 93. I must add, I was a fan, and, like Brando, always thought Rooney was underrated. No doubt that was because of the many “Andy Hardy” movies Rooney made at MGM in the late 1930s and early 1940s. And while Brando says Rooney never became a “leading man” in the same sense as a Clark Gable or a Gary Cooper, during Rooney’s heyday at MGM he was “one of the most popular stars in the world,” as Thomson notes.

Thomson cites three of Rooney’s performances in particular that show him off “not just [as] an actor of genius, but an artist able to maintain a stylized commentary on the demon impulse of the small, belligerent man," Thomson writes. Those three performances are as Puck in the 1935 version of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” as Whitely Marsh in “Boy’s Town” (1938), and as the title character in the 1957 cult favorite “Baby Face Nelson.”

baby_face_nelson_xlg.jpgThat last is one of my Rooney favorites, as is the noirish “Quicksand” from 1950, which you can watch on YouTube.

In a later role, his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Black Stallion,” Rooney is superb. That family film, by the way — one of the most stunningly photographed movies of the late 1970s — just came out on Blu-ray last month.

Another must-see Rooney performance is as a horse jockey named Grady in “The Last Night of a Jockey,” which was first shown in the fifth and final season of “The Twilight Zone” in 1963. [Update at 11 a.m., PT on 4-7-2014. Me-TV has announced that as a tribute to Rooney it will be showing this episode of "The Twilight Zone" tonight at 11 p.m. ET/PT, 10 p.m. CT.]

I want to end with this anecdote about Rooney that I have told before. I first read about it in the 2005 autobiography of producer William Froug, tiled "How I Escaped from 'Gilligan's Island': Adventures of a Hollywood Writer-Producer." Froug produced the “Twilight Zone” episode that starred Rooney. 

And Froug produced an earlier program that starred Rooney. The year was 1958, and Froug was producing shows for the half-hour drama anthology series "Alcoa Goodyear Theatre." He received an unusual script — a show that consisted of a single monologue. Froug loved the script, titled "Eddie." It was about a gambler who had to raise money to pay off his debts by a certain hour, or he was going to be killed. Immediately, Froug thought of one actor to play the part: Mickey Rooney.

Here is some of what Froug wrote about "Eddie" in his autobiography:

"As it turned out, Rooney could have directed himself. [As the cameras rolled] I could only stare with amazement as this superb actor picked up the prop phone and instantly became Eddie, making his desperate pitch to his customers, his brother, and finally his mother; a lonely, isolated man pleading for his life. With no actor to play against, it was a virtuoso performance. Rooney's face broke out in sweat, his eyes searching the tiny apartment as if seeking divine intervention. Mickey Rooney's performance defined talent. He was even better than I had imagined. … When we finished shooting after a little more than two days, the entire crew gave Rooney a richly deserved standing ovation."

Froug continues: "When the print was edited we showed the rough cut to a few Screen Gems executives. They came out of the projection room with raves. 'It's an Emmy for Rooney, no doubt about it,' was the consensus. You could feel the excitement around the Screen Gems offices. We had something special."

Finally it was time for the Emmys to be presented. The show itself won. Froug writes, "It turned out to be 'Eddie's' night. Jack Smight won as best director, and Al Brenner won one for adapting Kenneth Hughes' script."

Rooney was up against five other actors in the category Best Single Performance of the Year. The previous year he had been nominated in the same category for his role in “The Comedian.”

Competing against Rooney in “Eddie” were Rod Steiger, Christopher Plummer, Paul Muni and Robert Crawford Jr.. All were nominated for their performances playing characters in various other drama anthologies. The other nominee was Fred Astaire, who was up for playing himself singing and dancing in his TV special "An Evening with Fred Astaire." Astaire won the Emmy.

Froug writes: "Entering the men's room at the Earl Carroll Theater [in Hollywood] after the ceremonies were over, I discovered Rooney at the sink, staring at his image in the mirror. 'Fuck 'em!' he yelled. 'Fuck 'em all! Who needs the bastards!' He turned away from the sink and staggered drunkenly out the door, barely able to navigate. Who could blame him?"

It would be almost 25 years later before Rooney would finally pick up an Emmy for Best Actor. It was for his role in the now-classic 1982 TV movie “Bill,’’ wherein Rooney played a man with a serious intellectual disability.

Here’s a copy of a very good quality kinescope of “The Comedian” that was first presented on “Playhouse 90” on Feb. 14, 1957. We found it on YouTube, where it’s been up for almost two years. There is so much movement in the show it's hard to believe that this performance was broadcast live, and not on tape. When you have 90 minutes free to watch it, I urge you to do so. It’s a performance in which Rooney gets the last laugh.

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