“Mickey,” Jackie Cooper was saying as he drove onto the lot at the CBS Studio Center, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice, and failing. “We’ve known each other since we were kids, and he’s always been, well…Mickey.”
Mickey was Mickey Rooney, once the biggest star at MGM, and Jackie Cooper was directing him in a TV movie titled Leave ‘Em Laughing. Andy Hardy and America’s Boy, as Cooper was once known–the movies’ two most famous child stars, all grown up and working together.
Cooper had just eighteen days to shoot the true story of a professional clown named Jack Thum who raised thirty-seven at-risk children in Chicago before dying of cancer.
Mickey, of course, was playing the clown. He seemed oblivious to the pressures Cooper was under, a pear-shaped dervish whirling around the hospital ward set showing off the under shorts he wore beneath his hospital gown, keeping everyone laughing, particularly six-year-old Danny Lance who was supposed to be looking glum as his pal Jack Thum faded away.
Mickey wasn’t much interested in fading. He jumped into his hospital bed announcing, “I’m here for a height transplant.” He turned to Danny and the crew members, everyone trying their best not to break up. “Did you hear the one about the woman who got out of the limo–”
“Come on, Mick,” Cooper interrupted. “I’m trying to get this kid going, and he’s laughing at you.”
“Sorry, babe,” Rooney replied, deadpan. “Didn’t know the kid laughed.”
At that point, Mickey Rooney was sixty years old and riding high once again after decades in the show business wilderness. He had revived his career on Broadway in the hit musical Sugar Babies, and the year before he had been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Black Stallion.
“Until recently, Mick was pretty bitter,” Cooper said. “He was never trained for anything but acting. I was luckier, but his dry spell amounted to half his life. He’s only sixty but he’s spent half his life in the crapper.”
Copper had just published a memoir, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog. The title was taken from a notorious incident filming Skippy, the movie that made Cooper a star at the age of eight. When director Norman Taurog couldn’t get Jackie to cry, he threatened to shoot the boy’s beloved dog. The tears immediately flowed.
“It’s impossible to be a child star and be happy,” Cooper said. “Every child star, if they are not dead or drunk or in jail, they are hiding out or working as male nurses or as restaurant greeters some place. Or they’re addicts.”
Such gloomy talk was immediately dismissed by the Mick, as everyone called him. “What bull,” he told me later, slumped into a wheel chair between takes. “We were working, that’s what counted.
“When I was fifteen I’d been working for thirteen years. Why would it be detrimental? Those years were the detonating points of our careers. It was just great.”
“That’s baloney, of course,” Cooper countered. “But that’s part of his charm. He won’t ever tell you he suffered.”
Spending an afternoon with the Mick as he merrily bounced off the walls of a soundstage at the CBS Studio Center, it was hard to imagine he was once the biggest star in Hollywood, more popular than Clark Gable or Shirley Temple.
When you now watch Shirley Temple, who died in February, there is a slightly uneasy feeling, and you recall Graham Greene’s acid assessment: “Watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep.”
But the young Mickey Rooney, well, that’s something else again. Even today you can’t help but be astonished at his talent. In the most run-of-the-mill MGM confections (cue the fifteen Andy Hardy movies) Mickey jumps off the screen. Like his close friend Judy Garland, he could do everything–sing, dance, act, and do those things better than just about anyone else.
As the critic Jim Bawden points out in his lovely remembrance, when asked to name the best actor in movies, James Mason, no slouch in that department himself, instantly threw out Mickey Rooney.
But he was a handful as Jackie Cooper found out filming Leave ‘Em Laughing. Getting the Mick to settle down, and concentrate on the scene was akin to herding cats. The job was not made any easier by the difference in the personalities of star and director.
Cooper was sober-sided, no-nonsense, somewhat shy, the former child star who had learned how to survive in the Hollywood jungle, starring in two hit TV series, becoming a successful production executive, and then transforming himself into an in-demand TV director (interrupted every so often to play Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Superman movies).
The Mick by contrast was the undisciplined live wire, the extroverted performer who was always “on.” He wasn’t so far removed from his own rambunctious childhood or from Jack Thum, the clown who, no matter what, always wanted to leave ‘em laughing.
“Let’s go before my wife calls and says I’m being sued for divorce,” the Mick announced bouncing back onto the set after lunch. “I haven’t been sued for divorce for two years.”
He climbed back into the hospital bed for the next shot, still talking. “I used to go out with Gloria De Haven,” he said. “I was twenty-one when I walked in there. I was forty-three when she finally came down.”
Only when he spoke to the press, did the Mick take on a kind of subdued gravitas, as though he had been up all night rehearsing the speeches he would give during an interview. His early training at the hands of MGM studio publicists had taken a toll on spontaneity–he was much better at reciting other people’s dialogue than he was at doing the talking himself.
However, when he spoke of Judy Garland, he immediately discarded the rehearsed lines and became surprisingly emotional. “The greatest performer who ever lived,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.
Despite his on-set antics, the Mick got great reviews when Leave ‘Em Laughing aired on CBS in April 1981. “Vintage gutsy Rooney,” pronounced John J. O’Connor, the TV critic for The New York Times. “Leave ‘Em Laughing probably won’t leave a dry eye in living rooms across the country.”
The Mick outlived just about everybody. He kept going on until his death this week at the age of ninety-three, the last of the great Hollywood legends–maybe the greatest when it comes down to it–still bouncing off the walls, a performer to the end, and driving everyone crazy.