The excellent, new biography The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney by Richard A. Lertzman and William J. Birnes got me thinking about an interview I did with the film legend some years ago. My experience with the five-foot, three-inch screen star was not at all a pleasant one, so if you like and admire Mickey Rooney it might be best for you to skip this post. No one doubts Mickey Rooney’s enormous talent, but the experience I had talking with him mirrors what the two authors write, that the last years of his life especially were not at all good ones.
I was thrilled to have been offered the chance to interview Mr. Rooney. He was Andy Hardy, after all! Sir Lawrence Olivier, no less, once called him “the best [actor] there has ever been.” Good enough for me.
Preparing for the interview, however, led to me to believe that interviewing Mickey Rooney was not always a walk in the park for reporters. One Chicago newspaper writer in particular had recently written about how the film star refused to answer any of his questions during a one on one interview over dinner with anything other than one or two word replies. If he pulls this sort of thing on the Chicago Tribune, I thought to myself, what chance do I have?
In preparation, I decided if that was going to be the game, I would pepper him with questions. So, I wrote no less than about a hundred. Honestly, about a hundred. I continued writing in the car during the nearly two-hour drive to Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
Our little interview took place at the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids. Along with his (eighth) wife, Jan Chamberlain, he was appearing the next night in their “One Man, One Wife” show at the annual Judy Garland Festival.
And so, the three of us sat down. Let the games begin.
Sure enough, Mr. Rooney was not in a very good mood that day. At one point, the conversation went (exactly) like this.
Me: You and Judy Garland were great friends….
Mickey: Judy and I weren’t friends.
Jan: Oh, Mickey, you and Judy were friends.
Mickey: Well, yeah.
On and on. If I had said the sky is up. Mr. Rooney would have disagreed. After “all” was said and done, Jan whispered to me, “Good interview.” I felt otherwise.
Flash forward a little over a year. One of the organizers for the Grand Rapids festival called on me at WDAZ quite out of the blue. Months and months later, she took the time to apologize to me for Mr. Rooney’s behavior.
She also shared a couple of her Rooney stories which included having to change, not just hotel rooms for the movie star, but hotels. That resulted in having to transport Mr. Rooney, as I recall, twenty some miles to and from Grand Rapids and the festival.
Side note: Ginny and I have stayed in the hotel in question. It is fine.
Rooney also dismissed two (maybe three) local pianists, one of whom was to accompany him and Jan in their show. A Los Angeles pianist had to be flown in at the very last minute at considerable expense to the festival.
The organizer told me, “We are not having Mickey Rooney back.”
None of this takes away any admiration I have for Mr. Rooney’s tremendous screen and stage achievements. But the new book confirms what I’ve believed ever since meeting him, that his final years were terribly unhappy. Sad, for a man of his towering (no pun intended) talent.