Monday, 14 April 2014

Mickey Rooney: One last hurrah in the '80s

Mickey Rooney with Kelly Reno in "The Black Stallion"
Mickey Rooney died last week, so I started to think back to what I had seen him in. Wikipedia and the International Movie Data Base revealed that his greatest work was done in the 1930s and 1940s when he was one of the top box office draws in Hollywood. His career may have peaked back then, with three Oscar nominations for best actor. He continued making movies, appearing on television, and doing live theatre, but what became of him as the 1980s dawned?

It turns out that's when he had his last hurrah – and it lasted almost four years.

Early memories
Mickey Rooney was a name I knew, but growing up I really had not seen him in too much. Movies like “National Velvet” and his Andy Hardy stuff rarely was rerun in the world of three TV channels. What I knew about “National Velvet” mostly came from its 1978 sequel “International Velvet” starring Tatum O’Neal.

Most old movies were replayed at odd times like after midnight and, oddly, during the day time. For a kid going to school, it was hard to catch any of these. The exception was the summer, when I did see the odd movie on Channel 7. One of those movies was “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World”, and Mickey Rooney was one of the stars. It featured a mad dash across the country seeking buried treasure.

One particular summer Saturday afternoon, my mom and sister took me to a Disney movie called “Pete’s Dragon,” about an orphan boy named Pete and his friend a dragon named Elliott. It was a mix of live action and animation and, at the age of seven I just loved it. It starred Jim Dale, Helen Reddy, and Rooney as Reddy’s father.

Dennis Quaid and
Mickey Rooney in "Bill"
The dawn of the '80s
It was 1979 when Rooney’s renaissance began. “The Black Stallion” features a boy who is shipwrecked on a desert island with a black Arabian horse that he befriends. Once they are rescued, they meet a once successful horse trainer named Henry Dailey, and set out to race the best in a challenge match.

I recall seeing that movie when it was on TV, and how inspiring it truly was. Rooney played Henry Dailey, and for his efforts he was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role, losing to Melvyn Douglas in “Being There” which was another great movie.

Then in 1981, Rooney starred in the television movie “Bill”. He played the title character, a mentally handicapped man who wants to leave an institution and live on his own. It was another touching performance, winning Rooney Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for outstanding lead actor. Two years later he reprised the role in “Bill: On His Own”, and was nominated for another Emmy.

He may no longer have been the same box office draw he was as a young man, but in his 60s Mickey Rooney had become critically acclaimed. In 1983 he was also given an Academy Award for lifetime achievement.

Last gasp on television
Mickey Rooney would spend the rest of the '80’s continuing to work in a variety of media. He did guest roles in “The Love Boat”, and later “The Golden Girls”, and had a part in the 1986 TV movie “The Return of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer”.
Amid that, he had his last recurring role in a weekly sitcom with “One of the Boys” in 1982. You would think a show with Dana Carvey, Nathan Lane, Scatman Crothers, and Mickey Rooney would be a can’t miss. The premise was solid too. Rooney plays Oliver Nugent, a senior citizen who, with his best friend Bernard Soloman, played by Crothers, leaves his nursing home to move in with his grandson Adam Shields, played by Carvey, and his roommate Jonathan Burns, played by Lane, who are attending college. Meg Ryan also had a recurring role as Adam’s girlfriend Jane.

The show was on Channel 7, and I don’t recall much beyond it not being that funny. Everyone else agreed, as NBC yanked it after 13 episodes. It even made TV Guide’s list of the 50 worst television shows of all time. Look at all that star power whose release may have been delayed had “One of the Boys” had a long run, much like Jim Carrey and “The Duck Factory”.

As the '80s closed, Rooney got his last big recurring role, reprising the character of Henry Dailey for a three-year run on “The Adventures of the Black Stallion”, from 1990 to 1993 totalling 78 episodes.

Parting thoughts
Mickey Rooney would go on to continue working on stage, screen, and doing the voices for cartoons, well into his 90s. He appeared in his last movie earlier this year, “Night At The Museum 3”. He also was an advocate for veterans and animal rights. Late in his life he would suffer elder abuse, and had very little left when he died on April 6, 2014. He was 93.

Mickey Rooney should be remembered not only for his longevity, but his versatility. He did so much more that I have not recounted, but it spans everything.

I find it inspiring that in his 60s, when most people are beginning to wind down their careers and look towards retirement, Mickey Rooney went through a renewal. He was like a fine wine, getting better with age.  Rest in peace Mickey. Hopefully you will find the comfort that eluded you in the last few years.

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