The passing of film legend Mickey Rooney, dead at 93, brings to mind one of the most entertaining TCA press tour sessions ever. Rooney was part of a gathering of greats brought together by PBS to launch their series Pioneers of Television. The 2005 panel also included Sid Caesar, Red Buttons, Rose Marie, Carl Reiner and I Love Lucy and Bewitched director William Asher.
This was a very senior gathering; only Reiner and Marie are still with us.
What was remarkable about the panel was the way all the others tore into Rooney, who had long had a reputation for being, lets say, a little full of himself. In most gatherings, Rooney–one of the last surviving silent screen actors who was the No. 1 box office attraction in pre-war Hollywood–would be excused any moments of vanity. Not this group. Having endured Rooney’s pompous act a few times too many, they tore into him like ravens on a road kill.
Most vicious of all was Buttons. He just wouldn’t let up, much to the amusement of the TV press.
Rooney would go off on tangents, referring back to Cecil B. De Millie or the good old days of Hollywood. Buttons–who was so on it seemed like he was auditioning–would interject things like, “By the way Mickey, was Lincoln a nice guy?”
Apropos of nothing (this was, after all, a session about TV pioneers), Rooney started running down a list of some of the great MGM stars of the ’40s and ’50s. He rhymed off Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and others. Buttons–sarcastically–interjected “Mickey Rooney.” To which Rooney replied,
MICKEY ROONEY: Oh, well, forget about that.
RED BUTTONS: Oh, no, you can’t. Andy Hardy Pictures, I saw every one of them, “Andy Hardy and the Hasidic Housewife.”
MICKEY ROONEY: Did you see Andy Hardy gets hungry?
RED BUTTONS: I saw that and I saw Andy Hardy stups Lassie. I saw that one.
The famous comedians got into a game of brinkmanship as to who was in vaudeville or burlesque first.
MICKEY ROONEY: I think you’ll agree with me that I think one of the funniest shows in New York at the time I did with Ann Miller —
RED BUTTONS: Absolutely.
MICKEY ROONEY: Called “Sugarbabies.”
CARL REINER: Yes, absolutely.
RED BUTTONS: Mickey, you were fabulous.
MICKEY ROONEY: Later on I did the great Will Rogers Follies.
RED BUTTONS: Yes.
CARL REINER: I saw it. You were wonderful.
MICKEY ROONEY: And I’m not here to talk about the things that I do, but I got news for you —
CARL REINER: Sure, you are.
MICKEY ROONEY: No, I’m not. But I think that the most thrilling show I do today is a show I do with my lovely wife called, “Let’s Put on a Show.” We were in New York for five weeks, and The Wall Street Journal gave us five pluses. It was very important. It was called — and it’s called “Let’s Put on a Show.” Ladies and gentlemen, my talented wife Jan Rooney. Stand up.
RED BUTTONS: And, Mickey, introduce your mistress too. I think it would be a nice gesture on your part.
|At the 205 PBS TCA session (l-r): Red Buttons, unidentified, Carl Reiner,
Mickey Rooney and Sid Caesar
And on it went. It went on so long that Rose Marie blurted the line of the session: “I was a young girl when this panel was started.”
Finally, towards the end, Reiner seemed to want to make amends for picking on the Mick and launched into a bit of a tribute. Even Buttons joins in–until he pulls the knife out again at the end:
CARL REINER: Now, wait a minute. I want to say one thing about — in defense of Mickey, who I — (Laughter.) — who can defend himself, Mickey Rooney — I wrote a little autobiographical thing a few years ago called “My Anecdotal Life.” In it, I had a whole chapter on Mickey Rooney called “99 and 99 percent perfect.” He’s a perfect — I consider him the greatest single talent in the history of – (Applause.)
RED BUTTONS: Me too.
CARL REINER: — motion pictures. No doubt about it. And just to say why that one percent wasn’t perfect, the show was called “The Comic” and all — silent-movie comedian. We needed a guy to play the Ben Turpin character, a man who was cross-eyed, and the character was called Cockeye. I says who better than Mickey Rooney to have played one of those — he knew all those guys from back then. He came in and the first day of rehearsal I said, “Mickey, you know, when we do the cross-eyed stuff, I don’t want you to — how long can you keep your eyes crossed without hurting?” Because I said that hurts to hold your eyes crossed. I said, “We’ll only do it for the closeups. How long can you do it?” He says, “I can’t cross my eyes,” and I thought Dick Van Dyke may be putting me on, they told him to tell me that. He says, “I can’t cross my eyes.” I said, “You, who play every instrument in the world, who can play serious things, ‘Boys Town,’ he can do, comedy, dancing, singing” –
CARL REINER: And by the way “Babes on” — he did it on Broadway.
MICKEY ROONEY: “Girl Crazy.”
CARL REINER: No, Ann Miller. Okay.
QUESTION: “Sugar Baby.”
CARL REINER: Piano — he sat at the piano. After doing all these sketches, he sat at the piano and played the most beautiful piano and sang. It was a different human being than the guy you see today making jokes. Anyway, what I’m saying is that Mickey Rooney should be forgiven all his madness up here today because he is a genius. He’s a genius performer. (Laughter.)
RED BUTTONS: I have one footnote. I have one footnote. Mickey and I were in the same outfit during World War II in Europe.
MICKEY ROONEY: That’s true. (Applause.)
RED BUTTONS: And Mickey got a Bronze Star.
MICKEY ROONEY: I wear it today.
RED BUTTONS: One day, he saved our entire outfit. He killed a cook!