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Rooney biography shows talent, warts and more warts

December 7, 2015

I crossed paths with Mickey Rooney a couple of times, both late in his life, neither a particularly pleasant experience. In both situations, the long-beloved actor was rambling and self-important, eager to remind everyone how great he had been, anxious to talk up new projects (most of which existed only in his imagination) — in short, pathetic and laughable.

And, it turns out, I did not see Rooney at his worst.

There’s plenty of the worst in "The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney," a massive biography by Richard A. Lertzman and William J. Byrnes, the team behind the muckraking book "Dr. Feelgood." Just sorting through Rooney’s own ever-changing, myth-laden accounts is a huge challenge — but this book drew on extensive documentary research along with the authors’ years of interviews, including with Rooney, members of his family and current and former associates and friends. (Among the latter: Donald Trump.)

The book tries to give credit to Rooney for decades of success before his death in 2014 at the age of 93.

To many, he was lovable Andy Hardy, or the best screen partner Judy Garland ever had; he was an adept dramatic actor, and the no-holds-barred stage star of "Sugar Babies."

But the book also details his considerable failings, especially with women (eight wives and countless liaisons, including with a 14-year-old Elizabeth Taylor) and money. After earning "hundreds of millions" in his lifetime, the book says he "died almost penniless." While some went to gambling and nutty business ventures, the book says there are still questions about how he could have lost so much money.

I chatted recently with Lertzman about Rooney and the book. One phrase that kept coming up was that Rooney had no "moral compass."

First of all, Lertzman made clear that he thought of Rooney as an icon onscreen, "a great, great talent" and a pioneer. Lertzman considers Rooney the first "teen idol" of movies through his Andy Hardy films.

But, I said, the book also indicates he was a horrible human being.

"He was, like, feral," Lertzman said. "At the age of 4 he was supporting his mother and father. His father was an alcoholic burlesque performer. … His mother turned tricks. … What kind of moral compass does he have? Then he goes to the studio and he’s subverted by people … He has very little schooling, he has very little moral guidance. … And all he sees is what he has learned."

Lertzman compared Rooney on and off camera to Lonesome Rhodes, the character played by Andy Griffith in the film "A Face in the Crowd." Griffith was lovable when he was on radio or TV, but beastly to everyone in his private life. Rooney "was nothing like what people imagined him to be. He was a very gruff, burlesque-raised kid.

"I think he was always in search of parental guidance, or someone to guide him along. So he marries eight times. We spent a lot of time with his children — he had eight biological children and two stepchildren … And every child agrees he was someone who didn’t have that moral compass."

And that affected another generation of Rooneys.

His son Teddy Rooney is on a respirator now, but still wanted to be interviewed for the book, Lertzman said. "Between breaths on his respirator, he’s going, ‘My father was a son-of-a-b****.’"

After the murder of his fifth wife, Barbara Ann Thomason, their four children were raised by Thomason’s parents, not Rooney. And when Rooney’s son Timmy died in 2006, Rooney’s reaction was anger that Timmy had died on his father’s birthday.

For all this and more, Lertzman insisted this is "not a tabloid book. We are looking at what Mickey Rooney really was."

But what he was did end up hurting him, especially as he became best known in Hollywood and the media for his excesses. As part of the American Film Institute, historian Jeanine Basinger told Lertzman that she repeatedly lobbied for an AFI tribute to Rooney only to be vetoed because of Rooney’s personality.

As Basinger says in an introduction to the book, Rooney’s "very public peccadillos no doubt kept him off the A-list of Hollywood legends — except, of course, where it counted: in the history books and the hearts and memories of his fans."

 

 





 


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