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.
it turns out, I did not see Rooney at his worst.
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.)
book tries to give credit to Rooney for decades of
success before his death in 2014 at the age of 93.
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
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.
chatted recently with Lertzman about Rooney and the
book. One phrase that kept coming up was that Rooney had
no "moral compass."
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
I said, the book also indicates he was a horrible human
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
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,
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
that affected another generation of Rooneys.
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****.’"
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
all this and more, Lertzman insisted this is "not a
tabloid book. We are looking at what Mickey Rooney
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.
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."