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Monday, April 7, 2014

Remembering Mickey Rooney

The Iconic Actor Gave Us Eight Decades of Entertainment

By Chris Sabga

Mickey Rooney had an extraordinary career in film and television that spanned a staggering 88 years – from 1926 to 2014. That kind of staying power is rare in any profession, but especially in Hollywood. To go through all of Rooney's highlights would be an impossibility – his body of work numbers in the hundreds.

The first time I saw Mickey Rooney, I loved him instantly. It was in a 1984 made-for-TV Christmas movie called "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." He played a grandfather who died but came back from Heaven to share one last holiday with his grandson in New York City. It is still my favorite Christmas film of all time.

Four decades earlier, a teenage Mickey Rooney shared the screen with Spencer Tracey in 1938's "Boys Town." Tracey portrayed a priest who established a home for wayward kids – one of whom was Rooney. It's a classic. (The sequel – "Men of Boys Town" – is pretty good, too.)

One of his most famous roles came six years later, in 1944, when he and Elizabeth Taylor starred together in "National Velvet." To illustrate his staying power, he was still a star – or became one again – seventeen years after that when he appeared in 1961's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" with Audrey Hepburn. Of course, like every other actor, Rooney had his ups and downs – especially in those years – but he always worked steadily.

His bucktoothed Japanese character from "Tiffany's" is considered controversial by today's standards. The actor expressed regret in a 2008 interview with The Sacramento Bee: "It breaks my heart. Blake Edwards, who directed the picture, wanted me to do it because he was a comedy director. They hired me to do this overboard, and we had fun doing it." In the 1993 biopic, "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," the famed martial artist (played by Jason Scott Lee, no relation) becomes increasingly upset as he watches Rooney's caricatured portrayal. Rooney, to his credit, "wouldn't have done it" if he had known people would take offense.

His career continued on: "Reqium for a Heavyweight" (1962), "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963), "The Black Stallion" (1979), and too many others to name – with roles both major and minor.

A true silver screen surprise and one I highly recommend: the little-seen 1999 film "The First of May" about a runaway boy and an old lady (Dan Byrd and the late Julie Harris, respectively) who escape together to join the circus. Rooney wasn't the star, but his gruff portrayal as a grizzled circus owner was a welcome presence. It's a beautiful, touching movie that's well worth seeking out.

I wasn't particularly fond of "Night at the Museum" – the 2006 Ben Stiller comedy – but Mickey Rooney (along with fellow screen veterans Dick Van Dyke and Bill Cobbs) absolutely stole the show. By then, Rooney was an old pro who could make the most of every moment, no matter how big or small – and he did just that in "Museum."

Mickey Rooney has truly done it all: holiday movies (the aforementioned "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"), horror flicks ("Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker"), family films ("The Muppets," "Pete's Dragon," "The Black Stallion"), TV appearances ("The Golden Girls" and "Full House"), and even voice-acting ("The Fox and the Hound"). And then, of course, there are the revered classics that made him a household name ("National Velvet," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Boys Town," and many more).

Multiple generations – including today's kids and teens – have been exposed to Rooney's incredible work. That was the magic of Mickey.

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