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Me & Mickey Rooney
A look back on my amusing, awkward interview with the entertainment legend
Of the thousands of people I have interviewed over the course of my journalism career, one of the biggest names also had some of the shortest answers: Mickey Rooney.
By the time we spoke, in April 2001, he was 80 years old and had surely been interviewed thousands of times in a legendary entertainment career that dated back to the 1920s. To him, I was just some guy on the other end of the phone asking tedious questions. And he wasn’t shy about leaving that impression.
Fortunately, his wife, Jan Chamberlin, was as sweet as Mickey was prickly. Like their stage act for years, the 15-minute interview (previewing a performance in two weeks) was a two-person show.
The result was this feature story below for a special section of the Daily Herald here in the Chicago suburbs. It offers readers a front row seat on the dynamics of a simultaneously amusing and awkward interaction between a no-name journalist and an all-time celebrity. [Below is how the story appeared in the newspaper; scroll lower for the easy-to-read version.]
On this first day of summer, I hope it gives younger readers a chuckle and older ones a trip down memory lane.
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Keeping in the spotlight
While Mickey Rooney is short on words, his wife, Jan, serves as a buffer between public, private lives of legendary actor
Mickey Rooney is in the business of looking back, and after some dry spells in a triumphant career, that business is booming. And small wonder - for all but 1 1/2 of his 80 years, Rooney has been performing on one stage or another.
So, consider the irony of his response during a recent telephone interview, when he was asked to reflect on some of his fondest memories in show business.
"I never look back on anything," he said, almost perturbed by the inquiry. "I look ahead."
OK, then let's shift our attention from the rear-view mirror and take that look to the future, Mr. Rooney: After all you have accomplished, what's in store for you?
"We take it one day at a time," Rooney said.
For a man with enough material to regale audiences across the globe, who has been in upwards of 350 movies and has garnered more awards than he can remember, his clipped answers and rote quotes were a surprise.
When he talked to SunBurst, he and his wife, Jan Chamberlin Rooney, were in Ohio during a tour of the "One Man One Wife Show" that they will appear in May 4 at the Woodstock Opera House. They had three other interviews lined up on this particular morning, a point Rooney made a few times during the 15-minute conversation.
Defensive and disinterested, he closed doors on topic after topic. No, he was not interested in talking about his recent heart bypass surgery - this after his agent waxed extensively about Rooney's marvelous recovery since the December surgery.
No, he did not have any advice for parents of children who are pursuing an acting career.
"There aren't many children doing that," he said.
Then again, Rooney was in his room at the time - not on stage. Like other famous showmen, maybe Rooney simply saves his best material for the audience.
And, then again, it may well be that he has had his fill of interviews. A search on the Internet turns up volumes on his life's successes and failures, personal tragedies and triumphs. Those pieces reveal a wide-ranging Rooney, one who goes into painstaking detail one time and one who comes off as downright ornery another time.
Clearly, serving as his buffer and helpmate, and sharing the stage and his life with him now is a person with a genuinely sweet demeanor, his eighth wife, Jan Chamberlin.
Most of his marriages have been as fleeting as his answers during our interview. But Jan is his most enduring love. She is a singer with whom he has been together since 1974. They've been married since 1978.
For the past four years, they have taken their show on an international road as well as throughout the United States. They sing, regale the audience with stories culled from Rooney's lifetime in entertainment and generally take the audience on a retrospective trip that spans generations.
Among other features of their one man, one-woman show, Jan sings Patsy Cline tunes and Rooney does a Jimmy Durante impersonation.
By the way, Rooney said he did not know of anyone who impersonates him, and he did not seem amused by the idea, either.
On stage, he also talks about Judy Garland, a close friend with whom he performed in a number of movie productions.
Born Joe Yule Jr. on Sept. 23, 1920, Rooney was a successful child actor, largely through a series of about 50 silent comedies between 1927 and 1933 in which he played Mickey McGuire, a comic- strip character. By the time he was 20, he was one of the premier stars of the movie industry. His is one of the most notable and prolific acting careers in history.
When asked if he considers himself a legend, as others do, Rooney said, "I'm just a regular guy."
That, despite the fact that his career has been topped off a number of times by such awards as the Lifetime Achievement Oscar he received in 1983.
In recent years, he has starred in the musical production "Sugar Babies," appeared in the motion picture "Babe: Pig in the City" and been the voice of Sparky the dog in "Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure."
He also is promoting a newly released CD that he is particularly proud of and he brought up the three books he has written, including "Life is Too Short."
But, if he's tired of the road, why not retire?
"We keep going. Why not?" said Rooney, in a relative burst of verbiage. "Why stop? Jan and I love to work together."
If he did slow down he would head for his favorite off-stage place, his home in Westlake Village, California. But the call to entertain constantly beckons. Almost wearily, he noted, "I want to please everybody ... pleasing the audience, getting them to laugh. It's a chemistry."
Finished with the reporter, Mickey hands the phone to Jan. She apologizes for the hastiness of the conversation, explains the time pressure brought on by other interviews - and proceeds, in her sweet way, to give thoughtful answers to some basic questions.
When asked to summon an adjective to describe her husband, Jan laughed. "Bombastic," she replied. "People are always asking me what it's like to be married to Mickey. A lot of love, a lot of patience, a lot of understanding and separate bathrooms. Heavy on the separate bathrooms."
Jan said that her husband provides "a message of hope" to people, particularly in that age need not limit one's passion.
"When you love entertaining as much as Mickey does, we don't want to change course in mid-stream," said Jan. "To see the people go crazy over Mickey - it's a gift that Mickey is out there still giving."
She wraps up the chat by politely asking if she can receive a copy of the story for their scrapbook.
"Please address it to 'Jan and Mickey'," she cautions. "If you address it to Mickey, it won't get opened."
Indeed, I mailed the story to their home—and I made sure to address it to both of them. Mickey lived another 13 years; Jan is now 84.