Sprinting down the Strand, 10 minutes late to meet Mickey Rooney at his hotel, I realised what I really wanted to find out was this: is it possible with humour and good grace to be someone who used to be the most famous person in the world? For in 1938 that was Mickey Rooney’s privilege.

For the following three years he was the number one grossing actor at the box office, beating Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy to the title. In 1940, 55 per cent of MGM’s income came from the Andy Hardy series of films in which Mickey starred as the well-meaning but careless young man who got into scrapes and was hauled out of them by patient family and friends. “I practically built that studio,” says Rooney.

Andy Hardy’s family was the stuff that low-key domestic dreams are made of: two parents in a house full of love, leisure, good food and mutual respect with no real worries and an endless fascination with the antics of their charming, if occasionally mischievous, children. The series provided a showcase for young starlets, with Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Kathryn Grayson and, of course, Judy Garland all making early appearances.

The trappings of superstardom rained down on the young Rooney. In 1940 when he arrived with Judy Garland in New York following Strike Up the Band, 30,000 people clamoured to greet their train. The following year he married Ava Gardner, the first of his eight wives.

At the Fairfield Halls in Croydon the night before I had seen Rooney’s newest stage extravaganza, named after his most famous catchphrase, “Let’s Put on A Show”. An end-of-the-pier-style warm-up comedian told the sort of antiquated jokes I rather like: “Remember, ladies and gentlemen, when you go to bed tonight, one good turn . . . gets all the blankets.”

When Rooney took to the stage, halfway through the first act, 11 scattered members of the audience stood up for him. And for those of us at all familiar with any of the 19 Andy Hardy pictures; with his 1939 Huckleberry Finn; with the young jockey in National Velvet (1944); with all the Busby Berkeley musicals he made with Judy Garland, it was astonishing to see him there.

An embodiment of show business history, he stood before us, with 350 films and two Oscars to his credit – a genuine all-round vaudevillian of the highest order, who made his stage debut aged 18 months in his father’s act, his first film at six (Not to be Trusted, 1926) and got his big break at seven as Mickey “Himself” Macguire in the first of what became a hugely popular series of short comedy features. “Here’s what’s left of Mickey Rooney,” was how he greeted his audience. It was very moving.

The rest of the programme passed in a blur of 1930s and 1940s standards interspersed with film clips of his heyday and quips about Old Hollywood. Of his first wife, Ava Gardner, he said, “Boy, could she . . . cook.” Of old age, he commented, “Senility is great for romance – you wake up with a new woman every day.”

“I was”, the star announced at one point, with a twinkle and a comic sigh, “the Rambo of my day.”

Rooney, 87, is waiting for me in the hotel foyer, pleasantly irascible in a knitted tan polo shirt and keen to get things over with quickly. He begins speaking before we have sat down, shoving me into my seat.

“Families need to budget carefully, to prepare for the future,” he announces, “so that everyone can be taken care of, not just today but in the future. Planning is important.” He looks at me gravely.

Has word got to him that I am a bit of a scatter-cash? Is he about to launch a book about family fortunes? Then I realise, he is talking money matters as a sort of odd courtesy, because I am from the FT.

I explain to him that we needn’t overly concern ourselves with economics, and we start again. He begins speaking about his fellow actors who had distinguished war careers, such as Tyrone Power with whom he served in the second world war. Was it odd being that famous and going into the army in 1944?

“I wasn’t famous!” he booms at me. “I was a soldier doing my job.”

“What sort of war did you have?”

“I don’t want to talk about that!” he yells at me as if I am insane.

Chastened, I try to move him on to a topic he is comfortable with. I express my interest in Andy Hardy and the MGM films.

He makes a dismissive gesture as if the past is a bore. “Education is very important,” he starts.

I agree hastily.

“Not just reading and arithmetic, but history and geography, languages.” He lists all the core subjects of the curriculum, before pointing to a light fitting. “I played Edison in the film. A silent picture. I played the boy. Spencer Tracey played him as a man. Light is a wonderful thing.” I nod eagerly. “That film should be played in every school. I learnt so much from silent pictures.”

I tell him that I’ve always been fascinated by the little school on the MGM lot, a small white painted wooden building that sat among the huge looming sound stages. The teacher was called Miss McDonald and I ask Rooney if there’s anything she might have taught her charges, Mickey, Lana Turner, Judy Garland (who notched up 20 spouses between them), that might in any way have prepared them for the difficult lives they would lead.

“Nothing,” he says.

Mickey Rooney with his wife Jan at an American Film Institute luncheon in 2006
Mickey Rooney with his wife Jan at an American Film Institute luncheon in 2006

Then, a marvellous thing happens: Mickey’s wife, Jan Chamberlain Rooney, 68, appears and everything improves immeasurably.

Jan had performed with Mickey the night before at Croydon. An imposing woman with a cherubic face and an extremely good nature, she had walked on stage and said something like, “Yup! Number eight,” which had endeared her to the crowd. She belted out “Smile” and “Moon and River” and duetted with Mickey before singing some Patsy Cline songs that suited her powerful voice. I had found the sections of the show where Mickey talked about his great love for Jan almost unbearably embarrassing and had sunk deep into my seat, but, seeing them together now, I could tell he does genuinely adore her. With Jan at your side, nothing could go wrong. She brims with a sweetness and a strong moral energy that are a good counter to his grumpy lapses.

Rooney speaks animatedly and with confidence about future projects in a way that is perhaps unusual in an octogenarian. After British and American tours, there’s pantomime in Sunderland where Mickey and Jan will star in Cinderella alongside some TV heroes and former pop and soap stars. This will be followed by a sequel to last year’s Night at the Museum, with Ben Stiller and Ricky Gervais, in which Rooney will reprise his bad-tempered museum guard and Jan may have a cameo part as his wife.

What they’d really like to do is produce a film of Sugar Babies: the Burlesque Musical, which Mickey starred in on Broadway with Ann Miller in the 1970s. Its success marked the end of a very lean period during which, says Rooney, he would attend people’s parties for £100 to provide for his family.

I begin again, bolstered by Jan’s presence. Putting on a show does almost have a moral basis, making the best of things, looking for the colour and the music in life, distracting oneself from difficulties, making something out of nothing, being a good host . . . My voice trails off.

Rooney looks at me as if to say, “Is that a question?” but Jan nods. “I’m always singing,” I say. She nods approvingly. The mood softens and Rooney becomes quite cheery.

“What’s that film we love with Errol Flynn?” and he mimes a bow and arrow action.

“Oh, we love that film – Robin Hood.”

“He was a true star. There’ll never be another swashbuckler like him.” Rooney faces me squarely: “Who swashbuckles today like Errol?

“Johnny Depp is a swashbuckler,” says Rooney. “Mel Gibson? He swashbuckled?”

Hearing the word conjugated like a Latin verb is pretty good. Any more plans while you are in the UK?

“We are hoping to retake our wedding vows,” they tell me as one. They have been married now for 29 years – 11 years longer than the sum total of all the other wives, Jan let slip during last night’s show.

I offer to make them a cake if they do.

“Marriage isn’t about cakes!” Rooney roars. “No, but a heartfelt cake from Susan would mean something to us,” Jan kindly consoles.

Rooney is pensive. “Love is a tender word and we misuse it. Love is not a number. I’ve never really been married until you.”

His wife is visibly touched.

“It hasn’t all been honey and roses,” she says bashfully. It is a measure of her innocence that she says “honey” and not “wine”.

“Jan is my reward,” he says.

“He jokes about it but it was a very hard life,” Jan says.

Two weeks after Rooney was born, he was on the road with his father, a comic, and his mother, a chorus girl. His parents separated when he was three. In his 1991 autobiography Life is too Short, Rooney describes his mother in absolute desperation entertaining men for money in their tiny apartment while her son covered his head with a pillow.

“Mickey’s mother was a sweet chorus girl,” Jan says, “she didn’t know about Hollywood and . . . ”

“Burlesque was much classier than people think,” Rooney interrupts, “beautiful costumes, beautiful dancing.”

Perhaps Miss McDonald at the MGM school should have taught you about residuals, I say, having been given the impression by Jan that Rooney receives no royalties from anything filmed before 1960, although he seems less sure.

“She might have talked to the parents,” Jan adds thoughtfully, “told them how to protect their children.”

I imagine the contrast between the wholesome Andy Hardy family and Rooney’s own, in which he was the principal wage-earner and support of a struggling single mother was not lost on him. The workload was gigantic. In some years, as a teenager, he made as many as nine films. There can’t have been much in the way of childhood, I suggest.

Mickey looks dismissive.

I have an idea brewing and I put it to Jan: I wish we could all sing a song. We couldn’t all sing a song, could we?

“Sure, we could. What would you like to sing?”

Could we do “Our Love Affair” from Strike Up the Band?

Jan begins singing and Mickey and I fall in behind her.

I can’t quite believe what is happening, but I hear my voice taking the Judy Garland part and Mickey’s soft croon circling together in the corner of this darkened room. A waiter raises an eyebrow but I don’t care.

“When youth has had its merry fling

We’ll spend our evenings remembering

Two happy people who said on the square,

Wasn’t ours a lovely love affair?”

For columns by Susie Boyt go to ft.com/susieboyt

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