Mickey Rooney: The Mickey show

Mickey Rooney has eight wives and 320 films to his name. So why is the 'greatest actor America has ever seen' playing second fiddle to Bobby Davro in a West Country panto? Nick Duerden is granted an audience
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Afterwards, as he is preparing to depart while uttering another of his bewildering non sequiturs (this one goes: "Oh, I've been everywhere, Pennsylvania, the world... Do you know Teleprompters? I use one sometimes"), he clasps me by the hand and looks up at me with rheumy eyes. His lips are trembling, and I fear he will cry. "God bless, peace be with you, peace be with the world. Tell people I'm not an angry man, won't you? I'm really not. I love everyone." He appears to come within a millimetre of hugging me, but the moment passes. "Safe journey, son. You should have had some sandwiches, but, hey, you know best. Goodbye, now. Goodbye." And with this rather touching farewell, he is off back across the marble hotel lobby in a habitual slow shuffle, doting wife by his side. As he reaches the lifts, he turns back to wave once more, lips peeled back in a toothy smile. Then he is gone.

I was mildly apprehensive about meeting Mickey Rooney, screen legend, and one of the last of Hollywood's truly golden oldies. The 88-year-old, who still works tirelessly because, says his wife Jan, "he's no good at sitting in a chair; he needs to be up and about, and active – always", is often portrayed as angry, vituperative and downright rude. He may be an icon of a mostly lost era, but many suggest that he feels he has never quite been given the respect he deserves. Perhaps this is down to his height – 5ft 3in – or the cherubic, rather than handsome, face that even, in his ninth decade, looks somehow embryonic. Or perhaps he is simply tired of having his somewhat insalubrious history trotted out before him endlessly: eight wives, a drinking and gambling past, and endless womanising. He can hardly complain, though: even as late as 1991, in his warts-and-all autobiography Life is Too Short, he himself was happy to dredge up his countless sexual conquests, a Norma Shearer here, a Donna Reed there, and the fact that Lana Turner had, "the nicest knockers ever".

"I think certain people misunderstand Mickey," Jan, ever loyal, will say at one point in reference to the man's oft-portrayed bullishness. "Maybe it's because he's American?"

The Mickey Rooney I meet on this cold Saturday morning at the end of November in a five-star hotel in Bristol is, for the most part, sweetness and light, a confusing and often confused man, perhaps, but one hard not to warm to. He is tiny and wizened in his dotage, yet robust, like a terrier on heat, gnashing his teeth whenever striving to make a point, and not shy of shouting.

He is wearing a beige T-shirt and beige trousers which, due to a slightly wet lower lip, will bear the damp patches of saliva. Lowering himself into an armchair, he sits beside Jan, 25 years his junior, resplendent in pink and purple, and beaming good-naturedly. They offer me coffee, tea, a plate of sandwiches, anything I want: "Just ask." They hold hands a lot, except when Jan extricates hers the moment her husband begins to ramble. He rambles frequently, wandering off topic without a moment's warning, then suddenly pulling himself up short as if he too is confused about quite how he got here. At other times, they bicker so consistently that it rather resembles a routine; two people who know each other inside out, and who love each other unquestioningly, but who can't help snapping at every little thing the other says. It is unintentionally comedic.

"Oh, we argue by the hour," Jan confirms. "By the minute, sometimes."

"You say that, and he'll think I'm angry all the time. I'm not, I'm just..."

"No, you're just spirited."

"WOMAN! Would you just let me finish? Now, where was I?"

You don't walk past Bristol's Hippodrome without noticing it. Although the theatre's frontage is no Colosseum, the poster alongside it is vast, lurid and mostly pink. Right now, the venue is advertising its current attraction, the pantomime Cinderella, which stars Bobby Davro as Buttons and Michelle Collins as the Wicked Stepmother, while Rooney and his wife take the parts of Baron Hardup and the Fairy Godmother respectively.

If this totem of old Hollywood celebrity is bristling about having to play second-fiddle to Davro (who tops the bill), he refuses to show it. He is here to do panto, he says, because they did panto last year (in Sunderland) and enjoyed it so much that they came back for more.

Another reason, perhaps, is that at his age,Rooney isn't exactly spoilt for choice any more. Pantomime means regular work, and it pays well. But ask him why on earth a giant of showbiz is prepared to play before a crowd of children whose parents very likely don't know who he is, and he'll promptly pursue another tangent altogether.

"I served in England during the Second World War, you know," he begins. "Luxembourg and France also, though I did my actual basic training back in Fort Riley, Kansas. Now," he says, tiny eyes open as wide as they will go, "who do you think my commanding officer was out there?" Jan turns to face the window, with a barely perceptible shake of the head. "Only General George S Patton, that's who! What do you think about that?" He leans back into his chair and shoots his arms and legs out ramrod straight, a curious pose he will affect several times over the next hour whenever he has delivered a particularly compelling piece of information. "And did you know that Cary Grant, or Archibald Leach to give him his real name, was born right here in Bristol, and that he worked here at the Hippodrome? Now what are the chances..."

Jan turns to face him. "Dear, the young man was asking you a question. He doesn't have much time. Could you just have the decency to answer it?"

"I WAS!" he shouts, suddenly furious, his face a cherry tomato. "I was just saying, that's all."

"You always are..." '

Jan Chamberlain, a sometime country singer and actress, is the woman reputed to have saved Mickey Rooney, mostly from himself. Before they met, 35 years ago now, Rooney was already on what appeared to be an irrevocable slide from fame to bitter notoriety. Living up to the legend he had created was taking its toll.

He was born in Brooklyn in 1920 to vaudevillian parents, who wasted little time in incorporating him into their act. His father was, by all accounts, a drunken womaniser, and after his parents split, his mother was said to have resorted to prostitution in order to support her son.

He began appearing in films at the age of four, captivating audiences by never quite seeming to grow up despite the annual succession of birthdays. He had stopped growing by 12, eternally cute, angelic and pint-sized, America's sweetheart. Aged 18, he was awarded a special Oscar for "significant contribution to bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth", though he struggled to sustain his popularity as a grown-up actor. After notching up no fewer than 13 appearances as Andy Hardy between 1937 and 1946, in a series of sentimental comedies about ordinary American life, he became something of a character actor, popping up as Audrey Hepburn's Japanese neighbour in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's and 1963's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World alongside Spencer Tracy, but never attaining the leading-man heights of his friends Clark Gable and Tyrone Power, Jack Lemmon and Bob Hope.

Nevertheless, he remained arguably the hardest-working man in showbiz. Laurence Olivier called him the greatest actor America had ever seen, while his regular on-screen partner Judy Garland felt prone to even greater exaggeration, proclaiming him "the world's greatest talent".

But by the 1960s, the film roles had dried up, and he was fast losing all his fortune to women, to the racetrack and to drink. He had been married seven times by now, including briefly to Ava Gardner, and very likely had the highest alimony bills in all of Hollywood. He had become a cautionary tale, the stuff of tabloid exposés, and from here there was only one way to go: further down. Though he refuses to address the question today, it is believed that he spent much of the mid-1960s to mid-1970s doing the only work he could, as an impersonator of Mickey Rooney. Friends feared for his sanity, his life. "Fast living," he sighs now, with an exaggerated shake of the head. "Happened to so many of my friends. Ava lived too fast, didn't she? Judy, too."

As did you yourself, I suggest.

"Yes, well, I've got news for you: I'm against all that stuff. Why? BECAUSE IF YOU DO IT, YOU'RE DEAD!"

Except that he did, and remains alive today, no?

Frowning, he concedes that, "I am now, yes."

Jan was introduced to him by his agent, although another uncorroborated rumour suggests she was actually dating one of his sons at the time. Either way, it was her grounding influence that ultimately saved him.

"When we got together, he stopped all that," she says, with a wave of the hand. "Well, mostly."

"Mostly? What are you talking about, mostly? I stopped everything."

Jan, leaning towards me, cups her hands around her face and mouths the words, prescription drugs. Then she says, "Together, we found God."

"Nonsense, woman. I always went to church. My mother gave me faith as a child, and that was long before I met you."

Asked whether she was concerned at accepting the proposal of a man who had been married seven times before, and Jan, a one-time divorcee herself, smiles the way people only usually do in church, with calm serenity

"You have to understand that in those days marriage wasn't what it is today. If you dated someone," and here she mouths the words go to bed with, "then you had to marry them, and that, I guess, is what happened to Mickey. But it was clear early on that he and me were soulmates. Plus," she adds, "eight just happens to be a lucky number in feng shui."

"Tell him about Ginger," Rooney prompts.

"Ginger Rogers," she beams, "one of my idols. I met her once, and we had such a lovely time. Afterwards, she wrote Mickey a lovely note. It said, 'I love Jan, she will be your best and last wife.' And she was right."

And so, thanks to Ginger, to God and to feng shui, Chamberlain became the eighth and final Mrs Rooney, and Mickey had found his ideal co-star, in both work and life. They come as the pair now, having appeared in a succession of made-for-TV films, two pantos to date, and their long-running husband-and-wife concert revue, Let's Put on a Show! They afford themselves a couple of weeks off at home in LA every now and then – "to catch up with our animals, and our children [between them, they have 12]" – but otherwise their continued work ethic is admirable, if not a little bewildering. Surely they have earnt a rest?

"You don't retire," Rooney says, "you expire. I don't want to expire yet, which is why I continue working. I'm in the Guinness Book of World Records, you know. The longest career movie of anyone: 631 films."

"Actually, I think it's three hundred and something," Jan gently corrects.

"IT'S 631!" he roars. "Look it up."

Later, I do. Jan is right. To date, the man has totted up 320 films.

As they enter into what one can only hope is another ultimately good-natured spat, an elegant woman crosses the lobby trailing three grandchildren. She has been drawn here by Rooney's voice, which, just moments before, and for no particular reason, had launched into Nat "King" Cole's "Christmas Song" ("I discovered him, you know," he points out, a touch misleadingly).

The woman is now facing him, her face lit up as if by electricity. "Oh my, it really is you. Well, hello."

Rooney is agitated by her interruption, perhaps because he is still brooding from the spat, or perhaps because he needs to be somewhere soon and time is precious (he checks his watch, on average, every five minutes). He holds up what he hopes will be a silencing hand while saying, "Thank you, thank you, thank you. Now, if you'll just..."

But the woman isn't so easily distracted. She wants to introduce her grandchildren, one of whom is named Octavia. Jan gets up to deal with the situation, as you feel she does with everything Rooney doesn't quite have the patience for. She is graciousness personified. While Jan coos over Octavia, Rooney's reminiscences now become gleefully scattershot. In the space of a few minutes, he gives me a James Stewart impersonation, tells me about a film called Erik the Viking that he made in 1989 with Terry Jones, and the fact that Dick van Dyke, with whom he worked in 1969, remains a dear friend. Anthony Hopkins he knows as "Tony". Jan sang at his wedding. Rooney is waffling now, and he knows it. He also knows that you'd be happy to sit here and listen to him all day.

And then this: "How many men do you know, before they go to sleep at night, turn to their wives and say, 'I love you?' Well, I do."

By now, Jan has rejoined us.

"Oh dear, what is he mumbling on about?" She takes his hand in hers, and squeezes. "Don't listen to him, honey," she tells me, "he's just an old ham. He can't help but show off."

Of that there was never the slightest doubt.

'Cinderella' runs at the Bristol Hippodrome (0844 847 2325, www.bristolhippodrome. org.uk) until 11 January