HOLLYWOOD—HELLO AMERICA! Yes, the Hollywood that Mickey Rooney grew up in and knew played a different game to success. Louis B. Mayer made sure that all of his actors under contract followed his standards and rules—and if you couldn’t handle the pressure, you were quickly and easily replaced by someone who could.
Q. When you made your film debut in 1926, how did you feel being around so many Hollywood stars?
A. “My first teenage film was ‘Not To Be Trusted’ and I took everything in stride. I guess I’ve always been sure of myself — I never felt threatened by other actors in a show or anyone facing the camera with me. I had no problem just getting right into a character and making the most of it. It’s always been that way with me.”
Q. What was the atmosphere at the MGM at the time?
A. “It was exciting! How could it not be with stars like Jimmy Stewart, Katie Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Mario Lanza — hey, I could go on forever. Of course, I was lucky to have Judy Garland at my side in some of the best musical moments of my career.”
Q. How close did you two become? After all, there seemed to be some kind of drama that was always invading her life.
A. “You’re right. Judy was like a sister, a very close one. I understood her, and appreciated the kind of pressure she was experiencing. Everybody was demanding something from her— her mother, Mr. Meyer, the press and her constant war in trying to lose weight. When she did the ‘Wizzard of Oz’, it changed everything for her overnight; the world had its eye on her. She was always trying to meet their expectations of her, and to deal with it, at times, nearly destroyed her. Judy never believed that anybody every really loved her, and she ended up hooking up with someone who didn’t care about her, but simply used her to enhance their image. In other words, she was constantly being used, if not by a producer, studio, but some guy who came along promising her the world.”
Q. What was the most frustrating point in your life?
A. “Being married to Ava Gardner!”
Q. That’s surprising.
A. “Ava drove me out of my mind! I fell hard for her — nearly worshiped the ground she walked on. The best nights and times of my life, in a social sense, were spent with Ava. She was hot-natured, combustible, always willing to challenge the world. That’s why when she went to Spain and got in the ring with a bull, it was no surprise to me; she loved living dangerously. I realized, early-on that we would never stay married. My way of life was set here in Hollywood, under a studio rule, one that made me feel secure, and yes, happy.”
Q. Do you miss the Hollywood of yesterday?
A. “Of course, after all, it was a time when I was a part of a growing, experimental industry that afforded me an opportunity to explore sides of my creative self that would have been impossible anywhere else. After all, I was in a place where people like Lionel Barrymore, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Walter Pidgeon, Ronald Coleman, Kathryn Grayson, Liz Taylor, Fred Astaire played. Then, of course, there was Marilyn Monroe. We became very good friends. Bette Davis said that when they performed together in ‘All About Eve’ she knew that Monroe would become a star. I believe her, Marilyn was very special — watching her was hypnotizing. Then there was Lena Horne. She’s sadly gone now, but Lena was one of the most beautiful women in our business. I will never forget her singing in one of my films ‘Words and Music’ and then there, of course, was ‘Showboat’. Yeah, that lady was something extraordinary.”
Q. If you had a choice of doing one last major film, what kind of film would it be?
A. “Oh, that’s easy. If I had one last wish in choosing a film to do, it would be a musical, one like Judy and I use to sing and dance in. A Busby Berkeley kind of spectacular. I would give anything to be able to star in one of his shows. Of course, with Judy in front of the line with me. For me, that was truly show biz!”