07 April 2014

R.I.P. Mickey Rooney -- A Hollywood Childhood Star Who Epitomizes the Boys Town Credo

Mickey Rooney (ne Joseph Yule, Jr), who had been in show business for virtually his entire life, died at the age of 93 in North Hollywood, California. Rooney was a childhood star who starred in over 300 films and television shows. Rooney was honored with two Academy Awards, one for his role in Boystown (1938) and an honorary Oscar in 1983 for fifty years in the movie industry. Rooney also earned an Emmy in 1981 for his portrayal of "Bill" about a mentally disturbed man struggling with deinstitionalization.

Despite his enormous acting talent, Rooney led an erratic off-screen life.   Film historian Jeanine Basinger opined: "Mr. Rooney had talent to burn, and he burned it...He has done everything there is to do in show business, all with equal success, and it might be said, equal failure.” He was married eight times, struggled with substance abuse, womanizing  and gambling.

While some may turn askance at Rooney's messy personal life, it is remarkable how Rooney became an evangelical Christian late in life and continued to share his faith until his passing. In the 1970s, Rooney shared how his Christian conversion occurred in the coffee shop of a Lake Tahoe casino when an angel, disguised as a busboy, whispered "Mr. Rooney, Jesus Christ loves you very much."  After that encounter, Rooney became an active member of the Center for Spiritual Living (a.k.a. Church of Religious Science), founded by Ernest Holmes.

Rooney also relished his relationship with Boys Town, the orphanage in Omaha, Nebraska founded by Servant of God Monsignor "Father" Edward Flanagan in 1917, who is now being investigated by the Vatican for sainthood. The film Boystown was a fictionalized retelling of the "City of Little Men", with Rooney in his first dramatic role portraying troubled youth Whitey Marsh and Spencer Tracy in the role of Father Flanagan.  Father Flanagan dedicated his life to the belief that there is no such thing as a bad boy and the film dramatized the mission.

[L] Fr. Flanagan and [2nd from R] Mickey Rooney reading first draft of Boys Town script (1938)

After Boys Town finished filming in ten days and was quickly turned around for release, MGM movie mogul Louis  B. Mayer wanted to scrap the film because the grim tale of crime and poverty was too different from MGM's typical fair.  Mayer reportedly exclaimed: "It will never sell.  There's no sex. There's no songs."  To persuade the MGM studio head, Rooney retorted: "It's a song of freedom. It's a song of rehabilitation. It's a song of youth, no matter what color or faith you are. It's about praying. It's about living a good life."

Mickey Rooney took great pride in his association with Boys Town as exhibited in 2003 when he was named Mayor For Life at a ceremony in Girls and Boys Town in Omaha.

[L] Mickey Rooney and wife of 35 years Jan Chamberlain at Boys Town in 2003

As Rooney was promoting the Treasure Train (2011), he testified about his Christian faith and spoke with great affection about being the Mayor of Boys Town.

So as we mark Mickey Rooney's passing, it is worth considering the values from Boys Town that there is no such thing as a bad boy and how dedication to Christ can clarify one's life.

Mickey Rooney had his own ideas about his last wish.  In his 1991 autobiography "Life Is Too Short", Rooney ruminated about his short stature.  Rooney wrote: “I've been short all my life. And if anyone wonders what my dying wish will be, they can stop wondering. That will be easy. I'll just tell them, ‘I’ll have a short bier.’ ”

A short bier with a long legacy. 

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