Mickey Rooney, Up Close and Personal

He was being Mickey Rooney, the only thing he'd ever known. And he was still out there, swinging for the fences.
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I wouldn't tell my parents where I was taking them. That would have spoiled the surprise. It was my mother's birthday, and I wanted to do something special.

So after dinner we walked to the Irish Repertory Theatre on West 22nd Street, where Mickey Rooney, then just shy of his 84th birthday, was performing with his eighth wife, Jan.

My mother couldn't believe it. Mickey Rooney! She'd seen all his movies! The onetime box-office King of Hollywood in person, close enough to reach out and touch in a theater with just over 100 seats!

Well, the night brought new meaning to the word "bittersweet." Mickey Rooney, a tiny owl of a man, told jokes about his many divorces. ("Paying alimony is like putting gas in another guy's car.")

He spoke wistfully about working with Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor. He and his wife sang songs and even danced a little.

Mickey was wonderful, but he seemed weary, and no wonder. He'd been working nonstop since he was a boy.

The whole thing had the feel of a small-town production, until you looked around at the audience. People like Dick Cavett were there, and seated directly in front of us was a white-maned man who turned out to be photographer Richard Avedon.

The crowd's unspoken thought was obvious: Let's get one last look at Mickey Rooney before...well, you know.

Then came the real killer -- as we filed out of the theater, there stood Mickey and his wife in the lobby, selling CDs of their songs.

Mickey Rooney, performer/cashier.

Oh, man. Picture George Clooney thirty years from now, selling autographed pictures of himself at a county fair.

We didn't buy any CDs, but my mother told Mickey Rooney how wonderful he was, and my dad shook his hand.

And then, suddenly, I saw the night in another light. So what if Mickey was performing before a tiny crowd, for short money? He was being Mickey Rooney, the only thing he'd ever known. And he was still out there, swinging for the fences.

Maybe the ball didn't carry as far, but he was swinging. That's a gift, maybe the best gift there is -- being able to play the game you love, right to the finish.

It was my turn to shake Mickey's hand. "Mr. Rooney," I said, "this is the first birthday present I ever got for my mother that didn't have to be returned."

He got a laugh out of that, and it sounded genuine. I'll always be glad to know I made Mickey Rooney laugh.

By the way, Richard Avedon died a month after that show. Mickey Rooney lived and worked for another decade. Funny how things work out.

Charlie Carillo is a novelist and a producer for the TV show Inside Edition.

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