“Last Night” of a Legend: Mickey Rooney and Rod Serling

“I want to be big!” thunders Michael Grady in Rod Serling’s “The Last Night of a Jockey.”

An ironic line, as it turns out. Grady, a horse jockey who’s been blackballed for a variety of racing infractions, is a small man who, by the episode’s end, gets his wish in the most literal way. Hello, Twilight Zone.

mickeyrooney

And goodbye, Mickey Rooney, the man who brought Grady to raw, sputtering life in a high-octane performance that few other actors would even attempt. He’d become big long before there was a Twilight Zone. Only five feet, two inches tall, Rooney stood considerably higher in the pantheon of golden-era film stars.

A legend? Let’s put it this way: News of Rooney’s death at 93 on April 6, 2014, prompted more than one shocked fan on Twitter to note that it somehow felt too soon.

Some remember him for his “Andy Hardy” films, harkening back to a less cynical age. Others fondly recall his hundreds of other movies, which stretched from the silent era to “Night at the Museum.” But for fans of The Twilight Zone, he’ll always be an enraged train-wreck of a man named Michael Grady.

Mickey_Rooney_The_Twilight_Zone_1963

We don’t like Grady. Not one bit. He stirs no sympathy in us. The tragedy of his fate doesn’t hit us like Henry Bemis’s. But it’s almost impossible to look away. Serling and Rooney are so good at their craft that it doesn’t seem like we’re watching a short, one-man play, but acting as voyeurs at the scene of a man unraveling before our eyes.

“I thought of Rooney, and then I tailored the story to fit him,” Serling said. And the fit is perfect. (You can watch it at this link.)

Like all the greats, Rooney doesn’t merely act in his role. He inhabits it. He pours such an explosive energy into his performance, and mixes it with enough genuine pathos, that it hardly seems scripted. But thanks to Serling, it’s scripted beautifully. “Gee, he was a great writer,” Rooney says in his commentary.

The late actor knew this long before “The Last Night of a Jockey” came along, though. Rooney starred several years earlier in “The Comedian,” a live teleplay about a tyrannical TV comic whose backstage life was anything but funny. serling-smallIt earned Serling — who adapted a story by Ernest Lehman, who later scripted “North by Northwest” — the third of his six lifetime Emmy awards.

For those who thought of Rooney as Andy Hardy, “The Comedian” must have been a shock. His manic, highly theatrical performance as Sammy Hogarth is really quite astonishing at times. He bellows, belittles and berates. He fires sardonic jabs at his staff. He hurls verbal abuse at anyone who tries his patience.

Serling’s trademark sharp dialogue rings throughout. “He’s an addict,” remarks Hogarth’s long-suffering brother at one point. “And the dope he craves doesn’t come in a needle. He needs the adulation of 40 million people!”

Variety declared it a “milestone in adult video drama,” with a cast list that included Mel Tormé, Kim Hunter (who had already provided a touching performance in Serling’s previous Emmy winner, “Requiem for a Heavyweight”) and two future TZ stars: H.M. Wynant (David Ellington in “The Howling Man”) and Constance Ford (Barbara Polk in “Uncle Simon”).

But not even these pros could steal a scene from Rooney. According to director John Frankenheimer:

Mickey Rooney is without a doubt the most talented actor that I’ve ever worked with in my entire life. That doesn’t mean just in television. It means in film, it means everywhere. There’s nothing the man can’t do. He’s a magician. There’s just so much talent crammed into that little man, it’s unbelievable unless you’ve worked with him.

So it’s hardly surprising that Rooney returned for a third time to the Serling-verse when “Night Gallery” came along. The episode in question, “Rare Objects,” focuses on a mafia-type crime boss desperate to escape the never-ending attempts on his life. August Kolodney has a short fuse and a volatile temper. Hmmm, who could play that part?

MR Rare Objects

Fortunately, Serling created not one but two memorable characters for his story. Part of the appeal of “Rare Objects” comes as Kolodney spars with ever-bemused Dr. Glendon, played by Raymond Massey (in the second of two Gallery appearances.)

Glendon’s offer — a long, carefree life with an ironclad assurance of safety — sounds too good to be true. Kolodney wants to think it over. Glendon, however, has a different idea.

It ends with one of Serling’s best twists since his Twilight Zone days. (You can watch it at this link.)

“That one I loved,” director Jeannot Szwarc said. “Mickey Rooney was a riot, rareobjects14because he was always ‘on.’ They say when he gets up at night to open the fridge and the light goes on, he does 10 minutes.”

Sadly, the light is off now, but thanks to the magic of film — and especially to three memorable scripts by Rod Serling — Rooney will always be “on,” providing future generations with a lesson in all-out acting, which has itself become a “rare object.”

As Serling reminds us in his closing narration to “The Last Night of a Jockey”: “You don’t measure size with a ruler, you don’t figure height with a yardstick, and you never judge a man by how tall he looks in a mirror. The giant is as he does.”

Making Mr. Rooney a giant by any metric. May he rest in peace.

Mickey_Rooney_still

***

Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook or PinterestYou can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.

Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 04/13/2014, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 61 Comments.

  1. Another exceptional post, Boss. I’m not a fan of Mickey Rooney by any stretch of the imagination, but your post was so well written and informative that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. And I know I told you this when I first read the post, but it bears repeating. Your transitioning between points is flawless. Perfect. The best I’ve ever read from any other author out there. So smooth all the time. Very nice job.

    Rooney was definitely an important Hollywood star and he’ll be sorely missed by many. I didn’t realize he had been so involved with Serling’s work, although it does seem like an obvious pairing. An incredible writer and a top-notch actor. Just makes sense, doesn’t it?

    “The Last Night of a Jockey” is one of the TZ episodes I’m least familiar with, but this post has made me want to watch it again!

    • Thanks, GF! I remember, when I first told you about this post, how you said you weren’t a Rooney fan. Frankly, that makes me appreciate your praise all the more. Better to have impressed a non-fan than someone predisposed to like anything written about the man!

      I’m glad you found it interesting to learn about his other work with Serling. That’s what really convinced me to do this post. I didn’t want to just fan over his TZ episode — I wanted to bring some lesser-known information to light and show why Serling enjoyed writing for Rooney.

      Thanks, as always, for the pics and your ever-reliable editing eye. As for your praise of my transitions? Your bonus is on the way! ;)

  2. NotAPunkRocker

    I don’t think I have seen this episode…I think I need to get on Netflix now.

  3. It’s always good to have a reason to watch a TZ episode. thanks Paul for another well researched story. You tell this as if you were there by his side.

    • High praise, Dan! And much appreciated. Yes, you could say my whole blog is dedicated to giving people a reason to watch TZ!

  4. I loved Mickey Rooney. One of the funniest things I ever heard an actor say was when Mickey was not included in one of the Batman movies. He said that he would’ve painted himself brown and gone as Batsh*t!

  5. Congrats on the Freshly Pressage!
    I loved Andy Rooney and remember the Night Gallery film. I would think it hit close to home for him, being a small guy. He had a vulnerability that I really loved.

    • Many thanks! And you’re right: beneath the bluster WAS a vulnerability that helped make him fascinating to watch. It definitely comes through in these performances.

      • It was smart of him to use his “shortcomings,” in film.

        Are you still slammed with visitors? I bet you had a blast!

      • The line has been right out the door! And yes, to quote Marsha in “The After Hours,” it’s been “ever so much fun.”

  6. I’m so glad that you were freshly pressed. Otherwise I may not have found your blog. The Twilight Zone is tied with Perry Mason for my favorite show. Anyway, yay.:)

    • I’m glad, too! And yes, Perry Mason is an old favorite of mine as well. I have fond memories of watching reruns with Dad when I was a kid. A true classic.

  7. Goodbye, Mickey Rooney, you will be missed! Rest in peace!

  8. A legend remembered and a legacy forever.

  9. A beautiful tribute to Mickey Rooney!

    I’m not really familiar with Mickey Rooney’s work except for “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and the TZ episode, but I thought he was an excellent actor.

    In “The Last Night of a Jockey” he was able to show just how good he was. Not many actors are talented enough to hold a viewer’s attention for an entire show basically talking to himself/herself in one room, but Mickey Rooney did it successfully here.

    Fantastic script by Rod Serling!

    I’ll have to watch “Rare Objects”. It sounds great!

    • Thanks! Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

      You’re right, not many actors could do such a riveting one-man show. It really was a remarkable performance. But then, all three of them are. Definitely check out “Rare Objects” sometime soon.

      Serling’s words, Rooney’s acting … what a great combination.

  10. Great post! Mickey Rooney was fantastic!

  11. I’ve never been a big Mickey Rooney or Twilight Zone fan, but The Last Night of a Jockey sounds interesting. Must give it a watch sometime.

  12. That’s one of my favorite TZ episodes. Rooney portrayed an ugly, unlikeable jockey where you don’t know if you should feel satisfaction or pity when he is transformed into a giant.

    • Very true! His character is by no means likeable, but Rooney and Serling gave him a touch of humanity that makes us feel his plight to a certain degree.

  13. Just found your post and it’s a wonderful review of Mickey’s acting. Many just thought of him as the goofy Andy Hardy and that was it, they hadn’t seen some of his other works starting with Boystown and moving up to these Rod Serling classics!
    Thank you for the terrific goodbye to a wonderful actor and man.

    • So true. I hope this introduces some people to the full scope of his talent. Thanks for the kind words — glad you enjoyed the post!

  14. nerdycanuck

    Reblogged this on Best Of and commented:
    Loved the post, great job.

  15. How unfortunate for me that I knew Rooney more for voice overs later in his life than through his movies. In his youth he made movies and was a darling to marry off to the princess. No one cared for him after a certain age, as he seemed to be too old. I guess I will have to keep an eye out for his movies.

  16. Nice post. I love to know more about what we didn’t know about stars, especially the positive side of their life and talent. And I didn’t know Rooney played parts in Twilight Zone and Night Gallery! Always loved him in “The Human Comedy.”

    • Yes, “The Human Comedy” is another of his early efforts that I could have named. It’s remarkable how the man kept audiences entertained for nearly a century, and did it so well. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  17. I have always been a Mickey Rooney Fan…he was a powerful force onscreen and deserved way more respect by his peers than what he was given in his later years. I recall with sadness the year he was supposed to appear onstage at the Academy Awards and was left forgotten on the ramp under the stage. My heart went out to him that night.

    • That’s a shame. I wasn’t aware of that incident. I agree completely, though — he was indeed a powerful force, as he demonstrated not only in the shows above but in so many others. He’ll really be missed.

  18. I grew up, I mean, I was a child in the 50’s. Loved Twilight Zone, and was a big fan of Mickey Rooney, but who wasn’t? Serling and Rooney, two geniuses, no? Enjoyed reading this.

  19. I’ll have to check out Night Gallery.

  20. Great post. I’m an old movie buff and have seen a lot of Rooney’s earlier films. My favorite is “Human Comedy”. To me, it confirms what a good actor he truly was.

    • Thanks! He certainly was, and the fact that he bridged each segment of Serling’s career helped motivate me to do this post.

  21. John Frankenheimer was one of the busiest directors in film and TV. To hear him say Mickey Rooney was the best he ever worked with is astonishing, but not surprising. Watching Mickey was at times like watching the alcoholic neighbor fall apart at your back yard party. You want to run but realize it’s your property. What he did was brilliant but often ugly and unattractive. That is unless he was being sweet and genuine. In those roles he stole our hearts.

  22. lynnjakubec

    Loved this!

  23. Reblogged this on Lies, Liars, Beatniks and Hippies and commented:
    “You don’t measure size with a ruler, you don’t figure height with a yardstick, and you never judge a man by how tall he looks in a mirror. The giant is as he does.”

  24. We stumbled over here coming from a different web page and thought I should check things out. I like what I see, so I am just following you. Look forward to checking out your web page yet again.

  25. Ronnie Benford

    I just saw the show with Mickey Rooney as the jockey. I loved it. I get see Rod’s shows on ME-TV in Dallas, Texas. Wish I could see the one with James Best where he dies and comes back to life. Raised out in the country, wants to marry this country girl. Loved it.

    • Ah, yes — “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”. Great episode. I’m glad you get a chance to see TZ on Me-TV. Thanks for stopping by!

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