“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.
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.
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. It 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?
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, because 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.
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You 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!
Posted on 04/13/2014, in Twilight Zone and tagged Constance Ford, Emmy awards, H.M. Wynant, Jeannot Szwarc, John Frankenheimer, Kim Hunter, Mel Torme, Mickey Rooney, Night Gallery, Rare Objects, Raymond Massey, Rod Serling, The Comedian, The Last Night of a Jockey, Twilight Zone. Bookmark the permalink. 61 Comments.