Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Oh, Mickey, you're so fun

In today's All TV column, I review the PBS documentary "Pioneers of Primetime," which wasn't one-fifth as entertaining as the press conference to promote it from last July. One of the funniest, most bizarre experiences I've ever had. Since my column about that's no longer archived on, here it is:

Chaos Agent

Mickey Rooney once was, as he will eagerly tell you, the No. 1 box of fice attraction in the world. To that, he can add another distinction: centerpiece of the most surreal news conference in the history of the Television Critics Association press tour.

Rooney, 84, was on stage to discuss PBS’ "Pioneers of Primetime," a documentary about the early days of television, scheduled to run in November. Since Rooney appeared so infrequently on television back then that he’s not even in the documentary, no one could quite understand what he was doing on the panel — not even the Pioneers producer could explain it — but he proceeded to do his best to take over the joint.

For more than an hour, Rooney interrupted other panelists — including genuine TV pioneers like Sid Caesar, 82, and Rose Marie, 81 — answered questions not directed toward him, and randomly digressed into stories about people he had worked with in the movies and on stage.

All that stood between the critics and total conversa tional Armageddon were Carl Reiner, 83, and Red Buttons, 86, who alternately tried to get the discussion back on track or take Rooney down a few pegs.

The trouble began early, when a question about changing standards of taste in TV comedy led Rooney to get philosophical.

"I think everybody in the entertainment world is special," he said, "because God gave them that talent to move forward and to go with the good, the mediocrity of things and the good things. And people who say that they never made mistakes, dont you believe it. Everybody makes mistakes and they’re nothing to be ashamed of. But, in entertainment, you try your best not to make any mistakes. Sometimes, it’s good. Sometimes, it’s fair. Sometimes, it’s not even worth going. But all of these people on this venue today have worked with good taste, good taste, and thats what we’re all proud of."

A startled Buttons asked, "What the hell did Mickey (just) say?"

"I don’t know," Reiner replied. "I was about to ask if somebody had written it down because I want to make a sampler out of that. I want to have that on my couch."

After a Rooney anecdote about the legendary producer and director Cecil B. DeMille that only Caesar seemed to understand, Buttons asked, "By the way, Mickey, was Lincoln a nice guy?"

This didn’t have the desired effect, as Rooney started discussing Civil War generals whose last names also belonged to his own relatives. As the reporters and other panelists broke down in astonished giggles, Rooney insisted, "I don’t know why you’re laughing. It’s true!"

When Rooney began to answer a question asked of Caesar, Reiner said, "You’re not Sid Caesar," and tossed the question back to his old boss from "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar’s Hour."

Later, Rooney began listing all the actors with whom he’d worked at MGM, and likely would have kept going for several minutes if Buttons hadn’t interrupted to start talking about his love of Rooney’s Andy Hardy movies, inventing new ones like "Andy Hardy and the Hasidic Housewife." Rooney then took this as a cue to explain to the audience that Lionel Barrymore had played Judge Hardy in the first Hardy picture.

"I’m so glad I came!" Reiner dryly exclaimed. "I would not have known that!"

"Pioneers of Primetime" deals at length with the vaudeville backgrounds of many early TV stars, and Rooney made sure everyone understood that vaudeville was pre-dated by burlesque, going so far as to dust off old burlesque jokes like "Why did the chicken cross the road?" and "That was no lady, that was my wife!" as Buttons groaned, "Oh, my God."

When Rooney interrupted Buttons’ story about being on stage during the moment of the infamous 1942 police raid of Minsky’s, Buttons griped, "Mickey, I’m on."

"I’ve never seen you get off," Rooney retorted.

"It’s hard to work in stereo," said Buttons. "It really is."

A few minutes after, Buttons was listing TV stars with a background in sketch comedy, such as Caesar, Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers, when Rooney non-sequitur’ed into an appreciation of movie immortal Jimmy Cagney. Buttons, unable to resist, launched into his Cagney impression, and all of a sudden both Buttons and Rooney were on their feet, shadowboxing in a way that only seemed half-playful. (You can guess which half was which.) To defuse the tension, Reiner launched the room into a sing-along of the title number from the Cagney musical "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Rooney sat down, but his Cagney discussion went on for several more minutes — including him reciting lines from the 1935 version of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" where Rooney played Puck and Cagney played Bottom — until "Pioneers" producer Steve Boettcher begged the reporters, "Jump in, jump in. Don’t be shy."

"I was a young girl when this panel was started," cracked Rose Marie.

A reporter wondered if anyone on the panel had a theory about why Milton Berle became a big TV star while his vaudeville contemporary Fred Allen didn’t.

"Can I answer that?" Rooney asked.

"I would be amazed if you didn’t!" said Reiner.

As the session was coming to an end, Reiner declared, "I want to say one thing in defense of Mickey," and as the audience cackled, Reiner went on at length about Rooney’s many talents.

"What I’m saying," he concluded, "is that Mickey Rooney should be forgiven for all his madness up here today because he is a genius. He’s a genius performer."

Buttons, not quite as sincerely, also tried to defend Rooney, pointing out they served in the Army together during World War II.

"One day, he saved our entire outfit. He killed a cook."

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