Provo poet lives to make people laugh

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For more than 20 years, reporters around the world have been receiving poems from a Provo man who reads their work and has something to say.

“It’s an obsession for me,” Tim Torkildson said. “Whenever I read something interesting I just have to respond to it in verse.”

Sometimes sent electronically, other times in the mail, poems range in length but are always witty and always rhyme.

He subscribes to at least seven papers — ranging from The New York Times to his hometown paper the Minneapolis Star Tribune — and responds to anything that “tickles” or “outrages” him.

The first poem he remembers sending was back in 1993, a serious poem about the Waco, Texas siege.

Since then the 61-year-old has written thousands.

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During an average week, he’ll write and send five poems to various reporters and news outlets. About 90 percent of the time he doesn’t hear back, but the few times he does is what keeps him going.

In January, Rachel Abrams from The New York Times wrote about the curiosity and persistence that eventually led her to interview Torkildson and publish three poems he sent her.

More recently, Torkildson said he received feedback from a reporter in Europe who called him a “genius” and told him she would “treasure” what he had done with her stories.

To hear feedback like that from a professional writer is gratifying, Torkildson said, especially as a college dropout. He likes the friendships it forms, and hopes someday his hobby could lead to a full-time poetry-writing career.

“I miss doing something that makes people happy,” he said.

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For a good chunk of his life, Torkildson worked as a clown for the Ringling Brothers. His poetry writing started years ago when he was a young father traveling with the circus. Since his kids were home in Provo, he’d write them poems as a way to stay in touch and let them know he was thinking of them.

After arthritis forced him to leave circus life, Torkildson spent 15 years teaching English in Thailand before finding his way back to Utah Valley.

In July 2014, Torkildson received some press from multiple national news outlets after being let go from his part-time job in Provo for supposedly promoting a “gay agenda” through teaching about homophones.

In between jobs, he’s searching for something that makes him and others happy.

“I’m not made to cause people unhappiness,” he said. “If I’m not entertaining people I’m not happy.”

(From an article by Keri Lunt Stevens in the Provo Daily Herald, Wednesday, March 4. 2015)

Kevin Bickford: A Clown for All Seasons.

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It is time to write of Kevin Bickford, a.k.a. Rufus T. Goofus.

I will pass over his many kindnesses to old friends and complete strangers during his tenure at Bozo Row in Los Angeles.  He took in more strays than the SPCA.

I want to recall him as I first met him and worked with him on the Ringling Brothers Blue Unit in 1971.

He and I were both as blind as bats without our glasses, and so were constantly tripping over guy wires and smashing into other big top paraphernalia during walk arounds and ring gags.

During that first season we played Madison Square Garden for over two months, and had several evenings off when we were preempted by hockey games.  Those were glorious rambles through the bowels of New York; one night we went to Radio City Music Hall for the movie.   It was the first time either one of us had ever been inside that Taj Mahal of the cinema.  When Kevin saw the sweeping staircase leading up to the balcony, the carpet a plush red, his slapstick instincts took over.

“Tork” he called, as he clambered up the stairway.  “Watch this!”

At the top he threw himself down, to roll boisterously all the way to the bottom.  Then got up and laughed like an idiot child.  Nearby patrons were extremely startled at his antics; an usher, dressed like a South American chief-of-staff, anxiously asked him if he needed a doctor.  He was about to repeat his performance, until Tim Holst and I grabbed him and forcibly steered him into the darkened theater before he could concoct anymore mayhem.

For my birthday that season he went out and bought me a cake.  We lived right across from each other on the clown train car (nicknamed “The Iron Lung), and so he simply knocked on my door that night after the last show so we could share the treat.  Even though both of us were mighty trenchermen, there was still cake left over, which he gave to me.  But I didn’t want it cluttering up my tiny roomette, so, while he went down the hall to the donniker, I simply shoved it under the upholstered seat of his roomette.  And didn’t think to ever mention it to him.

He didn’t discover this until a few months later, when the cockroaches became even more unendurable than usual.  As he was cleaning out his room preparatory to spraying it he came across the remnant of my birthday cake, slowly decomposing into a feast for bugs.

He chased me through the King Charles Troupe car, through the Bulgarian acrobats car, and then cornered me in the pie car, where I lamely offered to buy him the pie car special – a ham sandwich and a bowl of chili.  That pacified him.

A few seasons later he celebrated my natal day in a much different manner . . .

During the evening performance, while I was doing a gag with Terry Parsons, he snuck up behind me and gave me a shaving cream pie in the kisser.  While I was wiping it out of my eyes he and Terry hustled me into a smelly gunnysack and dragged me off into a corner, where I spent the rest of the show trying to extricate myself from the bag.

I stopped reminding people about my birthday after that.

In Chicago we played the old arena that was next to the stockyards.  Over one hundred years of bloody and poopy cattle had imbued the ground with a unique and unsettling aroma.  It took us several days to become used to it and stop gagging sporadically.  Around the arena were hundreds of bentwood chairs for the front row audience.

Kevin immediately became enchanted with their comic possibilities, and spent come-in wandering among them, getting first an arm and then a leg encumbered in them . . . until he looked like a human porcupine with chair legs sticking out from him at all angles. It was such a funny gag that I tried to steal it from him; but I couldn’t carry it off with the same panache.

My favorite Roofus T. Goofus walk-around had him dressed as a candy butcher, with the pink cotton candy plastered all over his face, arms, midriff and legs.  His look of bemused concern as he staggered around the track engulfed in his own product made even a hardened old veteran like Swede Johnson chuckle.

On Halloween that first season he and I decided to exchange makeups and costumes for the evening show.  We knew that if the performance director, the redoubtable Charlie Baumann, caught us we’d get a taste of his tiger whip – so we stayed out of his sight.  I did Kevin’s gags and he did mine.

It just so happened that payday was that day as well, so when the word went out that the Ghost was walking we didn’t stop to think but scrambled over to the deal table where Schwartzie was handing out the pay envelopes.  Schwartzie was a former clown, as cross-eyed as Ben Turpin, who now handled the payroll.  After a cursory glance he gave me Kevin’s pay envelope and gave Kevin my pay envelope.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I peeked inside Kevin’s envelope – and immediately regretted it.  Kevin was making fifty dollars more than me!  We silently exchanged envelopes a few minutes later.  I doubt that Kevin looked inside my envelope – he wasn’t that kind of a guy.

I lost touch with Roofus when I moved to Thailand to teach English many years ago, and when I moved back to the States there were only occasional and vague echoes of him from other old circus friends.

But I want to think of him now, still swathed in cotton candy and still tottering down the track somewhere to the crows of delighted laughter from children and adults – still a clown for all seasons . . .

The Grave Digger of Ovid, New York.

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Carving loam precisely was his chief delight on days

When a client was delivered from this mortal maze.

Sweating as the Bible says all men must do for bread,

He made a final home not for himself but for the dead.

 

The dead were numbered, filed, forgot; their names a cipher dim.

The graveyard slowly lost to view behind a weedy scrim.

Still the digger carried on; his labors only ceased

When in cold repose himself was buried by a priest.

 

Do the dead care anything if their names are neglected?

Should strangers try to have their identity resurrected?

Ask the digger of the graves in Ovid, New York state.

His answer will not come too soon – nor carry any weight.

 

Apparent Suicide; Comedian Robin Williams Dead at 63

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Robin Williams, an Academy Award-winning actor and comedian who imbued his performances with wild inventiveness and a kind of manic energy, died on Monday at his home in Marin County, Calif. He was 63.

The county sheriff’s office said in a statement that it “suspects the death to be a suicide due to asphyxia.” A further investigation was under way.

The statement said that the office received a 9-1-1 call at 11:55 a.m. saying that a man had been found “unconscious and not breathing inside his residence.” Emergency personnel sent to the scene identified him as Mr. Williams and pronounced him dead at 12:02 p.m.

Mr. William’s publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement that Mr. Williams “has been battling severe depression.”

His wife, Susan Schneider, said in a statement, “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings.” She added: “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

In a printed press release, fellow comedian and actor Woody Allen writes:

“You don’t find great comedy – it finds you.  It marks you and brands you and you become a slave; you may go on to great acting roles in tragedies or singing careers on Broadway or even experience a new life as an author – but once you have crossed that invisible line between sanity and real comedy there is no turning back.  That was Robin Williams.  He became one with his demented characters and uproarious fixations.  He embraced the plaid side of comedy, and never looked back.  I loved the guy.  He had the kind of invidious imagination that could leap over tall buildings with a single bound, but preferred to dig beneath the foundations of things, until they toppled on him.  I don’t know if he’s in a better place now.  They say he was suffering from severe depression.  So maybe he’s just found a better therapist.”

The Rockford Files Now Permanently Closed; James Garner Dead at the Age of 86.

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James Garner, the wry and handsome leading man who slid seamlessly between television and the movies but was best known as the amiable gambler Bret Maverick in the 1950s western“Maverick” and the cranky sleuth Jim Rockford in the 1970s series “The Rockford Files,” was found dead of natural causes in his California home on Saturday night, Officer Alonzo Iniquez of the Los Angeles Police Department told The Associated Press on Sunday. He was 86.

Mr. Garner, who smoked for most of his life, even after open-heart surgery in 1988, had suffered a stroke in 2008.

Mr. Garner was a genuine star but as an actor something of a paradox: a lantern-jawed, brawny athlete whose physical appeal was both enhanced and undercut by a disarming wit. He appeared in more than 50 films, many of them dramas, but as he established in one of his notable early performances, as a battle-shy naval officer in “The Americanization of Emily” (1964) — and had shown before that in “Maverick” — he was most at home as an iconoclast, a flawed or unlikely hero.

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Mr. Garner, shown in 1968, starred in the TV western “Maverick.”CreditUnited Artists, via Associated Press

An understated comic actor, he was especially adept at conveying life’s tiny bedevilments. One of his most memorable roles was as a perpetually flummoxed pitchman for Polaroid cameras in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in droll commercials in which he played a vexed husband and Mariette Hartley played his needling wife. They were so persuasive that Ms. Hartley had a shirt printed with the declaration “I am NOT Mrs. James Garner.”

His one Academy Award nomination was for the 1985 romantic comedy “Murphy’s Romance,” in which he played a small-town druggist who woos the new-in-town divorced mom (Sally Field) with a mixture of self-reliance, grouchy charm and lack of sympathy for fools.

Even Rockford, a semi-tough ex-con (he had served five years on a bum rap for armed robbery) who lived in a beat-up trailer in a Malibu beach parking lot, drove a Pontiac Firebird and could handle himself in a fight (though he probably took more punches than he gave), was exasperated most of the time by one thing or another: his money problems, the penchant of his father (Noah Beery Jr.) for getting into trouble or getting in the way, the hustles of his con-artist pal Angel (Stuart Margolin), his dicey relationship with the local police.

“Maverick” had been in part a send-up of the conventional western drama, and “The Rockford Files” similarly made fun of the standard television detective, the man’s man who upholds law and order and has everything under control. A sucker for a pretty girl with a distinctly ’70s fashion sense — he favored loud houndstooth jackets — Rockford was perpetually wandering into threatening situations in which he ended up pursued by criminal goons or corrupt cops. He tried, mostly successfully, to steer clear of using guns; instead, a bit of a con artist himself, he relied on impersonations and other ruses — and high-speed driving skills. Every episode of the show, which ran from 1974-80 and more often than not involved at least one car chase and Rockford’s getting beat up a time or two, began with a distinctive theme song featuring a synthesizer and a blues harmonica and a message coming in on a newfangled gadget — Rockford’s telephone answering machine — that underscored his unheroic existence: “Jim, this is Norma at the market. It bounced. Do you want us to tear it up, send it back or put it with the others?”

In his 2011 autobiography, “The Garner Files,” written with Jon Vinokur, Mr. Garner confessed to having a live-and-let-live attitude with the caveat that when he was pushed, he shoved back. What distinguished his performance as Rockford was how well that more-put-upon-than-macho persona came across. Rockford’s reactions — startled, nonplussed and annoyed being his specialties — appeared native to him.

His naturalness led John J. O’Connor, writing in The New York Times, to liken Mr. Garner to Gary Cooper and James Stewart. And like those two actors, Mr. Garner usually got the girl.

Mr. Garner came to acting late, and by accident. On his own after the age of 14 and a bit of a drifter, he had been working an endless series of jobs: telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, fatefully, gas station attendant. While pumping gas in Los Angeles, he met a young man named Paul Gregory, who was working nearby as a soda jerk but wanted to be an agent.

Years later, after Mr. Garner had served in the Army during the Korean War — he was wounded in action twice, earning two Purple Hearts — he was working as a carpet layer in Los Angeles for a business run by his father. One afternoon he was driving on La Cienega Boulevard and saw a sign: Paul Gregory & Associates. Just then a car pulled out of a space in front of the building, and Mr. Garner, on a whim, pulled in. He was 25.

Mr. Gregory, by then an agent and a theatrical producer, hired him for a nonspeaking part in his production of Herman Wouk’s “Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” which starred Henry Fonda, John Hodiak and Lloyd Nolan. It opened in Santa Barbara and toured the country before going to Broadway, where it opened in January 1954 and ran for 415 performances. Mr. Garner said he learned to act from running lines with the stars and watching them perform, especially Mr. Fonda, another good-looking actor with a sly streak.

“I swiped practically all my acting style from him,” he once said.

Mr. Garner claimed to have stage fright and no desire to act in the theater. He later played Lt. Maryk (the Hodiak role) in a touring company of the play that starred Charles Laughton, but afterward would almost never appear onstage again. Still, it was the serendipitous stop on La Cienega that changed his life.

“The only reason I’m an actor is that a lady pulled out of a parking space in front of a producer’s office,” he wrote in “The Garner Files.”

James Scott Bumgarner was born in Norman, Okla., on April 7, 1928. His paternal grandfather had participated in the Oklahoma land rush of 1889 and was later shot to death by the son of a widow with whom he’d been having an affair. His maternal grandfather was a full-blooded Cherokee. (Mr. Garner would later name his production company Cherokee Productions.) His first home was the back of a small store that his father, Weldon, known as Bill, ran in the nearby hamlet of Denver. His mother, Mildred, died when he was 4. When he was 7, the store burned down and his father left James and his two older brothers to be raised by relatives; when his father remarried, the family reunited, but James’s stepmother was abusive, he said in his memoir, and after a violent episode at home, he left.

He worked in Oklahoma, Texas and Los Angeles, where his father finally resettled. He went briefly to Hollywood High School but returned to Norman, where he played football and basketball, to finish. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, he was drafted.

Mr. Garner’s first Hollywood break came when he met Richard L. Bare, a director of the television western “Cheyenne,” who cast him in a small part. That and other bit roles led to a contract with Warner Brothers, which featured him in several movies — including “Sayonara” (1957), starring Marlon Brando and based on James Michener’s Korean War novel about interracial romance — and sliced the first syllable from his last name.

His first lead role was in “Darby’s Rangers” (1958) as the World War IIhero William Darby, a part he was given after Charlton Heston walked off the set in a dispute with the studio over money. At about the same time he was cast as the womanizing gambler Bret Maverick, the role that made him a star.

Alone among westerns of the 1950s, “Maverick,” which made its debut in 1957, was about an antihero. He didn’t much care for horses or guns, and he was motivated by something much less grand than law and order: money. But you rooted for him because he was on the right side of moral issues, he had a natural affinity for the little guy being pushed by the bully, and he was more fun than anyone else.

“If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they’re pretty much the same guy,” Mr. Garner wrote. “One is a gambler and the other a detective, but their attitudes are identical.”

In a Maverick-like (or Rockford-like) move, Mr. Garner left the series in 1960 after winning a breach-of-contract suit against Warner Brothers over its refusal to pay him during a writers’ strike. He did not return to series television for a decade. .

He found steady work in movies, however. In “The Children’s Hour” (1961), an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play, he played a doctor engaged to a schoolteacher (Audrey Hepburn) accused of being a lesbian. He appeared uncomfortable in that earnest role, but he was winning and warm in “The Great Escape” (1963), the World War II adventure about captured Allied flyers plotting to break out of a German prison camp, as Bob Hendley, the resourceful prisoner known as the Scrounger.

In 1964 he starred with Julie Andrews in “The Americanization of Emily,” which he called his favorite of all his films. He played the personal attendant of a Navy admiral, a fish out of water and the voice of the movie’s pacifist point of view. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, it contained perhaps the longest and most impassioned speech of his career: “I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham,” he said, in part. “It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. And it’s always the widows who lead the Memorial Dayparades.”

In 1966, he starred as an avenging frontier scout in the violent western“Duel at Diablo” and as a high-speed driver in “Grand Prix,” a film that sparked his interest in auto racing. He drove in the Baja 1000 off-road race several times, and he drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 in 1975, 1978 and 1985.

He also appeared in romantic comedies, including three in 1963: “The Thrill of It All” and “Move Over, Darling,” both with Doris Day, and “The Wheeler Dealers,” opposite Lee Remick. There was also a comic western, “Support Your Local Sheriff” (1969), and a follow-up, “Support Your Local Gunfighter” (1971). Other notable films included “Victor/Victoria” (1982), in which he was reunited with Ms. Andrews, playing a man in love with a woman pretending to be a man.

Mr. Garner was often injured on the job; during the Rockford years, he had several knee operations and back trouble. More seriously, in 1988, he had a quintuple bypass operation, which cost him his job as spokesman for the beef industry.

After surgery, he made a vigorous return to work. He appeared in the television films “My Name is Bill W” (1989), starring James Woods as the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and “Barbarians at the Gate” (1993), based on the best-selling book about the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco; in “My Fellow Americans” (1996), a comic adventure in which he and Jack Lemmon played feuding former presidents who find themselves framed by the sitting president and end up together on the lam; and in the romantic film “The Notebook” (2004). He also reprised his Rockford character in several television movies and appeared in the movie version of “Maverick” (1994) as Marshal Zane Cooper, a foil to the title character, played by Mel Gibson.

Of Mr. Garner’s other forays into series television, “Nichols” was said to have been his own favorite. A dark comic western set in Arizona in the early 20th century that was produced by Cherokee in 1971, it starred Mr. Garner as a retired soldier who becomes sheriff of his hometown. When NBC canceled it after one season, Mr. Garner was so incensed that he had his character killed in the final episode. He later had recurring roles on a number of shows, including “Chicago Hope,” “First Monday” and “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter”; in the short-lived animated series “God, the Devil and Bob,” he was the voice of God.

Mr. Garner disdained the pretentiousness of the acting profession. “I’m a Methodist but not as an actor,” he wrote in “The Garner Files.” “I’m from the Spencer Tracy school: be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories abut acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something that it isn’t. Acting is just common sense. It isn’t hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote.”

Nor did he sit still for the dog-eat-dog business side of Hollywood. In the early 1980s he again sued his employer, this time Universal, which he accused of cheating him out of his share of profits on “The Rockford Files.” Universal settled the case in 1989, reportedly paying him more than $14 million.

Mr. Garner, a lifelong Democrat who was active in behalf of civil rights and environmental causes, always said he met his wife, the former Lois Clarke, in 1956 at a presidential campaign rally for Adlai Stevenson, though in “The Garner Files” Mrs. Garner said they had actually met at a party earlier. She survives him, as do their daughter, Greta, known as Gigi; Mrs. Garner’s daughter from a previous marriage, Kimberly; and a brother, Jack.

Persuasively ambivalent as a hero of westerns, war movies and detective stories, Mr. Garner’s performances may have reflected his feelings about his profession.

“I was never enamored of the business, never even wanted to be an actor, really,” he told The New York Times in 1984. “It’s always been a means to an end, which is to make a living.”garner

Mickey Rooney Dies, Aged 93.

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Mickey Rooney, the pint-size, precocious actor and all-around talent whose more than 80-year career spanned silent comedies, Shakespeare, Judy Garland musicals, Andy Hardy stardom, television and the Broadway theater, died Sunday at age 93.

Los Angeles Police Commander Andrew Smith said that Rooney was with his family when he died at his North Hollywood home.

Smith said police took a death report but indicated that there was nothing suspicious and he had no additional details on the circumstances of his passing. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office said it was not their case because Rooney died a natural death.

There were no further immediate details on the cause of death, but Rooney did attend an Oscar party last month.

Rooney started his career in his parents’ vaudeville act while still a toddler, and broke into movies before age 10. He was still racking up film and TV credits more than 80 years later — a tenure likely unmatched in the history of show business.

“I always say, ‘Don’t retire — inspire,'” he told The Associated Press in March 2008. “There’s a lot to be done.”

Among his roles in recent years was a part as a guard in the smash 2006 comedy “A Night at the Museum.”

Rooney won two special Academy Awards for his film achievements, and reigned from 1939 to 1942 as the No. 1 moneymaking star in movies, his run only broken when he joined the Army. At his peak, he was the incarnation of the show biz lifer, a shameless ham and hoofer whom one could imagine singing, dancing and wisecracking in his crib, his blond hair, big grin and constant motion a draw for millions. He later won an Emmy and was nominated for a Tony.

“Mickey Rooney, to me, is the closest thing to a genius I ever worked with,” Clarence Brown, who directed his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Human Comedy,” once said.

Rooney’s personal life matched his film roles for color. His first wife was the glamorous — and taller — Ava Gardner, and he married seven more times, fathering seven sons and four daughters.

Through divorces, money problems and career droughts, he kept returning with customary vigor.

“I’ve been coming back like a rubber ball for years,” he commented in 1979, the year he returned with a character role in “The Black Stallion,” drawing an Oscar nomination as supporting actor, one of four nominations he earned over the years.

That same year he starred with Ann Miller in a revue called “Sugar Babies,” a hokey mixture of vaudeville and burlesque. It opened in New York in October 1979, and immediately became Broadway’s hottest ticket. Rooney received a Tony nomination (as did Miller) and earned millions during his years with the show.

“I loved working with Mickey on ‘Sugar Babies.’ He was very professional, his stories were priceless and I love them all … each and every one. We laughed all the time,” Carol Channing said.

To the end, he was a non-stop talker continually proposing enterprises, some accomplished, some just talk: a chain of barbecue stands; training schools for talented youngsters; a Broadway show he wrote about himself and Judy Garland; screenplays, novels, plays.

Rooney was among the last survivors of Hollywood’s studio era, which his career predated. Rooney signed a contract with MGM in 1934 and landed his first big role as Clark Gable as a boy in “Manhattan Melodrama.” A loanout to Warner Bros. brought him praise as an exuberant Puck in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which also featured James Cagney and a young Olivia de Havilland.

Rooney was soon earning $300 a week with featured roles in such films as “Riff Raff,” ”Little Lord Fauntleroy,” ”Captains Courageous,” ”The Devil Is a Sissy,” and most notably, as a brat humbled by Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in “Boys Town.”

The big break came with the wildly popular Andy Hardy series, beginning with “A Family Affair.”

“I knew ‘A Family Affair’ was a B picture, but that didn’t stop me from putting my all in it,” Rooney wrote. “A funny thing happened to this little programmer: released in April 1937, it ended up grossing more than half a million dollars nationwide.”

 

The critics grimaced at the depiction of a kindly small-town judge (Lionel Barrymore) with his character-building homilies to his obstreperous son. But MGM saw the film as a good template for a series and studio head Louis B. Mayer saw the series as a template for a model American home. With Barrymore replaced by Lewis Stone in subsequent films and Rooney’s part built up, Andy Hardy became a national hero and the 15 Hardy movies became a gold mine.

Rooney’s peppy, all-American charm was never better matched than when he appeared opposite his friend and fellow child star Garland in such films as “Babes on Broadway” and “Strike up the Band,” musicals built around a plot of “Let’s put on a show!” One of them, the 1939 “Babes in Arms,” brought him his first Oscar nomination. He was also in such dramas as “The Human Comedy,” 1943, which gained Rooney his second Oscar nomination as best actor, and “National Velvet,” 1944, with Elizabeth Taylor.

But Rooney became a cautionary tale for early fame. He earned a reputation for drunken escapades and quickie romances and was unlucky in both money and love. In 1942 he married for the first time, to Gardner, the statuesque MGM beauty. He was 21, she was 19.

“I’m 5 feet 3, but I was 6 feet 4 when I married Ava,” he said in later years. The marriage ended in a year, and Rooney joined the Army in 1943, spending most of his World War II service entertaining troops.

Rooney returned to Hollywood and disillusionment. His savings had been stolen by a manager and his career was in a nose dive. He made two films at MGM, then his contract was dropped.

“I began to realize how few friends everyone has,” he wrote in his second autobiography. “All those Hollywood friends I had in 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1941, when I was the toast of the world, weren’t friends at all.”

His movie career never regained its prewar eminence. “The Bold and the Brave,” 1956 World War II drama, brought him an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. But mostly, he played second leads in such films as “Off Limits” with Bob Hope, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” with William Holden, and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” with Anthony Quinn. In the early 1960s, he had a wild turn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” as Audrey Hepburn’s bucktoothed Japanese neighbor and was among the fortune seekers in the all-star comedy “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.”

Rooney’s starring roles came in low-budget films such as “Drive a Crooked Road,” ”The Atomic Kid,” ”Platinum High School,” ”The Twinkle in God’s Eye” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”

But his later career proved his resilience: The Oscar nomination for “Black Stallion.” The “Sugar Babies” hit that captivated New York, London, Las Vegas and major U.S. cities. Voicing animated features like “The Fox and the Hound,” ”The Care Bears Movie” and “Little Nemo.” An Emmy for his portrayal of a disturbed man in the 1981 TV movie “Bill.” Teaming with his eighth wife, Jan, off-Broadway in 2004 for a musical look back at his career called, fittingly, “Let’s Put On a Show.”

“He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Singing, dancing, performing … all with great expertise,” actress Margaret O’Brien said. “I was currently doing a film with him, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr Hyde” – I simply can’t believe it. He seemed fine through the filming and was as great as ever.”

Over the years, Rooney also made hundreds of appearances on TV talk and game shows, dramas and variety programs. He starred in three series: “The Mickey Rooney Show” (1954), “Mickey” (1964) and “One of the Boys” (1982). All lasted one season and a co-star from “One of the Boys,” Dana Carvey, later parodied Rooney on “Saturday Night Live,” mocking him as a hopeless egomaniac who couldn’t stop boasting he once was “the number one star … IN THE WOOORLD!”

In 1983, the Motion Picture Academy presented Rooney with an honorary Oscar for his “60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances.” That matched the 1938 special award he shared with Deanna Durbin for “bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.”

A lifelong storyteller, Rooney wrote two memoirs: “i.e., an Autobiography” published in 1965; “Life Is Too Short,” 1991. He also produced a novel about a child movie star, “The Search for Sonny Skies,” in 1994.

In the autobiographies, Rooney gave two versions of his debut in show business. First he told of being 1½ and climbing into the orchestra pit of the burlesque theater where his parents were appearing. He sat on a kettle drum and pretended to be playing his whistle, vastly amusing the audience. The theater owner kept him in the show.

The second autobiography told a different story: He was hiding under the scenery when he sneezed. Dragged out by an actor, the toddler was ordered to play his harmonica. He did, and the crowd loved it.

Whatever the introduction, Joe Yule Jr., born in 1920, was the star of his parents’ act by the age of 2, singing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” in a tiny tuxedo. His father was a baggy-pants comic, Joe Yule, his mother a dancer, Nell Carter. Yule was a boozing Scotsman with a wandering eye, and the couple soon parted.

While his mother danced in the chorus, young Joe was wowing audiences with his heartfelt rendition of “Pal o’ My Cradle Days.” During a tour to California, the boy made his film debut as a midget in a 1926 Fox short, “Not to Be Trusted.”

Young Joe Yule played another midget in a Warner Bros. feature, “Orchids and Ermine,” starring Colleen Moore. Then he tried out for the lead in a series of Mickey McGuire comedies, meant to rival Hal Roach’s “Our Gang.”

“I was ready to be Mickey McGuire,” Rooney wrote in his memoirs, “except for one thing: his hair was black, mine was blonde.”

His mother dyed his hair black the night before the audition, and her son won the role. He also acquired a new name: Mickey McGuire. He starred in 21 of the silent comedies, 42 with sound.

The boy was also playing kid parts in features, and his name seemed inappropriate. His mother suggested Rooney, after the vaudeville dancer, Pat Rooney.

After splitting with Gardner, Rooney married Betty Jane Rase, Miss Birmingham of 1944, whom he had met during military training in Alabama. They had two sons and divorced after four years. (Their son Timothy died in September 2006 at age 59 after a battle with a muscle disease called dermatomyositis.)

His third and fourth marriages were to actress Martha Vickers (one son) and model Elaine Mahnken.

The fifth Mrs. Rooney, model Barbara Thomason, gave birth to four children. While the couple were estranged in 1966, she was found shot to death in her Brentwood home; beside her was the body of her alleged lover, a Yugoslavian actor. It was an apparent murder and suicide.

A year later, Rooney began a three-month marriage to Margaret Lane. She was followed by a secretary, Caroline Hockett — another divorce after five years and one daughter.

In 1978, Rooney, 57, married for the eighth — and apparently last — time. His bride was singer Janice Darlene Chamberlain, 39. Their marriage lasted longer than the first seven combined.

After a lifetime of carrying on, he became a devoted Christian and member of the Church of Religious Science. He settled in suburban Thousand Oaks, about 40 miles west of Los Angeles.

In 2011, Rooney was in the news again when he testified before Congress about abuse of the elderly, alleging that he was left powerless by a family member who took and misused his money.

“I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated,” Rooney told a special Senate committee considering legislation to curb abuses of senior citizens. “But above all, when a man feels helpless, it’s terrible.”

That year Rooney sued his stepson Christopher Aber and others on allegations that they tricked him into thinking he was on the brink of poverty while defrauding him out of millions and bullying him into continuing to work. Aber declined comment on the suit except to say, “this lawsuit is not from Mickey Rooney — it’s from his conservators who are stealing from him.” Both Rooney and his conservator were named as plaintiffs.

Justin Kaplan, Prize-Winning Literary Biographer, Dies at 88. Some Personal Reflections.

A failed attempt to write this great clown's biography.
A failed attempt to write this great clown’s biography.

The passing of Justin Kaplan reminds me of my own failed attempts at biography.  Explaining someone else’s life is harder than explaining the universe; there are rules and theories for the cosmos, but who can accurately chart the human heart?  My attempts at biography left me convinced that each person is a mystery, even to themselves.  I was only able to produce a string of anecdotes, a mere compendium of quotations and observations that read like a high school essay, obscuring my subject even as I tried to explain him.  I have read Kaplan’s masterful biographies of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, and wondered at his deft and deep knowledge of his subjects.

My first attempt at biography was of my clown idol, Otto Griebling.  I had worked with him as a clown during his last season at Ringling Brothers Circus in 1972.  I like to think he took a shine to me, a gawky First of May.  Voiceless due to throat cancer, he communicated by scribbled note and pantomime.  Early in the season he had indicated he wanted me to buy a woman’s dress, a window shade, and a large colander for a walk-around gag he had created for me.  When I produced the required items, after wriggling into the dress for him, he sadly shook his head; somehow, I had not purchased the right kind of dress nor the proper window shade and colander.  He was never able to communicate to me just exactly what he wanted me to do, and so I was never able to carry out his comic scheme.

That episode is emblematic of how badly I floundered when I tried to stitch his life together twenty-five years later.  I had been writing a weekly column for Circus Report, a trade magazine, and thought in my awful arrogance that I could presume upon my slight acquaintance with Otto to produce a full-blown biography of his life and art.

My biography began promisingly enough with an anecdote he had told me over the course of several days with notes and gestures, about his mischievous teenage years in Koblenz, Germany.  One Walpurgis Night, as a prank, he had crept into the clock tower of a neighborhood church and set the clock chimes to ring thirteen times at midnight.  According to Otto the superstitious neighbors had run about in stark panic after that, thinking witches were infesting their houses.

But my narrative quickly ran out of steam after that opening gambit.  I did not possess the tools or patience (or talent) to put together a compelling life story about this giant in circus comedy.  My biography sputtered to a halt at 190 pages, with his passing in New York City while in his 22nd season with the show.  I let a few close friends read the finished manuscript.  They were kind, saying it had very few spelling errors.

I did not learn my lesson from that literary debacle.  A few years later I tried again, this time limning the character of Irvin Feld, the man that resuscitated the sinking Ringling Brothers Circus.  I had attended his Clown College in Venice, Florida, and had sat in a plush leather chair after graduation while he handed me a golden pen to sign my first circus contract.  Wreathed in cigar smoke, he had mispronounced my last name, calling me “Torgenson”.  From that moment onward my life took on a raucous tinge of ballyhoo that I was never to lose, and I wanted to return the favor by reproducing this savvy businessman and circus savior on the printed page.

This time I only made it up to page 121. By that point I had exhausted all my personal knowledge and memories of the man, and had made a botch of the skimpy research I had grudgingly done on him.  I might have written an engaging magazine article about Irvin Feld, but it was obvious, even to my bloated ego, that a book-length biography of the man was beyond my capabilities.  I performed a cold-blooded vivisection on the piece, turning it into half a dozen articles for Circus Report magazine.

Since then, I have never been tempted to try writing biography again.  In fact, as I look back on what I have just written about my own life, I am slightly mortified, thinking “This explains nothing, adds nothing to the sum of human knowledge or emotions – I could have better spent my time feeding stale bread to the mallards down on the Provo River.”  That, at least, would have given me some fleeting satisfaction, kept the ducks alive, and made provident use of the butt end of a loaf of bread.

My biography of Irvin Feld ended after just 121 pages.
My biography of Irvin Feld ended after just 121 pages.