Mickey Rooney, who died April 6, had many fans, including 10-year-old Gore Vidal. “What I really wanted to be,” Vidal wrote in his memoir Point to Point Navigation, “was a movie star: specifically, I wanted to be Mickey Rooney.” The inspiration? Not the “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” musicals Rooney made for MGM with Judy Garland—it was his role as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and released in 1935, when Rooney was 14. “I wanted to play Puck, as he had,” Vidal recalled.
Gore took his first step toward becoming a movie star in a 1936 newsreel, when he took off and landed a plane—under the supervision of his father, the director of Air Commerce for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The idea was to show that anybody could fly a plane, even a kid. So Gore took off and landed for the cameras—and then faced the newsreel interviewer. But he had trouble speaking; “I resembled not Mickey Rooney but Peter Lorre in M,” he recalled. “My screen test had failed.”
Nevertheless Mickey Rooney’s Puck changed Gore Vidal’s life. “Bewitched” by the performance, he recalled, “I read the play, guessing at half the words; then, addicted to this strange new language, I managed to read most of Shakespeare before I was sixteen.” Vidal became a writer instead of a movie star, and the rest is history.
Even today Rooney’s Puck remains striking. David Thomson wrote in his Biographical Dictionary of Film that the performance remains “one of cinema’s most arresting pieces of magic.”
I ran into Mickey Rooney on a LA–New York flight shortly after Gore Vidal’s memoir was published. He looked old and tired. I asked him if he had seen what Gore Vidal wrote about him in his new memoir. He said “no,” and made it clear that he was irritated at the unwanted interruption. I told him how inspired the young Gore had been by Mickey’s Puck. Rooney paused, and then smiled his famous smile. “Gore Vidal—wow!” he said.
He thanked me, and I went back to my seat.