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MICKEY ROONEY: THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE HIS DISPOSABLE JOCKEY SHORTS BUSINESS

When I interviewed Mickey Rooney for The New York Times in 1977, he enjoyed reminiscing about Judy, Ava and Liz, but he seemed equally enthused about his current, decidedly oddball business enterprise. --Guy Flatley

Nowadays, a good movie about a boy and his horse is hard to find. Which is why it comes as a jolt to hear that the "Godfather"’s own Francis Ford Coppola is producing "The Black Stallion," based on the children's classic by William Farley. What’s more, Mr. Coppola and his director, Carroll Ballard, have come up with the ideal star for their film. His name is Mickey Rooney.

Mr. Rooney, a vigorous 56, will not be playing the horse-crazy kid, however. As in "National Velvet," he will be seen as the stubborn trainer who molds a novice jockey into a valiant victor. This time, the champ is played by 11-year-old Kelly Reno, and Mr. Rooney--now on location in Toronto--is mighty keen on the kid. "He’s your original boy on the cover of the American Weekly, right out of a Norman Rockwell painting," said Mr. Rooney in a hoarse, early-morning voice. "I think he’s more American than I was. By the time I was Kelly’s age, I had been working nine years in vaudeville."

And by the time he was in his teens, he was one of the biggest box-office stars in the country, equally admired as a cigarette-puffing street tough or as the eternally innocent, soda-sipping Andy Hardy--the cleanest-scrubbed, sweetest-natured rascal in all of Carvel. Although James Agee and other perceptive critics deemed young Rooney one of the finest talents on the American screen, he became increasingly difficult to cast as he grew older--but not significantly taller. Still, even today, he seizes the occasional opportunity when it is presented--such as his guest role on "A Year at the Top," Norman Lear’s summer television series which will have its premiere on CBS tonight at 8. But his conversation these days is apt to be peppered with more references to his business enterprises than to his art.

"I’m part of a group called World Investment Network, and that stands for ‘win.’ We’re working on a whole chain of international inns, dinner theaters, schools for ballet and tap-dancing, a women’s cosmetic line, and disposable jockey shorts for men--they’ll be paper, like the baby diapers, and we’re calling them Rip-Offs. We’re also making movies in Chicago, the first of which will be a spoof called ‘The Picture That Nobody Should See.’ It’s about two old people who set about to make millions on a porno movie entitled ‘Savage Lust.’ "

The project dearest to Mr. Rooney’s heart is the International Commemorative Society, in which he is a partner with such illustrious citizens of Hollywood as Bob Hope, John Wayne, Lucille Ball, Paul Newman and Liza Minnelli. "We’re going to issue six solid silver coins a year, marketing for about $300. The first one will be a Judy Garland coin. Judy and I were like brother and sister--she’s a very deep love in my life."

Mr. Rooney’s recollections of his days at M-G-M tend to be gently Technicolored, and he emphatically denies the rumor that his adulthood has been plagued by a series of financial catastrophes. "That’s a lie. There never was a time when Rooney didn’t have a few bones in his pockets. There were times when I was ill, but never broke. No one will have to give a benefit for Mickey Rooney."

Even critics who find Mr. Rooney’s work excessively mannered concede that he gave superior performances in "Boys Town," "The Human Comedy," "National Velvet," "Killer McCoy," "The Bold and the Brave" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight." What does he consider the highlights of his career?

"Oh, I don’t think you have enough paper in your typewriter for all my highlights. There were some tremendous thrills in yesterday, but there were some lousy, stinking bombs, too. I’m really not a man who lives in yesterday; I live in the now. Everything so far has just been an apprenticeship. I’ve written a novel called ‘The Panama Canal Incident,’ and on Sept. 21 I’m opening in Chicago in ‘Dr. Hekyll and Mr. Clyde,’ a play which I wrote with Bob Friedman. On Nov. 3, ‘Pete’s Dragon’ opens at Radio City Music Hall. That’s a very big Walt Disney movie in which I play Helen Reddy’s father. In fact, I’ve been married so many times that I might be Helen Reddy’s father."

Times have changed. "My 30-year-old son is going to be married on the 20th of August, and it will be his first--and only--marriage. I was married in the days when it was immoral to court a lady. You had to get married to get kissed. The idea was to walk off into the sunset with your childhood sweetheart, but somehow it never had a happy ending. Here’s my old friend Elizabeth Taylor entering into marriage for the seventh time. Is she happy? I hope so. And look at poor Ava Gardner--she was looking for Shangri-La when she married me, and she still hasn’t found it. I hope she finds it soon. I hope we all do."