Monday, February 26, 2018

Quote of the Day (Norman Lear, on Almost Casting Mickey Rooney for ‘All in the Family’)

“Before I came out here and met Carroll [O’Connor], I thought about Mickey Rooney playing the role [of Archie Bunker]…. I called his manager, and he said, ‘Oh, Mickey happens to be in the office. Why don’t you talk to him!’ And I said, ‘No, no, this is a character I would rather talk to him about and then have him read,’ and he said, ‘No, no, no.’ Anyway, before I know it, Mickey [was on the phone] talking about himself in the third person. ‘You got the Mick!’ ‘Mickey is gonna be out there, can I see you out there? I’ll be out there Tuesday.’ ‘You got something for the Mick, just tell him!’ I said, ‘Well, he’s a bigot, he’ll say spics and spades and hebes” — and he said, ‘Norm, they’re gonna kill you. They’re gonna shoot you dead in the streets.’ I can never forget this speech. ‘You wanna do something with the Mick? Listen to this: Vietnam vet. Private eye. Short. Blind. Large dog.’”—Norman Lear, creator and producer of All in the Family, interviewed by Kenya Barris in “Two Titans Dish: Norman Lear and Kenya Barris,” Entertainment Weekly, April 7-14, 2017

I normally pick a joke or something else obviously funny for a quote to start the work week. Yet I trust that you reacted in much the same way that I did when I read this recollection by Norman Lear about how he seriously considered casting Mickey Rooney as Archie Bunker in All in the Family: a guffaw at the actor’s self-aggrandizing use of the third person; his cluelessness about the success of the show; and the sheer improbability of MGM’s Andy Hardy playing the first regularly appearing bigot in American sitcom history.

But on further reflection, I think I was unfair to Rooney, and that realization led me to some alternative history about what might have happened if he rather than Carroll O’Connor had been chosen for this role that broke very markedly with the notion of “Father Knows Best.”

First, Rooney was far from alone in questioning the prospects for this path-breaking comedy. Sure, there were people such as director John Rich who saw possibilities in making TV history by working on this show. But ABC network brass rejected the pilot of the show (originally known as Those Were the Days), and even after CBS gave it the green light, that episode repeated the below-average performance on audience tests that ABC had received for it. 

Second, Lear was not simply picking a big name to draw attention to his show by conceiving of Rooney as his star. Despite the actor’s stereotyping from 20 years, off and on, as Hardy, America’s lovable boy next door, he had, when given a chance, shown that he could not only appear to advantage in gritty, downbeat material (e.g., as a trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight), or even in unsympathetic roles (e.g., in film noir such as Baby Face Nelson).

In particular, Rooney’s turn as a megalomaniac TV star in the Rod Serling/Ernest Lehman-scripted 1957 Playhouse 90 episode The Comedian demonstrated that he was unafraid to risk displeasing a mass audience. 

How well that would have translated to Archie Bunker is another matter. The series’ more than 200 episodes, filled with countless varieties of racial, ethnic and religious slurs, represented shocking stuff nearly 50 years ago. Not everyone appreciated the point of this satire (including a nun in my parochial elementary school, who asked how I could like a show featuring such an awful man).

The dynamics of the show would be quite different had Rooney been cast—most notably, in how Archie was physically envisioned. The same 5-ft., 2-in. frame that had limited Rooney’s possibilities as a movie leading man would also have made TV audiences see, quite literally, Archie’s contention that he was “the little guy.”

Furthermore, the nose-to-nose confrontations between Archie and son-in-law Mike Stivic (played to perfection by O’Connor and Rob Reiner) would have been impossible with Rooney; the advantage enjoyed by “Meathead” would have been a matter of height as well as logic, and would have looked an awful lot like bullying. The temptation would have been enormous for Lear and his writing team to create more jokes playing off Archie’s (now diminutive) size than off his malapropisms.

How physicality can affect perception of a role can be seen in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The original script called for title character Willy Loman to say “I’m short,” a line changed after the casting of burly Lee J. Cobb to “I’m fat.” When Dustin Hoffman played the role 35 years later, Miller went back to his original line. 

O’Connor was so right as Archie Bunker—indeed, Lear says he knew it from the first line reading—that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. But Mickey Rooney might have brought so much to the role, in terms of audience expectations and physicality, that reactions to the character might have ended up markedly different from what they turned out to be.  

How might Rooney have fared if he had been cast? O’Connor, at the height of the show’s success, stayed off the set for three episodes in a salary dispute with Lear. But there is good reason to think that Rooney would have been far more difficult to handle.

At the show’s premiere, Rooney would have been better known not only than O’Connor—a middle-aged character actor who had made little impression on the public—but also Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers and even Rob Reiner (still striving to emerge from his father’s shadow). 

Before long, Rooney might have felt entitled to demand a salary commensurate with his status as the show’s biggest draw. His lifestyle might have pushed him even more powerfully in this direction. He was fond of cracking jokes about his multiple divorces (eight, by the time of his death), but the alimony did not help his finances.

Worse still, if that was possible, was his betting on the ponies. In a preface to The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney, Roger Kahn recalled how he couldn’t find him for weeks when they were supposed to be collaborating on the star’s memoir, because the actor was spending his non-working hours at the racetrack. Rooney, given to racking up high debts, might have felt compelled to push for a higher salary on All in the Family to help deal with this issue.

The rest of the cast would also surely have rebelled against his longtime tendency toward scene-stealing—a propensity so strong that Boys Town co-star Spencer Tracy warned the “little snot” that if he tried it in one of their scenes, “I’ll send you to Purgatory.”

Even his initial response to Lear’s crusty protagonist (“Vietnam vet. Private eye. Short. Blind. Large dog”) suggests that Rooney would have pushed for any means to soften, even sentimentalize, this bigot well before these tendencies were well-established for the audience. The point of the satire, then, might have been irretrievably lost.

For all his many gifts as a performer, then, Rooney would have been ill-suited to play Archie Bunker. It is fortunate indeed that Lear found his ideal Archie in O’Connor .

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