(Tanya Gold's article appeared in the Guardian, 12/30. Video of part of the interview appears on the Guardian site.)

Mickey Rooney: 'Why retire? Inspire'

As a happy-go-lucky child star, Mickey Rooney was Hollywood's biggest draw. But he doesn't seem so cheery now he's playing panto in Milton Keynes at the age of 89 …

Where to begin with Mickey Rooney? He has been an actor – if not a star – for a long time. His debut was in 1927, when he was seven. By 1938, he was the biggest box-office draw in the world, a smiling robot from the MGM star factory. They put him in the Andy Hardy series, where he played America's favourite son.

He was an athletic singer and dancer – the beaming foil to a young Judy Garland in the "let's put on a show, kids!" films – and a good dramatic actor, too. But after the war he slumped – eight marriages (the first to Ava Gardner), alcohol, drugs, bankruptcy and professional destitution, including a spell as a Mickey Rooney impersonator.

Then came his eighth wife, Jan Chamberlin, conversion to Christianity and a partial professional renaissance, although the days when he and Judy stopped the traffic in New York were gone. Today he is a sort of American mascot – the child star who lived. He is warmhearted, bombastic, up for anything. Isn't he?

No. The Mickey Rooney I meet at the Milton Keynes Theatre is tricky and hostile. He is here playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella. He sits aggressively upright, looking as if he will stagger out if I say the wrong thing (questions seem to be the wrong thing). He is tiny – 5ft 3in – and bald. At 89, he is desiccated and withered, except for his teeth, which are strangely perfect.

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