IN Hollywood, you don’t stop playing a role when the cameras fall silent, you just step into a different persona.
Take Marion Morrison, for example. A tough, rugged cowboy called Marion? Perhaps not. Change the name to John Wayne, though, and you’re riding off into the sunset and cinematic history.
The death of Mickey Rooney on April 6 brought down the curtain on not only one of the greatest of all Hollywood careers, but also its longest act of theatrical ventriloquism. Born Joseph Yule in 1920, Rooney starred in over 150 movies, receiving awards for screen, stage and TV over the course of a career that began when he was 14 months old and lasted almost 93 years.
Indeed, Rooney’s first name change — there would be a few — came on his very first public appearance. Crawling onstage during his parents’ vaudeville act, the infant Joe Yule was held aloft by his father and introduced to the audience as ‘Sonny Yule’. A star was born.
The star was reborn in Hollywood in 1925, when the five-year-old Joe Yule was given the part of ‘Mickey McGuire’ for a series of short films. When the producer was slapped with a copyright lawsuit, Joe Yule’s mother was persuaded to legally rename her child Mickey McGuire. The gambit failed, despite the mother’s willingness to change her own name to McGuire, and young Joe Yule was forbidden to describe himself as Mickey McGuire on or off screen.
In 1932, while on a vaudeville tour with his mother and legally obliged by the Fox studio not to use his established name, the twelve-year-old adopted the moniker ‘Mickey Looney’. The name suited a madcap, effervescent style he would later make famous in his role as Andy Hardy, but it lacked the seriousness an actor would require for a career of any longevity. By the time he signed with MGM in 1934, the fourteen-year-old was trading as Mickey Rooney.
While he might have arrived at his ‘real’ stage name by a more tortuous route than normal, Rooney’s self-invention isn’t exactly unusual in Hollywood. ‘Marilyn Monroe’, for example, is a more glamorous name than Norma Jeane Mortenson. ‘Judy Garland’ isn’t exactly exotic, but it’s still light years better than Frances Ethel Gumm. ‘Cary Grant’ has a much nicer ring to it than Archibald Alexander Leach. Similarly, and for much the same reason that Michael Fassbender hasn’t felt obliged to change his name, ‘Jamie Foxx’ is far more likely to catch a casting agent’s eye than Eric Bishop.
There are other reasons for taking on a new persona. Given the period when he came to prominence, American audiences may not have empathised to the same degree with Issur Danielovitch as they did with ‘Kirk Douglas’. Simplicity is often the key. If you’re born Ilyena Lydia Vasilevna Mironov, you might find it easier all round, and certainly cheaper on printer ink, if you choose to call yourself ‘Helen Mirren’. And even if your parents are generous enough to lavish the name Thomas Cruise Mapother IV on you as a baby, it may make more commercial sense to tighten things up to ‘Tom Cruise’.
Then there are those unfortunate aspiring actors who are labelled from the beginning with an already famous name. The young Michael Douglas was forced to adopt ‘Michael Keaton’, although the change doesn’t seem to have damaged his career too badly. Conversely, there are stars born into the family enterprise who have, nobly, decided not to trade on the established name. Nicolas Coppola became ‘Nicolas Cage’. The daughter of Jon Voight, Angelina Jolie Voight dropped the final name in order to succeed on her own merits.
It’s not always straightforward. Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez called himself ‘Martin Sheen’ when he started out in the movie business, but when his two sons were bitten by the acting bug they went in different directions. Emilio Estevez, not wanting to coat-tail his father, decided he liked his more ethnic-sounding name just fine; Carlos Irwin Estévez, whose career started a couple of years later, became the more prosaic ‘Charlie Sheen’.
It makes sense, of course, that people who spend their lives pretending to be other people would be comfortable with adopting fake names in whatever passes for their reality. Indeed, it could hardly be otherwise, given that ‘Hollywood’ itself is an invented name for a community founded during an 1890s property boom..
And, yes, “Hooray for Nopalera” just doesn’t have the same ring …