Mickey Rooney got heartburn when he learned why his 1961 film "Breakfast at Tiffany's" had been pulled for "Ratatouille" at a Sacramento, Calif., free film series recently.
"'Ratatouille'? Never heard of it!" Rooney, 87, said in his classic Brooklyn accent in a spirited phone interview from his Southern California home.
One of the most beloved and enduring movie actors in American history, Rooney was shocked to hear that his comic role as Mr. Yunioshi, Audrey Hepburn's character's cantankerous upstairs neighbor, had been branded racist by several Asian-American activists.
"Don't break me up — I wouldn't offend any person, be they black, Asian or whatever," said the veteran of 360 films. Rooney still performs worldwide with his eighth wife, Jan Chamberlain. He noted that the Chinese consider eight a lucky number.
Council of Asian Pacific Islanders Together for Advocacy and Leadership, an umbrella group for more than 90 local organizations, recently told the Sacramento City Council that Rooney's buck-toothed Japanese character with thick glasses and exaggerated Asian accent perpetuated "offensive, derogatory and hateful racial stereotypes detrimental and destructive to our society."
Responded Rooney: "It breaks my heart. Blake Edwards, who directed the picture, wanted me to do it because he was a comedy director. They hired me to do this overboard, and we had fun doing it."
Rooney, who occasionally shows the Mr. Yunioshi clip as part of his traveling stage show, added, that "Never in all the more than 40 years after we made it — not one complaint. Every place I've gone in the world people say, ' ... you were so funny.' Asians and Chinese come up to me and say, 'Mickey you were out of this world.'"
Rooney said he loves everybody, and his life is a testament to that. "I was born in Brooklyn, delivered by a Chinese doctor on a table in a boarding house on Sept. 23, 1920," he said. "I came from a poor family, my father was from Glasgow, Scotland, my mother's brothers were brakemen on the railroad, we didn't have anything but mush for breakfast."
He said he won a Bronze Star in World War II serving with Japanese-American and Chinese-American soldiers battling the Nazis in Europe.
Rooney's wife Jan, who said they were married in Hong Kong and love Chinese art, food, culture and medicine, said the role was meant to be fun. "It's terribly sad and I feel bad for the people taking offense."
Rooney said that if he'd known people would have been so offended, "I wouldn't have done it."
"Those that didn't like it, I forgive them and God bless America," he said. "God bless the universe, God bless Japanese, Chinese, Indians, all of them and let's have peace."