Mickey Rooney. Photo credit: NBC / Getty Images
“a bad actor who performs in an exaggerated way”
“someone who enjoys performing and who tends to behave in an exaggerated or playful way when people are watching”
Legendary actor Mickey Rooney, who died Sunday at the age of 93, referred to himself as being a ham of the latter variety. “I’m a ham who wants to be a small part of anything,” he said, according to the Guardian. Critics would disagree. While it was clear in films such as “The Human Comedy” and “The Bold and the Brave” that Rooney loved being in front of the camera—he was “a performer always ready to make an appearance when there was a crowd waiting to applaud” wrote Los Angeles Times film critic Kennth Turan—he did not overact, at least for the style of his day. “Rooney was more than just any star,” wrote Turan. “In the final innocent prewar years of 1939, 1940 and 1941, he was the country’s biggest box-office attraction, period, end of story. And the actor reached that pinnacle not by being a dashing action hero lead or a glamorous romantic lead, but by playing a teenage boy, a character one contemporary critic called ‘the perfect composite of everybody’s kid brother.’” Perhaps Rooney was so self-deprecating because of that; his 5’2” frame meant he often played young. “I was a 14-year-old boy for 30 years,” he once said.
So what was Rooney referencing when he used the term “ham”? Ham, in this case, is short for hamfatter, which means a low-grade actor or performer. And that comes from an unfortunately racist 19th century minstrel song called “The Ham-fat Man,” sung by blackfaced white performers as they ambled about, playing offensive caricatures of African Americans. It was a cheap brand of comedic entertainment at the time, but the significance of its exaggerated theatrical style lives on in our lexicon. (You can read a slightly different version of the full text here.)
Rufus Hatch, a wealthy man who, in the late 19th century earned the nickname Uncle Rufus because of his published opinionated advice letters, connected the dots in the New York Times: “The word ‘hamfatter’ has been used among American actors for nearly 20 years as an expression of contempt for other actors whom they may happen to regard as possessing no good professional qualities, and who ought therefore to be relegated from the dramatic stage to the domain of negro minstrelsy.”
Rooney may have been enthusiastic, and he may have loved the camera, but he was no ham, at least in this sense of the word.
Photo credit: Library of Congress