When Nathan Lane, Dana Carvey, and Mickey Rooney Teamed Up for “One of the Worst TV Shows Ever"

'One of the Boys' was one of many shows to be canceled in 1982.
'One of the Boys' was one of many shows to be canceled in 1982. / Columbia TriStar Domestic Television (Still) // trekandshoot/iStock via Getty Images (Background)

During the 1981-1982 network television season, viewers had a number of great sitcoms to choose from: Happy Days; Taxi; WKRP in Cincinnati; Bosom Buddies; The Jeffersons.

And, for a brief few weeks that spring, there was One of the Boys, an NBC sitcom that seemed destined to occupy a spot in television history. Movie legend Mickey Rooney, once the biggest draw in Hollywood, co-starred. So did Dana Carvey of future Saturday Night Live and Wayne’s World fame, along with Nathan Lane of The Birdcage and Meg Ryan in her pre-You've Got Mail days.

Unfortunately, One of the Boys failed to join the season’s assembly of classic series. Instead, it aired just 13 episodes before being extinguished for committing the cardinal sin of any sitcom—being totally devoid of any humor and subsequently being voted as one of the worst shows of all time.

'Boys' Club

In retrospect, building a show around Rooney was a bold choice. While it’s true he once earned $5000 a week as Hollywood’s top-grossing star, that was in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when he appeared in a series of pictures—alongside frequent co-star Judy Garland—as an enthusiastic young man constantly working towards putting on “a show” to cure debts or raise the spirits of ailing towns.

Rooney was not unlike the Tom Holland of his day—exuberant and charming. But aging eventually proved problematic, and audiences grew lukewarm to Rooney’s efforts in the decades to come. While his career ran hot and cold, he did experience a resurgence of sorts in 1979’s Sugar Babies, a Vaudeville-style collection of comedic sketches that made a splash on Broadway, netting him a Tony nomination. This was followed by an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Black Stallion.

For Rooney, work was key in letting out his boundless energy. He reportedly had up to 10 screenplays ready to go for a willing buyer, including one in which a milkman and his wife decide to make a pornographic film. (It went unproduced.)

“Mickey is the most peripatetic, hyperadrenalized creatures I've ever known,” friend Dick Quine told The New York Times in 1981. “He's the only person I know who can get up, compose six songs, write a full-length play, dope out every racetrack in the country, start a couple of businesses, eat five enchiladas—and then start working.”

Rooney parlayed his newfound success into other opportunities. One was Talentown, a proposed cable series hunting for new young talent, some of which could be tutored by his mail-order acting school curriculum. Then there was Mickey Rooney’s Star-B-Q, a restaurant that predated the Planet Hollywood concept, with short ribs endorsed by Rooney himself. There were countless other pitches, including “Mickey Rooney Macaroni” and an idea for a soft drink called Thirst, with the slogan “Thirst Come, Thirst Serve.”

And then there was One of the Boys, a sitcom in which Rooney played Oliver Nugent, a man in a retirement home who moves in with his grandson Adam (Dana Carvey) in the latter’s off-campus apartment along with his roommate Jonathan (Nathan Lane). Joining them was Oliver’s friend, Bernard Solomon (Scatman Crothers), and Jane (Meg Ryan), Adam's girlfriend.

Neither Carvey nor Lane was a household name at the time. Carvey (with a Prince Valiant haircut) was years away from debuting on Saturday Night Live, while Lane had yet to make a mark on Broadway. The star was ostensibly Rooney, whose Oliver was intended to contrast against the youthful environment of a college dorm atmosphere at the fictional Sheffield University.

Flunking Out

One of the Boys was a midseason replacement, debuting in January 1982 on NBC. Early word was not encouraging. “The physical humor and pratfalls are on the same level as knock-knock jokes,” Fred Rothenberg of the Associated Press wrote.

“This is basically a two-joke series: Rooney’s age [62] and his height [5 feet, 3 inches],” Rothenberg continued. “[It’s] too bad that Oliver has turned clownish because Rooney is really quite likeable as the spunky senior citizen who isn’t ready to give up living just because he’s collecting Social Security. But instead of being the wise old sage, Oliver comes across as an adolescent.”

Bizarrely, the sitcom’s early episodes made no attempt to explain why Carvey and Lane had agreed to let Rooney move in with them. (Having a grandfather living with you is not the stuff college is made of.)

By February, the show was an anemic 54th in the Nielsen ratings. By May, One of the Boys got the axe after 13 episodes, which may have ultimately proved to be for the best for Carvey and Lane given their later career achievements. But the series itself failed to match the level of talent involved. Vulture would declare it “insultingly bad,” and in 2002, TV Guide named it among the 50 worst shows of all time—a list where it was fortunate not to make the top 20. (The Jerry Springer Show topped the rankings.)

The demise of the series had Rooney irritated. “The show never stood a chance,” he said. “It was placed on Saturday nights when everybody is out to dinner. Besides, nobody knew it was on. NBC keeps saying, ‘Our pride is showing.’ It’s more like ‘Our idiocy is showing.’” Not even Gary Coleman of Diff’rent Strokes fame, Rooney said, could survive a Saturday slot.

“I think they stink,” Rooney said of the network executives who canceled the show.

In 2002, Carvey recalled One of the Boys as “some of the worst TV you’ve ever seen … it sucked. Nathan Lane was my roommate. Mickey Rooney was my grandfather ... he’s one of those guys who talks until he’s out of breath.” Carvey also mentioned Rooney’s macaroni ambitions.

Off the disappointment of One of the Boys, it might have appeared Rooney was out of third acts. But he was bounding up on stage the year after the show's cancelation to accept a special Honorary Award at the Academy Awards for his long and storied career. It was his second trophy from the Academy, having won his first decades earlier, and one that likely took any remaining sting out of a lack of primetime success.