"So you want the secret to a happy marriage?" Mickey Rooney asked, perking up.

After 55 minutes, he had finally gotten a question he seemed to care about.

One hour had been allotted for an interview, which was conducted over lunch in a North Michigan Avenue restaurant, and toward the end of the hour, right on schedule, Kevin Pawley, Rooney's agent, looked at his watch and announced, "Mr. Rooney will have to leave in five minutes."

The reporter who had been attempting to "conduct" the interview felt the onset of panic. The interview hadn't exactly been a disaster; in some ways, it had been delightful, memorable.

It was just that Rooney had been Rooney. He had graciously, and perhaps compulsively, talked and talked and talked, as he is wont to do in interviews.

Alas, also as he is wont to do, he had told long, rambling stories that didn't always seem to have a clear point or to be based, in every aspect, on absolute fact. He had begun and abandoned other stories before they really got going, and he had shown only minimal interest in responding directly to basic, who-what-when-where-why questions -- or, for that matter, to any question. Thus, with time running out and fearful that his tape recorder had captured little that was usable in an article, the reporter asked Rooney for some tips on marriage.

This is a subject that Rooney has had experience with, having been married eight times. (His first wife was Ava Gardner, to whom he was married in 1941 when he was 20 and a big movie star and she was 19 and a studio starlet; his eighth, and current, wife is Jan Chamberlin, a former country-and-Western singer to whom he was wed in 1978, when he was 57 and she was 39.)

You quickly realized why Rooney was happy to get this question; he'd obviously been asked it before, probably many times, and had developed a routine for his reply.

"Do not tell your wife that you love her," he said.

He paused, letting his shocker sink in. And when he got the look of surprise he wanted, he lowered his voice to a theatrical whisper:

"You say, 'I like you.'"

A one-beat pause. "It's a different word!" he said, his voice rising dramatically. "Love lasts only for months, sometimes only for minutes. But if you like somebody it's for a lifetime!"

So what if his insight was corny and simplistic, that it relied on equating lust with love? And so what if not everything was salvageable from the interview?

There would be enough for a quick study of this remarkable artist, an artist who at 77 is still performing, still exulting in the spotlight and, most miraculously, still in demand, still a star.

Indeed, it is his stature as a phenomenon of American show business that alone makes him noteworthy.

To call him a living legend is to engage in understatement. He has been entertaining audiences for 75 years, since he was 17 months old and made his debut on a vaudeville stage at Chicago's old Haymarket Theater.

During the interview, Rooney had meandered into a discussion of the old days in Hollywood, when an actor's career and salary were strictly controlled by movie studios.

"Here's a hypotheticism," Rooney said. (He has a habit of using words that you have never heard but immediately understand.) "If Barbra Steisand wants to make a picture called 'My Pink Fingernail,' the studios will go, 'Gee, Barbra, what a wonderful idea! Money is no object! Take two years in preproduction and write the music and you'll direct.'"

He then crooned an imagined title song: "My pink finger-n-a-a-a-i-l, it came apart at the seams ..."