Andy Rooney, a former war correspondent, CBS’s longtime icon, a favorite of viewers, and a role model to those who aspired to broadcast and/or print commentary — someone who could write his copy as well as read it and communicate to viewers — is dead at 92. He had just retired last month:
Andy Rooney, the “60 Minutes” commentator known to generations for his wry, humorous and contentious television essays – a unique genre he is credited with inventing – died Friday night in a hospital in New York City of complications following minor surgery. He was 92, and had homes in New York City, Rensselaerville, N.Y. and Rowayton, Conn.
“It’s a sad day at ’60 Minutes’ and for everybody here at CBS News,” said Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and the executive producer of “60 Minutes.” “It’s hard to imagine not having Andy around. He loved his life and he lived it on his own terms. We will miss him very much.”
Rooney had announced on Oct. 2, 2011 in his 1,097th essay for “60 Minutes” that he would no longer appear regularly.
Rooney joins the ranks of icons in several professions who retired at ripe, old ages and passed away very soon after leaving their life-long passions: cartoonist Charles Schultz and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, among others.
Rooney wrote for television since its birth, spending more than 60 years at CBS, 30 of them behind the camera as a writer and producer, first for entertainment and then news programming, before becoming a television personality – a role he said he was never comfortable in. He preferred to be known as a writer and was the author of best-selling books and a national newspaper column, in addition to his “60 Minutes” essays.
But it is his television role as the inquisitive and cranky commentator on “60 Minutes” that made him a cultural icon. For over 30 years, Rooney had the last word on the most watched television program in history. Ratings for the broadcast rose steadily over its time period, peaking at a few minutes before the end of the hour, precisely when he delivered his essays – which could generate thousands of response letters.
Each Sunday, Rooney delivered one of his “60 Minutes” essays from behind a desk that he, an expert woodworker, hewed himself. The topics ranged from the contents of that desk’s drawer to whether God existed. He often weighed in on major news topics. In an early “60 Minutes” essay that won him the third of his four Emmy Awards, his compromise to the grain embargo against the Soviet Union was to sell them cereal. “Are they going to take us seriously as an enemy if they think we eat Cap’n Crunch for breakfast?” deadpanned Rooney.
Mainly, his essays struck a cord in viewers by pointing out life’s unspoken truths or more often complaining about its subtle lies, earning him the “curmudgeon” status he wore like a uniform. “I obviously have a knack for getting on paper what a lot of people have thought and didn’t realize they thought,” Rooney told the Associated Press in 1998. In typical themes, Rooney questioned labels on packages, products that didn’t seem to work and why people didn’t talk in elevators.
Rooney asked thousands of questions in his essays over the years, none, however, began with “Did you ever…?” a phrase often associated with him. Comedian Joe Piscopo used it in a 1981 impersonation of him on “Saturday Night Live” and, from then on, it was erroneously linked to Rooney.
Rooney was also mistakenly connected to racism when a politically charged essay highly insensitive to minorities was written in his style and passed off as his on the internet in 2003.
Over the next few years, it found its way into the e-mail boxes of untold thousands, causing Rooney to refute it in a 2005 “60 Minutes” essay, and again, as it continued to proliferate, in a Associated Press article a year later.
Reuters notes some of his awards and controversies:
Beginning in 1962 he teamed with correspondent Harry Reasoner for CBS News, producing a series of specials with titles like “An Essay on Chairs” and “The Strange Case of the English Language.” In 1968 Rooney won his first Emmy for his script for “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed.”
Rooney joined “60 Minutes” during its first season in 1968, again working as producer with Reasoner, and 10 years later his commentaries became a regular feature.
He also wrote, produced and narrated a CBS series on American life for which he won a prestigious Peabody Award.
n 1990 he was suspended for three months after being quoted by a Los Angeles interviewer as saying blacks had “watered down their genes because the less intelligent ones are the ones that have the most children.”
The suspension was reduced to one month after CBS received thousands of calls and letters from viewers, as well as internal pressure from “60 Minutes” executive producer Don Hewitt and longtime anchorman Walter Cronkite.
Rooney denied any racist sentiments and upon his return from suspension said on the air: “Do I have any opinions that might irritate some people? You’re damn right I do. That’s what I’m here for.”
Rooney also came under fire in 2007 for saying many people joined the U.S. military because of problems in their lives and that the Army would be better off drafting soldiers from all classes of society.
Rooney was born Jan. 14, 1919, in Albany, New York, and attended Colgate University until he was drafted into the Army in 1941. He became a correspondent for Stars and Stripes newspaper and was awarded a Bronze Star for his work during the Normandy invasion.
In 2003, Rooney was given the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award, named for his friend, the famous war correspondent, by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Rooney started a regular syndicated newspaper column in 1979 and wrote several books, including “My War,” “Pieces of My Mind” and “Sincerely, Andy Rooney.”
Leslie Moonves: “Words cannot adequately express Andy’s contribution to the world of journalism and the impact he made–as a colleague and friend–upon everyone at CBS. His wry wit, his unique ability to capture the essence of any issue, and his larger-than-life personality made him an icon, not only within the industry but among readers and viewers around the globe. Andy was not just a member of the CBS family; he was a member of the world’s family. We treasure the legacy he has left, and his presence will be sorely missed by those of us at CBS and by his fans around the world.”
Jeff Fager: “It’s a sad day at 60 MINUTES and for everybody here at CBS News. It’s hard to imagine not having Andy around. He loved his life and he lived it on his own terms. We will miss him very much.”
Morley Safer: “Underneath that gruff exterior, was a prickly interior…and deeper down was a sweet and gentle man, a patriot with a love of all things American, like good bourbon and a delicious hatred for prejudice and hypocrisy.”
Scott Pelley: “The Romans had Cicero. The English had Dickens. America had Andy. He hid a philosopher’s genius behind the honest prose of Everyman. Apparently, God needed a writer.”
Steve Kroft: “Andy always said he wanted to work until the day he died and he managed to do it, save the past few weeks in the hospital. What a life: ninety- two years of doing what you love to do while engaging and entertaining millions and millions of people. He played an invaluable role in the success of 60 MINUTES over the years, providing a much anticipated
final course at the end of what was usually a good meal. Sometimes Andy offered up a confection, sometimes it was a shot of Irish whiskey, but was it was always delivered with a twinkle in the eye. I think it’s fair to say that he was the most popular person ever to appear on 60 MINUTES, and I’m sure Andy would agree with that assessment.
Lesley Stahl: “Andy Rooney was our poet laureate. He was the Oracle of West 57th St., an everyman if everyman wrote like a dream. He was the most popular member of our team, loved by the audience, and far more loved by all of us than he knew. On his 80th birthday, when some of us spoke of him with affection, his eyes watered up with surprise. He will be missed and mourned.”
Bob Simon: “Wherever I went in America, whenever anyone suspected I worked for 60 MINUTES, their first question would be: “How’s Andy?” I‘d reply: “He’s fine. How would you expect him to be?” Or something curmudgeonly like that: something which wouldn’t make Andy wince too much. It is not difficult to tell stories which make viewers angry or sad. But to make them laugh? That’s an art form. Andy did it better than anyone on television without ever telling a joke. For me, his finest moment was his last appearance on 60 MINUTES. He said: “I’m not retiring. Writers don’t retire and I’ll always be a writer.
It would be interesting to know what Andy Rooney would say now about the great beyond.
But if there’s a hereafter for the once lovably cantankerous commentator on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” he, even as a new arrival, would already have some pointed reactions — and some bones to pick.
Sure, it’s Paradise. But who can sleep with all that harp-playing? Maybe he’s still miffed about the long line at the Pearly Gates. And, though he was never a fashion plate, he might have a beef with wearing white after Labor Day.
Andy Rooney, television’s most celebrated curmudgeon, died Friday night, about one month after ending his 33-year run as the closing essayist on CBS’ top-rated newsmagazine 60 Minutes.
Rooney was 92. In a 2010 interview with USA TODAY, he was asked about retiring and shot back his own question: “Retire? From what? Life?”
He allowed that “I suppose the time may come.” It did on Oct. 2, when he delivered his 1,097th and final essay, telling his viewers, “I’ve done a lot of complaining here, but of all the things I’ve complained about, I can’t complain about my life.”
More than a decade ago, I interviewed Andy Rooney for Rolling Stone, and in person, the man did not disappoint. He struck me as quick witted, wonderfully grouchy and magnificently himself. Andy Rooney was also – lest we forget – a tremendous writer who succeeded in the worlds of radio and television broadcasting because he found a voice that eventually was all his own. So now that the clock has ticked down for this legend, here’s a playlist for a “Sixty Minute Man.” Besides that song, the first one that came to mind this morning when I heard Andy Rooney was gone was “Tell It Like It Is” — a song beloved by Andy Rooney’s longtime “60 Minutes” colleague Ed Bradley. I just want to take a few minutes to say that Andy Rooney spent a lifetime telling it like it is — or at least what it was like to him — and that should always be one definition for a life well lived.
Bloomberg’s Kathryn Harris details one famous controversy involving Rooney. First, she notes his solid TV writing background:
In 1949, Rooney joined CBS as a writer for “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” He later wrote for “The Garry Moore Show,” which aired from 1958 to 1965, and also for CBS News broadcasts such as “The Twentieth Century” and “The Morning Show with Will Rogers Jr.”
From 1962 to 1968, Rooney wrote and produced CBS News specials narrated by Harry Reasoner. One script, “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” was narrated by comedian Bill Cosby in 1968 and earned an Emmy — one of three awarded to Rooney during his CBS career.
Rooney produced some early segments for Reasoner on “60 Minutes,” which made its debut in 1968. A decade later, he moved in front of the camera with “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney,” which became a regular feature on “60 Minutes” beginning in September 1978. The following year, he began writing a newspaper column distributed by Tribune Media Services.
And his outspokenness:
Rooney often tackled the same subject for TV and print, tailoring his writing for each medium.
Never one to kowtow to authority, Rooney was particularly outspoken during the cost-cutting regime of the late Laurence A. Tisch, who was CBS chief executive from 1986 to 1995.
When CBS News surrendered control of “CBS Morning News” to the entertainment division in 1986, Rooney complained in his syndicated column that “CBS, which used to stand for the Columbia Broadcasting System, no longer stands for anything. They’re just corporate initials now.”
The following year, Rooney refused to work while CBS news writers were on strike.
He wrote a column complaining that CBS had been harmed by budget cuts, and later told documentary producer Steven Scheuer that Tisch telephoned Rooney and called him two names. Of the two names, only “liar” could be printed by the New York Times when the story was reported in 2002.
And then there was this controversy:
But the biggest firestorm of Rooney’s career was set off by a 1989 year-end television special, during which he said: “There was some recognition in 1989 of the fact that many of the ills which kill us are self-induced. Too much alcohol. Too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, cigarettes. They’re all known to lead quite often to premature death.”
Those remarks sparked objections from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Rooney added fuel to the fire by expounding on his views in a letter that turned up at the Advocate in Los Angeles. The situation was compounded after a writer for the Advocate attributed racist comments to Rooney that he hotly denied.
“I am guilty of what I said about gays, and I deeply regret having offended them,” Rooney told the Los Angeles Times. “But on the other charge, I am absolutely innocent. I never made any remark about blacks having ‘watered down’ their genes.”
CBS said it was suspending Rooney without pay for three months, without elaborating on the reasons. Rooney told the Los Angeles Times that David Burke, then-president of CBS News, viewed his letter to the Advocate as insubordinate.
“I have pointed out that I have worked for every president of CBS News there has ever been, and have been insubordinate to all of them, so that he’s not a special case,” Rooney said. “He shouldn’t have felt offended.”
CBS was deluged with letters that called for Rooney’s reinstatement. His supporters included two former CBS News presidents, Richard A. Salant and Fred W. Friendly, and former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite.
Andy Rooney was America’s bemused uncle, spouting homespun wisdom weekly at the end of “60 Minutes,” a soupcon of topical relief after the news magazine’s harder-hitting segments.
Peering at viewers through bushy eyebrows across his desk, Mr. Rooney might start out, seemingly at random, “Did you ever notice that…” and he was off, riffing on pencils, pies, parking places, whatever. Then he was done, slightly cranky revelations delivered in a neat three-minute package.
Mr. Rooney, who died Friday night at age 92, was a reporter and writer-producer for television for decades before landing in 1978 on “60 Minutes.” To his consternation, the show made him into a celebrity.
He created over 1,000 of his mini-essays for “60 Minutes”—many inviting viewers to look anew at some mundane object. He once proposed National Wastebasket Day in honor of its inventor.
For an irascible man of so many opinions, it was remarkable that Mr. Rooney offended so few viewers. At one point in 1990, he was suspended for some apparently offhand comments about homosexuality and race. By the time he was reinstated a month later (delivering an ardent apology), ratings at “60 Minutes” had declined by 20%.
And almost all, even those who liked him, found some occasion or other to criticize — or at least gently mock — his famous on-air style. Odds are if you watched 60 Minutes on a regular or even irregular basis, you can do the imitation yourself: the slouch, the scrunched-up face that made it look like he just tasted something he didn’t like, the “did you ever notice” whine that led into that week’s observation.
Yet here’s the part some of his “did you ever” critics missed: In his extensive prime, Rooney had a knack for noticing things most of us had indeed missed, until he pointed them out and you said, “Yes. That’s right.” And he delivered those observations in tight little essays that were a marvel of craftsmanship, a lost art in these days of spontaneous TV news talk that usually consists of one commonplace opinion stretched out over hours on end.
There’s an art to shaping your opinion to fill just a few minutes and yet making it register — and even more of an art to making those minutes last for 33 years. No one did it better than Rooney, and odds are no one will ever do it again.
It’s just a few minutes lost from 60, but it will always feel like more.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.