(CBS News) 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 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.
There is no better way to celebrate Andy Rooney’s work than to let Andy do the talking.
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 chord 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.
Many assumed he wrote the screed because Rooney’s longtime habit of writing or speaking plainly on sensitive topics had left him open to attacks in the past by activist groups. The racist essay was one of the many false Rooney quotes and essays bouncing around the Internet. The racism charge angered and hurt Rooney deeply, especially because as a young soldier in the early 1940s, he got himself arrested in Florida for refusing to leave the seat he had chosen among blacks in the back of an Army bus.
At the height of the AIDS crisis, Rooney had his biggest run-in with a group and it had dire consequences. In February 1990, the gay magazine The Advocate interviewed him after he associated the human choices of drugs, tobacco and gay sex with death in a CBS News special, “A Year With Andy Rooney: 1989.” The magazine printed racist remarks attributed to him from the interview, which he vehemently denied making. A torrent of negative publicity followed, after which then-CBS News President David Burke suspended him for three months. The outcry for his return was deafening. Burke reinstated him after only three weeks, saying Rooney was not a man “who holds prejudice in his heart and mind.” The ratings for “60 Minutes,” CBS’ only top-10 hit that season, dropped while Rooney was off the air.
But the negative publicity and suspension exacted a toll. Rooney said publicly he was “chilled” and admitted the new sensitivity led him to spike a later essay regarding the United Negro College Fund.Rooney still spoke his mind, however.
Thousands of angry letters arrived when he said Kurt Cobain, the young star of hit rock band “Nirvana,” was essentially a waste of humanity for taking his own life. Native Americans demanded apologies when he belittled their efforts to stop sports teams from using names like “Braves” in 1995 and again in 1997 when he suggested Indian casino profits be used to support poor tribes. He reacted to the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in 1995 by offering a $1 million reward for information leading to the real killer – a reward he said he would never have to pay because Simpson committed the murders. His essay in 2004, in which he said God told him that the Rev. Pat Robertson and Mel Gibson were “whackos,” resulted in 20,000 complaints – the most response any “60 Minutes” issue ever drew.
No group was off-limits for Rooney, especially CBS management and his own colleagues. Rooney poked fun at the “60 Minutes” correspondents on a regular basis in his essays, while he questioned CBS management on issues, such as layoffs and strikes, sometimes in his “60 Minutes” essays, but more often in his syndicated newspaper column for Tribune Media Services or in media interviews. During a Writers Guild of America strike against CBS, Rooney, though not in the union, supported it by not writing any “60 Minutes” pieces until the strike was settled. He publicly blamed CBS’s troubles of the early 1990s on Chairman Laurence Tisch’s cutbacks, daring Tisch to fire him.
Rooney was very popular with the public but drew criticism from the media for his controversial views and for the seemingly effortless style and content of his “60 Minutes” essays. He once took advantage of his popularity to get back at a critic. When Associated Press television critic Frazier Moore wrote that Rooney should quit because his material was getting old, Rooney took Moore to task by broadcasting the newswire’s New York phone number, exhorting his “60 Minutes” viewers to tell the writer what they thought of his opinion. The Associated Press logged over 7,000 calls in 48 hours, the vast majority in favor of Rooney.
He rarely attacked his critics publicly, in fact, he sometimes embraced them. On many occasions, he read on the air their most cutting letters, sometimes admitting he was wrong and apologizing. The Cobain and the O.J. Simpson incidents were both essays he regretted writing and he said so on air.
Andrew Aitken Rooney was born January 14, 1919 in Albany, N.Y. He graduated from Albany Academy High School and attended Colgate University until being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, his junior year. After brief service in an artillery unit in England, he became a correspondent for The Stars and Stripes for three years. Rooney was one of six correspondents to fly with the Army’s 8th Air Force on the second American bombing raid over Germany – a risky mission the enemy fully expected. He then covered the Allied invasion of Europe and, after the surrender of Germany, filed reports from the Far East. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his reporting under fire at the battle of Saint Lo.
Rooney wrote about his war experiences in his first three books, the second of which, The Story of the Stars and Stripes, was bought by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for movie rights. Despite going to Hollywood and writing a film script, the film was never made, but the sizable sum he earned enabled him to write as a freelancer for several years after the war.
He was hired by CBS in 1949 after a bold encounter in the elevator with Arthur Godfrey. Rooney told the biggest radio star of the day he could use some better writing. His nerve moved Godfrey to hire him for “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” which moved to television and became a top-10 hit that was number one in 1952. He also wrote for Godfrey’s other primetime program, “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” and the star’s daily morning show. He became Godfrey’s only writer in 1953, before quitting the lucrative work in 1955 because he felt he could be doing something more important. But after a period of unemployment, with a wife and four children to support, he returned to television writing on CBS’ “The Morning News with Will Rogers, Jr.” in 1957. The best thing that happened to Rooney on the short-lived program was meeting and befriending CBS News Correspondent Harry Reasoner, with whom he collaborated later to great success.
He also wrote for “The Garry Moore Show” (1959-’65), helping it to achieve hit status as a top-20 program. Such regularly featured talents as Victor Borge, Bob and Ray and Perry Como spoke the words written by Rooney during this period. At the same time, he wrote for CBS News public affairs broadcasts, including “The Twentieth Century,” “News of America” and “Adventure,” and he freelanced articles for the biggest magazines of the day.
By the mid-1960s, Rooney’s name was a familiar credit at the end of CBS News programs. “The most felicitous nonfiction writer in television” is how Time magazine described Rooney in 1969, a winner of the Writers Guild Award for Best Script of the Year six times.
Rooney had convinced CBS News he could write for television on any subject when he wrote his first television essay in 1964, an original genre he is credited with developing. Proving his point, he picked doors as the subject and Reasoner as the voice for “An Essay on Doors.” The team – Rooney writing and producing and Reasoner narrating — went on to create such critically acclaimed specials as “An Essay on Bridges” (1965), “An Essay on Hotels” (1966), “An Essay on Women” (1967), “An Essay on Chairs” (1968) and “The Strange Case of the English Language” (1968). Rooney also wrote and produced many news documentaries, including the most comprehensive television treatment of Frank Sinatra, “Frank Sinatra: Living With the Legend,” in 1965. He wrote two CBS News specials for the series “Of Black America” in 1968, one of which, “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” won him his first Emmy and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards First Prize for Television.
Rooney also produced for Reasoner at “60 Minutes” during the broadcast’s first few seasons and made his on-screen “debut.” He and the broadcast’s senior producer, Palmer Williams, appeared in silhouette as “Ipso and Facto” in a short-lived opinion segment called “Digressions.” Then, after Reasoner left for ABC in 1970, Rooney also left the network briefly. Having trouble getting his material on the air, he purchased his “An Essay on War” from CBS and took it to public television to be broadcast on “Great American Dream Machine.” The 1971 program was Rooney’s first appearance as himself on television and won him his third Writers Guild Award. He wrote and produced more essays for the program, appearing in those as well.He returned to CBS in 1973 after a short stint with Reasoner at ABC News and then wrote, produced and narrated a series of broadcasts for CBS News on various aspects of American life between 1975 and 1989. These included “Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington,” for which he won a Peabody Award, “Andy Rooney Takes Off,” “Mr. Rooney Goes to Work” and “Mr. Rooney Goes to Dinner.” He also appeared several times in 1977 and 1978 on “60 Minutes” doing segments that included “Super Salesman,” a look at the relationship between the Colonial Penn Life Insurance Company, the National Retired Teachers Association and the American Association of Retired Persons, in which he suggested the AARP was created as a vehicle to sell insurance to the elderly.
Rooney then was given the job as summer replacement for the Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick “Point/Counterpoint” “60 Minutes” segment on July 2, 1978. In this first essay, “Three Minutes or so with Andy Rooney,” he attacked the dark tradition of tallying the highway deaths during the holiday weekend. In the fall, “A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney” became a regular segment, alternating with Alexander and Kilpatrick. The following season (1979-’80), Rooney had the end of the broadcast to himself, holding forth in front of an audience approaching 40 million – the number-one television program in America.
The National Society of Newspaper Columnists recognized Rooney’s rich body of work with its Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award in June 2003. Rooney was a friend of Pyle, the famous World War II correspondent felled by a sniper, whom he met while covering the war for The Stars and Stripes. The Overseas Press Club honored Rooney with its President’s Award in April 2010 for his war reporting
Rooney was a rabid New York Giants football fan whose 50-plus years of season tickets began in a seat behind a pole at the Polo Grounds. Attending such public events was often problematic for the recognizable Rooney, who didn’t sign autographs because he thought it a silly endeavor linked to his television fame. Always proud of his writing, he would gladly sign one of his 16 books – provided it was sent to him with a stamped and addressed return envelope. In addition to The Story of the Stars and Stripes, Rooney wrote: Air Gunner; Conquerors’ Peace; The Fortunes of War; A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney; And More by Andy Rooney; Pieces of My Mind; Word for Word; Not That You Asked…; Sweet and Sour; My War; Sincerely, Andy Rooney; Common Nonsense; Years of Minutes; Out of My Mind and Andy Rooney: 60 Years of Wisdom and Wit.
Rooney resided in Manhattan; he also kept a family vacation home in Rensselaerville, N.Y, and the first home he ever purchased, in Rowayton, Conn. He was pre-deceased by his wife of 62 years, Marguerite, in 2004. He is survived by his four children Ellen, Brian, the former longtime ABC News correspondent, Emily, longtime host of “Greater Boston,” a local public affairs television program on PBS, and Martha Fishel; five grandchildren and two great grandchildren. He was also was pre-deceased by his sister, Nancy.
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