Curmudgeonly '60 Minutes' scribe was a television icon

Curmudgeonly CBS newsman Andy Rooney, who died Friday, took a cantankerously humorous look at life’s minor annoyances in more than 1,000 essays on “60 Minutes,” earning him three Emmy Awards as well as a devoted fanbase. He was 92 and died from complications following minor surgery just weeks after his retirement from the newsmagazine.

Rooney’s career at CBS spanned six decades beginning in 1949, when he was hired by Arthur Godfrey after telling the radio star, with whom he was sharing an elevator, that he could use some better writing. Rooney announced his retirement in late September. He made his last regular broadcast, his 1,097th “60 Minutes” segment, on Oct. 2.

“A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney” was a regular feature of the award-winning CBS newsmagazine for more than 30 years.

“Underneath that gruff exterior was a prickly interior,” said longtime colleague Morley Safer, “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.” Safer will lead a tribute to Rooney on Sunday, Nov. 6, on “60 Minutes.”

Covering topics ranging from paper clips and umbrellas to presidential politics and racism, Rooney established television essays as a viable commercial form. Time magazine once described him as “the most felicitous nonfiction writer in television.” Indeed, Rooney won the Writers Guild Award for script of the year six times, at one time more than any other writer in the history of television.

Rooney was born in Albany, N.Y., in 1919. He attended Colgate U. (writing for the school newspaper) and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941 during his junior year. He served in an artillery unit in England and was a correspondent for Stars and Stripes for three years. He received the Bronze Star for reporting under fire at the battle of St. Lo.

In February 1943, Rooney was one of only eight correspondents who flew along with the Eighth Air Force on the first American bombing raid in Germany. The group of journos, dubbed “the Writing 69th,” included United Press scribe Walter Cronkite, who would become Rooney’s longtime friend and colleague at CBS News.

After the war, Rooney wrote not only for “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” which became a top-10 hit by 1952, but for “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends” and a host of other radio shows, including “The Morning News With Will Rogers, Jr.,” where he met Harry Reasoner.

By the mid-1960s, Rooney was an institution at the Eye’s news division and had begun developing essays for television broadcast that he produced and Reasoner narrated. The Reasoner-Rooney collaboration resulted in specials such as “An Essay on Bridges” (1965), “An Essay on Women” (1967) and “An Essay on Chairs” (1968).

He also spent the ’60s producing documentaries for CBS, including “Frank Sinatra: Living With the Legend,” narrated by Cronkite, and “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” which earned him his first Emmy in 1968.

Rooney and Reasoner left CBS for a short tenure at ABC News but returned in 1973. He nabbed a Peabody Award for “Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington” and appeared on “60 Minutes” several times before being assigned to replace the program’s “Point/Counterpoint” seg for the summer of 1978. By the next season, the final few minutes of the popular broadcast were Rooney’s alone.

His sour humor immediately hit a chord with audiences who appreciated his wry and honest look at every-day life. Rooney rarely strayed from the format that made him famous, but he made an exception in May 1996 when he did a longer feature on assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who agreed to appear on “60 Minutes” only if Rooney interviewed him.

Rooney also wrote a regular column for Tribune Media Services, which distributed it to hundreds of newspapers nationwide. He also contributed articles to Esquire, Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, Harper’s, Playboy and Saturday Review, among other publications.

The prolific author also wrote numerous books, including “The Fortunes of War,” “A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney,” “Pieces of My Mind,” “Word for Word,” “Not That You Asked” and “Sweet and Sour.”

Controversy followed Rooney throughout his career, and not always for good reason. In 2005, Rooney felt the need to refute a racist essay written anonymously in a poor imitation of his style and disseminated online with Rooney’s name attached.

But sometimes the controversy was of Rooney’s own making. Rooney’s remarks about gay and black people — the former made on the air, the latter to an interviewer he said had misquoted him — earned him a monthlong suspension without pay in 1990.

Cronkite defended Rooney against charges of racism, but Rooney continued to stir the pot throughout the last few decades of his career. In a 1992 essay about Native American complaints of insensitivity (there had been a campaign to change the name of the Atlanta Braves), he said, “We feel guilty, and we’ll do what we can for them within reason, but they can’t have their country back. Next question.” In 2002, he said that women had “no business” working at football games as sideline reporters; in 2007, he wrote a newspaper column saying that all of today’s baseball stars are “guys named Rodriguez to me.”

Rooney was open to criticism. After a 1994 segment on the death of Kurt Cobain drew significant viewer ire, he devoted the following week’s seg to an apology and to the reading of negative feedback from people who had written him to challenge his perspective.

Self-interest was not a part of Rooney’s curmudgeonly perspective — in 1990, he blamed CBS’ problems with the Writers Guild on chairman Laurence Tisch and dared Tisch to fire him. The most complaints CBS ever received about a Rooney broadcast came in 2004, when he called Mel Gibson and Pat Robertson “wackos” on the air.

To hear Rooney tell it, he was just reporting the facts. ” ‘Andrew,’ God said to me — he always calls me Andrew; I like that — ‘Andrew, you have the eyes and ears of a lot of people,'” Rooney said on “60 Minutes.” “I wish you’d tell your viewers that both Pat Robertson and Mel Gibson strike Me as wackos. I believe that’s one of your current words.”

“I think it’s fair to say that he was the most popular person ever to appear on ’60 Minutes,'” said fellow CBS newsman Steve Kroft, “and I’m sure Andy would agree with that assessment.”

His wife of 62 years, Marguerite, predeceased him in 2004. He is survived by four children: Ellen, a photographer; Brian, an ABC News correspondent; Emily, host of PBS’ Boston public-affairs show “Greater Boston”; and Martha Fishel, who works for the U.S. National Library of Medicine; along with five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private. A memorial will be announced at a later date.

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