Andy Rooney, the beetle-browed CBS commentator who pondered the logic of modern life on his “60 Minutes” segment for more than 30 years, died late yesterday in New York, according to CBS News. He was 92.
CBS News said Rooney died in a New York City hospital of complications following minor surgery.
Rooney was a prolific newspaper columnist, television writer and producer. He wrote 15 books, including “Out of My Mind,” published in 2006. But he was best known for his Sunday night appearances on the “60 Minutes” news magazine, where he delivered wry observations from a book-filled office, seated behind a walnut desk he crafted himself.
“If I’m so average-American,” he said in an August 2010 commentary, “how come that I’ve never heard of most of the musical groups that millions of other Americans apparently are listening to? I’ve heard of Sting and the Rolling Stones but someone sent me Billboard magazine, and I looked at a list of the top 200 performers, and nobody I know is on that best-seller list. The singers I know have been replaced by performers like Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Usher. I mean, who?”
Crusty and nostalgic by turn, Rooney struck a chord with audiences that thwarted management’s occasional efforts to rein him in.
The show’s Nielsen ratings tumbled 20 percent in 1990 while Rooney was briefly suspended from the Sunday program after the Advocate, a Los Angeles-based gay magazine, attributed remarks to him that disparaged gay and black people.
His suspension touched off a national debate about freedom of speech. CBS ended Rooney’s three-month suspension after three weeks. For his part, Rooney said he was guilty of what he had said about gays, and regretted having offended them, but he denied the racist remarks, noting his efforts to challenge the segregation of the U.S. Army in the 1940s.
In his final regular appearance on “60 Minutes,” a month ago on Oct. 2, Rooney said, “I’ve done a lot of complaining here, but of all the things I’ve complained about, I can’t complain about my life.” He added: “Writers don’t retire, and I’ll always be a writer.”
Andrew Aitken Rooney was born on Jan. 14, 1919, in Albany, New York. He attended Colgate University until after his junior year, when he was drafted for military service in World War II.
He married his hometown sweetheart, Marguerite Howard, in 1942 and was shipped to England, where he began writing for the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper. He flew on a B-17 bombing mission over Germany, followed American troops to Normandy and was one of the first reporters to visit the Buchenwald concentration camp. “The dead and dying were still everywhere,” he recalled in a 2000 book, “My War.”
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.
Rooney often tackled the same subject for TV and print, tailoring his writing for each medium.
Outspoken on Cuts
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.
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.
Insubordinate to All
“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.
“It seems to me that you have to judge the whole man,” Friendly told the New York Times after Rooney contested the racist comments attributed to him. “If Andy Rooney said he never said that, I would believe it.”
CBS abruptly ended his suspension after three weeks and promoted Rooney’s return to “60 Minutes,” where he said he felt terrible for making “life a little more difficult for homosexuals” while defending his record on race relations.
Arrested on Bus
Rooney noted that he was arrested for sitting with black soldiers on a bus in the South in the 1940s, and arrested again in 1970 while working on a news program about the slayer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
On the night of his return, “60 Minutes” rebounded in the Nielsen ratings. The show captured 36 percent of viewers who watched television in the nation’s largest 23 markets.
Rooney and his late wife had four children: son Brian and daughters Emily, Martha and Ellen.
“It’s a sad day at ‘60 Minutes’ and for everybody here at CBS News,” Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and the executive producer of “60 Minutes” told CBS News. “It’s hard to imagine not having Andy around.”
In a 2010 memoir, Rooney wrote: “A writer’s greatest pleasure is revealing to people things they knew but did not know they knew. Or did not realize everyone else knew, too. This produces a warm sense of fellow feeling and is the best a writer can do.”