WASHINGTON, November 5, 2011 – CBS writer, producer, and commentator Andy Rooney passed away Friday evening at the age of 92, only a month after retiring from his long and legendary media career. The precise cause of death was not disclosed, but was reportedly due to unexpected complications that developed after a recent surgical procedure.
Andrew Aitken Rooney first reached Boomer consciousness in the late 1970s. Back in those somewhat more innocent pre-computer, pre-app, pre-iPhone, pre-interactive video days, Rooney materialized seemingly out of the woodwork to become America’s official—but generally beloved—TV social crank.
In random bits, week after week, he channeled the public zeitgeist on a variety of disparate topics with uncanny insight. When queried about his success in this role, Rooney hit the nail on the head. “I obviously have a knack for getting on paper what a lot of people have thought and didn’t realize they thought.”
Beginning as a summer replacement feature for “Point/Counterpoint” in 1978, Rooney’s ruminations, entitled “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney,” were slotted at the tail end of each CBS “60 Minutes” newsmagazine program. Serving essentially as a filler segment, Rooney’s essay-commentaries were an immediate hit, distinguished by his uniquely wry, witty, and occasionally embarrassing observations on the world in general.
Rooney’s distinctively crisp, clipped, somewhat high pitched vocal delivery added character to his developing foxy grandpa persona, soon regularly caricatured on the then still fresh and new (and NBC-produced) “Saturday Night Live.” This, in turn, gave Rooney fresh traction with the up-and-coming Boomer generation who’d cut their media teeth on strong TV news personalities like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, and Morley Safer, themselves veteran reporters and commentators.
The key to Rooney’s success was that he gave expression to the general public’s irritation with faddishness and eccentricities often born in the jaded, New York social milieu in which he himself lived and thrived. For example, America’s hinterlands then and now had and have little use for expensive garbage purchased at taxpayer expense because it’s been declared as the latest in “art” by its creators. Here’s Rooney’s take on the topic:
Ironically for an apparent newcomer to the CBS roster, Rooney had already had a long, successful media career prior to the inaugural year of his famous commentaries. Born in Albany, New York on January 14, 1919, he actually started out in the news business as a high schooler when he took a job as a copy boy at the Knickerbocker News.
He later moved on to attend college at Colgate University. But his college days were cut short when he was drafted by the military in late 1941 as what soon would became the Second World War began to involve United States.
Professing at the time to be a pacifist, Rooney was eventually pressed into duty as a war correspondent for the military’s GI newspaper, Stars and Stripes. His experiences on the European front eventually resulted in four books about the Second World War.
After witnessing the horrors of the Nazi death camps near the end of the war, Rooney confessed he underwent a key philosophical transformation. Realizing that his wartime experiences had erased his pacifist tendencies, he converted to a lifetime belief in the concept of the “just war.”
Rooney’s early career unfolded largely out of the public eye. At the conclusion of WWII, he made the easy move first into radio and then the still-new medium of TV. Snagging a writing job with popular radio and TV personality Arthur Godfrey, Rooney also wrote for Garry Moore, another well-known early TV figure.
This work provided him with plenty of street cred, eventually leading to a long and productive collaboration with venerable CBS newsman Harry Reasoner with whom he developed a number of notable news specials, one of which—focusing on the shabby treatment of blacks in American films—garnered an Emmy Award. Rooney continued to serve as writer and sometimes producer for numerous CBS new specials.
Rooney departed from CBS for a time in 1970 when that network refused to air an incendiary piece he’d written denouncing the Vietnam War. It became a minor cause célèbre and was, somewhat predictably, picked up and aired on PBS, winning him a Writers Guild of America award. Rooney and the network eventually worked out their differences. He returned to the network in 1973, picking up where he’d left off as a writer and producer, and copping a Peabody award for “Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington, a well-received TV civics essay.
Politically—although he tended to equivocate at times—Rooney was a lifelong Democrat like most of his media colleagues, although his father had been a rock-ribbed Republican. Claiming objectivity, Rooney nonetheless had little use for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or George W. Bush, rarely missing an opportunity to disparage the latter during his presidency.
On the other hand, Rooney occasionally—and spectacularly—strayed from the liberal reservation, running into trouble with CBS at times by dispensing flip, offhanded, and occasionally outright dismissive comments on blacks, gays, and American Indians. He also got in hot water with the younger demographic by flippantly dismissing the suicide of punk-grunge rocker Kurt Cobain in 1994.
CBS brass reacted periodically to some of these flaps by suspending or disciplining Rooney, who invariably had to apologize, though he was likely never really sorry. In spite of this, his popularity invariably forced the network to bring him back on the air after these brief trips to the metaphorical woodshed.
Rooney remained surprisingly robust and adept well into his 80s. He seemed, though, to lose a bit of his trademark zest after losing his wife of 62 years, Marguerite, in 2004. But, like most men who love what they do for a living, he re-immersed himself in his work at CBS. He kept at his job until just last month when he and CBS concluded that it was finally time for him to hang up his spikes as America’s most beloved contemporary curmudgeon.
Andy Rooney’s work here is done. But it won’t be forgotten. Like his commentaries or not, buy his politics or not, Rooney was a fine, incisive, Hemingway-esque writer- commentator. His highly individualistic TV essays exemplified the classic brevity, clarity, and insouciance that once characterized news and opinion writing. In addition, Rooney knew how to lay out a coherent argument, making maximum use of minimal airtime. In spite of his foibles, his wit and his style will be sorely missed.
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