23 November 2011

Andy Rooney Dies

Story first appeared in USA TODAY.

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.
He died in a New York City hospital of complications after minor surgery, according to a CBS statement released on Saturday.

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."

60 Minutes didn't replace him with another essayist — perhaps the ultimate compliment.

A former war correspondent, he wrote 16 books — from Air Gunner (1944), an account of the air war against Germany, to Andy Rooney: 60 Year of Wisdom and Wit (2009). And until last year, he wrote a syndicated newspaper column.

Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and the executive producer of 60 Minutes, wouldn't discuss why Rooney wasn't replaced, but said, 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.

In the 2010 interview, Rooney was asked if he did retire, who might replace him? With a straight face, he suggested another CBS legend, Charles Kuralt, who died in 1997.

Rooney liked to think of himself not as a TV personality but as a writer who merely appeared on television. With his whiny, sing-song oratory style and rumpled demeanor, his observation was a bit more than wry self-deprecation.

He could be grouchy, rude, funny, mischievous and occasionally out-of-touch and controversial. As he put it, "There's an awful lot of nonsense in this world. I'm not shy about expressing a dislike when I feel it."

In his first 60 Minutes essay, on July 2, 1978, he contended the Fourth of July weekend was "one of the safest of the year to be going someplace," and that since "fewer people are watching television over the Fourth, I suppose fewer die of boredom."

Few topics were off-limits. He debunked celebrities, consumer products, companies, hair styles, holiday traditions and human behavior with wit and a sly arch of his trademark bushy eyebrows. One of his Emmy Awards was for an essay pondering if there was a real Mrs. Smith behind Mrs. Smith's Pies.

Rooney's TV career began in 1949 as a writer for Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, but took off in the late '60s as a writer/producer for correspondent Harry Reasoner. In an interview with Morley Safer that accompanied his final essay for 60 Minutes, Rooney said the late Reasoner was a good writer but lazy.

No one ever said that about Rooney. "The single luckiest thing that ever happened to me," he said, was as an Army private in 1942 landing a job as a reporter for the Armed Forces' newspaper, Stars and Stripes. In 1943, he was one of six correspondents who flew on the first American bombing raid over Germany. Near war's end, he was one of the first American journalists to report atrocities from recently liberated concentration camps.

During the war, he met Walter Cronkite, who would become his closest friend at CBS, and Don Hewitt, who would start 60 Minutes and have the idea in 1978 of closing each Sunday night's edition of 60 Minutes with a Rooney essay.

"I never had a great desire to have my face on TV," Rooney told USA TODAY. "I don't mind it. It means more money. … I like that part of it."

Before 60 Minutes, he wrote and appeared in several prime-time specials, including In Praise of New York City (1974), Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington (1975), Mr. Rooney Goes to Dinner (1978), and Mr. Rooney Goes to Work (1977).

He didn't always get along with his bosses. In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War, he quit CBS — returning two years later — when the network refused to air his morally questioning "An Essay on War." It aired on PBS instead.

In 1990, he was suspended for three months after making remarks seen as homophobic to a gay newspaper. He was rehired four weeks later after 60 Minutes ratings had fallen 20%.

In 1992, he angered Native Indians when he wrote in a column that it was silly for them to complain about team nicknames such as the Redskins: "The real problem is, we took the country away from the Indians, they want it back and we're not going to give it to them. 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 1994, he complained that Kurt Cobain's suicide at 27 got more attention that Richard Nixon's death. He said he had never heard of Cobain or his band Nirvana and that "a lot of people would like to have the years left that he threw away." A week later, he apologized on air, saying he should have taken Cobain's depression into account, and read critical comments from viewers.

The same year, he blasted the French for not supporting the war with Iraq: "You can't beat the French when it comes to food, fashion, wine or perfume, but they lost their license to have an opinion on world affairs years ago," he said. "The French lost World War II to the Germans in about 20 minutes."

But he also said, "I am proud to say that no CBS executive has ever stopped me from saying anything, no matter how dumb it was."

CBS released a statement Saturday that praised Rooney's contribution to journalism.

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, said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corporation.

Rooney also won admiration from colleagues at CBS.

"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," Morley Safer said.

In Rooney's cluttered office at CBS, one of his treasured possessions was a framed, handwritten note that said simply, "WOW," from the acclaimed essayist and children's author E.B. White, about Rooney's 1957 TV adaptation of White's famous essay, "Here is New York."

"He was the best there was," Rooney said. When White died in 1985, Rooney noted, "Seems terribly wrong, but I'm probably better known than he was. As the phrase goes in the newspaper business, I couldn't carry his typewriter."

Rooney was often viewed as an American "everyman," but he acknowledged that when he encountered fans who "want to be your best friend, I'm rude. I don't like that in myself, but I can't stop it."

He once wrote, "I'm average in so many ways that it eliminates any chance I ever had of being considered a brooding, introspective intellectual." In fact, Rooney was a bit of an elitist who drove expensive cars, dined at fine French restaurants in Manhattan, was a member of several private clubs and a regular on the New York black-tie media circuit.

Rooney is survived by one son, Brian, a former ABC correspondent, and three daughters: Emily, who hosts a public-TV talk show in Boston; Martha, who works at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md.; and Ellen, a photographer in London.

In an introduction to the 2009 collection of his father's writings, Brian Rooney wrote: "As a father, he was the product of his time. He never said, 'I love you,' and never asked about my feelings."

But, he added, "His gruffness hides sentimentality. … When my mother (Marguerite) died (in 2004, after 62 years of marriage), he curled up on the bed like a child, crying her name. He loves life and wishes it would never end."

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