Andy Rooney dies at 92; curmudgeonly commentator on '60 Minutes'
His end-of-show essays turned him into a reluctant celebrity. TV Guide called him 'America's favorite grump.' He retired in October 2011 after 33 years on the show.
Andy Rooney in 1979. Rooney was a fixture on "60 Minutes" until he retired in October after 33 years. (Los Angeles Times / October 23, 2014)
An award-winning writer and producer of CBS News TV specials narrated by Harry Reasoner in the 1960s — "A Birdseye View of America" and "An Essay on Bridges," among them — Rooney began appearing on camera himself as the writer-producer of a series of specials in the '70s.
"Mr. Rooney Goes to Dinner," in which he explored the $11-billion restaurant business by visiting restaurants across America, was one. (If a restaurant menu has a tassel on it, Rooney told viewers, "add $2 to the bill." And forget restaurants advertising home cooking. "If I want home cooking," he said, "I'll stay home.")
The "rumpled pragmatist with a dry wit and a salty acerbic style" — as former Times television critic Cecil Smith described Rooney — first appeared on "60 Minutes" in 1978 as the summer replacement for "Point Counterpoint," the brief, end-of-the-show segment featuring liberal Shana Alexander and conservative James J. Kilpatrick.
That fall, Rooney began alternating weeks with the two verbally sparring journalists, winning an Emmy for his essay titled "Who Owns What in America," in which he visited Mrs. Smith's Pies in Pottstown, Pa. and found that Mrs. Smith did not exist.
When the 1979-80 TV season started, Alexander and Kilpatrick were gone and "A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney" was well on its way to becoming a "60 Minutes" institution.
For his part, Rooney preferred being known simply as a "writer." And he was not enamored with the celebrity that came with appearing on television each week.
"A writer should be sitting over in the corner watching the dance and not be out there dancing," he told the Saturday Evening Post in 1984. "I'm not too keen about my recent well-known-ness; I don't handle it very well. If somebody comes up to me on the street and says, 'Hey, I like your stuff,' well, I can't hate that. But it never stops there. Pretty soon he wants to be my best friend. I tend to be rude to people like that."
As for autograph seekers, Rooney refused to scrawl his name when a fan stopped him. At one point, whenever asked for an autograph, he would take the proffered piece of paper and write, "No."
Rooney was the personification of the crusty newsroom veteran. He wore a suit and tie on camera, but you had the feeling that as soon as the camera lights were turned off he shed the coat, loosened the tie and rolled up his shirt sleeves.
With his bulldog face, bushy eyebrows and somewhat whiny delivery, the stocky Rooney was irresistible fodder for parody.
Comedian Joe Piscopo did a winning whining Rooney rendition on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1980s, employing a Rooney-esque refrain, "Did you ever wonder?" (For the record, Rooney told Newsday in 1989 that he examined all of his old "60 Minutes" copy and never used that line.)
Rooney's weekly TV showcase led to a three-times-a-week nationally syndicated newspaper column that appeared in several hundred newspapers.
He also wrote 16 books, many of them best-selling collections of his work, including "A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney," "Pieces of My Mind" and "Sincerely, Andy Rooney."
Rooney was just as outspoken off-camera as on, which occasionally got him into hot water.
In 1990, CBS News suspended him without pay for three months in the wake of his remarks about blacks and gays attributed to him in the Advocate, a magazine that covers the gay community.
The Feb. 27, 1990, edition of the Advocate quoted Rooney as saying, "Blacks have watered down their genes because the less intelligent ones are the ones that have the most children." It also contained a letter Rooney wrote that called the homosexual sex act "repugnant" and homosexuality "not normal."
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times after his suspension, Rooney categorically denied making the statement attributed to him about blacks during his phone interview with the Advocate. But he did confirm that he wrote the letter to the magazine commenting on gays in response to criticisms of his views on homosexuality.
"I am guilty of what I said about gays, and I deeply regret having offended them," he said. "But on the other charge, I am absolutely innocent. I am just infuriated by the notion that I am being called a racist. Anyone who knows me knows that is not true."
In the end, CBS, faced with an overwhelmingly negative public response to his suspension, reinstated Rooney after only three weeks.