NEW YORK — Andy Rooney so dreaded the day he had to end his signature “60 Minutes” commentaries about life’s large and small absurdities that he kept going until he was 92 years old.
Even then, he said he wasn’t retiring. Writers never retire. But his life after the end of “A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney” was short: He died Friday night, according to CBS, only a month after delivering his 1,097th and final televised commentary.
Rooney had gone to the hospital for an undisclosed surgery, but major complications developed and he never recovered.
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“Andy always said he wanted to work until the day he died, and he managed to do it, save the last few weeks in the hospital,” said his “60 Minutes” colleague, correspondent Steve Kroft.
Rooney talked on “60 Minutes” about what was in the news, and his opinions occasionally got him in trouble. But he was just as likely to discuss the old clothes in his closet, why air travel had become unpleasant and why banks needed to have important-sounding names.
Rooney won one of his four Emmy Awards for a piece on whether there was a real Mrs. Smith who made Mrs. Smith’s Pies. As it turned out, there was no Mrs. Smith.
“I obviously have a knack for getting on paper what a lot of people have thought and didn’t realize they thought,” Rooney once said. “And they say, `Hey, yeah!’ And they like that.”
Looking for something new to punctuate its weekly broadcast, “60 Minutes” aired its first Rooney commentary on July 2, 1978. He complained about people who keep track of how many people die in car accidents on holiday weekends. In fact, he said, the Fourth of July is “one of the safest weekends of the year to be going someplace.”
More than three decades later, he was railing about how unpleasant air travel had become. “Let’s make a statement to the airlines just to get their attention,” he said. “We’ll pick a week next year and we’ll all agree not to go anywhere for seven days.”
In early 2009, as he was about to turn 90, Rooney looked ahead to President Barack Obama‘s upcoming inauguration with a look at past inaugurations. He told viewers that Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 swearing-in was the first to be broadcast on radio, adding, “That may have been the most interesting thing Coolidge ever did.”
“Words cannot adequately express Andy’s contribution to the world of journalism and the impact he made – as a colleague and a friend – upon everybody at CBS,” said Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. president and CEO.
Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and “60 Minutes” executive producer, said “it’s hard to imagine not having Andy around. He loved his life and he lived it on his own terms. We will miss him very much.”
For his final essay, Rooney said that he’d live a life luckier than most.
“I wish I could do this forever. I can’t, though,” he said.
He said he probably hadn’t said anything on “60 Minutes” that most of his viewers didn’t already know or hadn’t thought. “That’s what a writer does,” he said. “A writer’s job is to tell the truth.”
True to his occasional crotchety nature, though, he complained about being famous or bothered by fans. His last wish from fans: If you see him in a restaurant, just let him eat his dinner.
Rooney was a freelance writer in 1949 when he encountered CBS radio star Arthur Godfrey in an elevator and – with the bluntness millions of people learned about later – told him his show could use better writing. Godfrey hired him and by 1953, when he moved to TV, Rooney was his only writer.
He wrote for CBS’ Garry Moore during the early 1960s before settling into a partnership with Harry Reasoner at CBS News. Given a challenge to write on any topic, he wrote “An Essay on Doors” in 1964, and continued with contemplations on bridges, chairs and women.
“The best work I ever did,” Rooney said. “But nobody knows I can do it or ever did it. Nobody knows that I’m a writer and producer. They think I’m this guy on television.”
He became such a part of the culture that comic Joe Piscopo satirized Rooney’s squeaky voice with the refrain, “Did you ever wonder …” Rooney never started any of his essays that way. For many years, “60 Minutes” improbably was the most popular program on television and a dose of Rooney was what people came to expect for a knowing smile on the night before they had to go back to work.
Rooney left CBS in 1970 when it refused to air his angry essay about the Vietnam War. He went on TV for the first time, reading the essay on PBS and winning a Writers Guild of America award for it.
He returned to CBS three years later as a writer and producer of specials. Notable among them was the 1975 “Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington,” whose lighthearted but serious look at government won him a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting.
His words sometimes landed Rooney in hot water. CBS suspended him for three months in 1990 for making racist remarks in an interview, which he denied. Rooney, who was arrested in Florida while in the Army in the 1940s for refusing to leave a seat among blacks on a bus, was hurt deeply by the charge of racism.
Gay rights groups were mad, during the AIDS epidemic, when Rooney mentioned homosexual unions in saying “many of the ills which kill us are self-induced.” Indians protested when Rooney suggested Native Americans who made money from casinos weren’t doing enough to help their own people.
The Associated Press learned the danger of getting on Rooney’s cranky side. In 1996, AP Television Writer Frazier Moore wrote a column suggesting it was time for Rooney to retire. On Rooney’s next “60 Minutes” appearance, he invited those who disagreed to make their opinions known. The AP switchboard was flooded by some 7,000 phone calls and countless postcards were sent to the AP mail room.
“Your piece made me mad,” Rooney told Moore two years later. “One of my major shortcomings – I’m vindictive. I don’t know why that is. Even in petty things in my life I tend to strike back. It’s a lot more pleasurable a sensation than feeling threatened.”He was one of television’s few voices to strongly oppose the war in Iraq after the George W. Bush administration launched it in 2002. After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, he said he was chastened by its quick fall but didn’t regret his “60 Minutes” commentaries.
“I’m in a position of feeling secure enough so that I can say what I think is right and if so many people think it’s wrong that I get fired, well, I’ve got enough to eat,” Rooney said at the time.
Andrew Aitken Rooney was born on Jan. 14, 1919, in Albany, N.Y., and worked as a copy boy on the Albany Knickerbocker News while in high school. College at Colgate University was cut short by World War II, when Rooney worked for Stars and Stripes.
With another former Stars and Stripes staffer, Oram C. Hutton, Rooney wrote four books about the war. They included the 1947 book, “Their Conqueror’s Peace: A Report to the American Stockholders,” documenting offenses against the Germans by occupying forces.
Rooney and his wife, Marguerite, were married for 62 years before she died of heart failure in 2004. They had four children and lived in New York, with homes in Rowayton, Conn., and upstate New York. Daughter Emily Rooney is a former executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight.” Brian was a longtime ABC News correspondent, Ellen a photographer and Martha Fishel is chief of the public service division of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Services will be private, and it’s anticipated CBS News will hold a public memorial later, Brian Rooney said Saturday.