Andy Rooney: He was more than just the great grump of '60 Minutes'

Andy Rooney, who became famous delivering his “A Few Minutes With… ” segments on 60 Minutes, has died. He was 92 years old. Rooney won five Emmy Awards, including a 2003 “Lifetime Achievement” Emmy; his first was for writing the 1968 CBS News documentary Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed.

The most highly visible link to the first generation of TV personalities — he wrote for anchors, reporters, and entertainers — Rooney was a lot more than the “cranky,” “Did you ever notice FILL IN BLANK?” guy that too many people ridiculed.

Rooney was a writer with a lot of range. He wrote 15 books, most notably 1997’s My War, about his World War II experiences. He wrote comedy for the immensely popular Arthur Godfrey and Garry Moore in the 1950s, and moved over to CBS News to form a close professional relationship with reporter-anchor Harry Reasoner in the early ’60s. (For a guy with a grumpy rep himself, Rooney had a knack for getting along with difficult personalities; Godfrey and Reasoner were never known for their sunny dispositions, yet Rooney worked well with both.)

He created his first recognizable Andy Rooney-ish TV piece in 1964, with “An Essay on Doors.” Like humorists such as George Ade and Robert Benchley, Rooney had a gift for taking ordinary subjects, revealing interesting aspects of their history, and adding a point of view, often impish or good-naturedly jaundiced. His pal Morley Safer, interviewing Rooney on his final 60 Minutes appearance on Oct. 2, 2011, went for the easy cliches about Rooney: that he is the “grouch-in-chief,” a “curmudgeon,” the “Grandpa Moses of broadcasting.”

Bah. It’s important to point out that much of Rooney’s career was been spent not being a whimsical curmudgeon. He won a Peabody Award for his 1975 Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington special, which offers civics lessons and an analysis of the way government works — and doesn’t work — in a manner that might please both liberals and conservatives. (They used to have a term for this: even-handedness.)

Earlier, when Rooney produced “An Essay on War” (Rooney had served in Europe during World War II and has said it was the most formative experience of his life), his piece was going to be re-edited by some uncomfortable CBS execs. (The following clip is a first-rate David Letterman interview with Rooney; Letterman totally gets the historical tradition from which Rooney arose.)

Rooney bought the program from the network with his own money and brought it to PBS, back when Fred Friendly was heading it up and giving it a spine. PBS aired it, leading to Rooney’s brief but fruitful relationship with public television, most notably his segments on the wonderful, why-don’t-they-rerun-this? series The Great American Dream Machine.

Rooney has said that it was on Dream Machine that “I started doing what I do for 60 Minutes now”: Starting in 1978, delivering a few minutes of observations about things silly and serious.

There was a news-writer’s sure touch and directness in the best of Rooney’s commentaries. It’s ironic that the very thing that eventually made Rooney a figure of fun — complaining in an articulate, often clever manner about the idiocies and inconveniences of modern life — are the same things that are treasured in the work of people now considered astute critics of the culture, whether you think “astute critic” means Jon Stewart or Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow.

Then there was the famous Andy Rooney-Ali G encounter, in which cultures clashed and Rooney ossified in the popular imagination as an out-of-it crank.

Couple things about the Ali G interview: It’s very funny, in the way a good gotcha piece can be funny about someone who’s not in on the joke. But beyond that is the fact that Rooney consented to the interview, assumed Ali G was legit, and declined to condescend to what he perceived as a young man who didn’t speak properly or know how to conduct a professional interview. In other words, Rooney treated Ali G as an equal until, by his measure, Ali G proved otherwise. Then after being rebuffed by the comic, Rooney assumed the stance he gave everyone: He suffered no fool gladly. I think both Rooney and Ali G come off well, from completely opposite points of view.

Inevitably, a stubbornly opinionated man like Rooney occasionally attracted controversy. He made some ill-tempered remarks about the lack of newsworthiness regarding the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994. More seriously, in 1990 he ascribed high rates of premature death to, among other things, “”too much alcohol, too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, [and] cigarettes.” He was suspended without pay for three months, during which time 60 Minutes‘ ratings declined. Rooney later apologized to the public and the gay community in particular, issuing a statement (against the wishes of CBS, I might add — the man would not toe any company line) that “I’ve always had in my mind that I was doing some little bit of good. Now, I was to be known for having done not good, but bad. I’d be known for the rest of my life as a racist bigot and as someone who had made life a little more difficult for homosexuals. I felt terrible about that and I’ve learned a lot.”

Andy Rooney will go down in TV history as a great real-life character. He deserves to be remembered as well as a first-rate writer and humorist in the best, most cantankerous tradition of this country.

Twitter: @kentucker


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