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Longtime '60 Minutes' commentator Andy Rooney dies at 92

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 5, 2011

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Andy Rooney, the “60 Minutes” essayist whose curmudgeonly commentaries at the end of each broadcast made him one of the most popular, and parodied, figures on network television, died Friday night in New York. He was 92. Mr. Rooney died from complications from a recent surgery.

For 33 years, Mr. Rooney’s three-minute segment, “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney,” was a mainstay of “60 Minutes,” making him as much of a celebrity as his colleagues Mike Wallace and Morley Safer. The commentaries ran from 1978 to 2011.

"Andy Rooney is Everyman," Walter Cronkite once remarked, "articulating all the frustrations with modern life that the rest of us ... suffer with silence or mumbled oaths."

Commenting on everything from the peculiarity of men wearing neckties to the even greater peculiarity of how banks choose their names, Mr. Rooney was a “homespun Homer” and “America’s Bard of Banality,” Newsweek declared. The magazine went on to suggest that “Not, perhaps, since Job has so much attention by reaped by lamentations.”

Mr. Rooney was an unlikely television personality. He had a chunky build and squashed-in face. His floppy forelock and bushy brows gave the appearance of being out of control. He had a perpetually put-upon look, something contributed to by his rumpled clothes and the aggressive disarray of his office, which provided the "set" for his "60 Minutes" segments.

Completing the effect was Mr. Rooney’s squawky voice, which seemed made for complaint. An advertising agency once contacted him about doing the voiceover for a headache-remedy commercial. "Told me a lot about my voice," said Mr. Rooney, who declined the offer.

Mr. Rooney, who considered himself a writer rather than performer, looked askance at what he disparagingly called "my well-knownness." "I spent 50 years of my life working to become well-known as a writer," he wrote in his 1989 book "Not That You Asked ..". and I've spent the last 10 hiding from strangers who recognize me."

Mr. Rooney refused to promote his books and made a point of not giving autographs. "I just have the feeling that I don't owe anybody anything except writing as well as I am able," he said in a 1989 Newsday interview.

Mr. Rooney's willingness to affront extended to his employers. When the Writers Guild of America went on strike against CBS in 1987, he refused to appear on “60 Minutes" and wrote in his syndicated newspaper column, "CBS, which used to stand for the Columbia Broadcasting System, no longer stands for anything. They’re just corporate initials now."

What made Mr. Rooney’s crankiness so appealing was his wry humor and keen eye for social observation. From niggling mundane details of dailiness he extracted ephemeral epiphanies and nuggets of moral philosophy.

"I'd like to be rich enough so I could throw soap away after the letters are worn off.”

"Nothing in fine print is ever good news."

"A bank has to have a name that sounds important and honest, otherwise people would keep their money under the mattress where it belongs.”

“If you smile when no one else is around, you really mean it.”

Scrutinizing the commonplace brought Mr. Rooney great success — but less respect than he might have liked. “I just wish insignificance had more stature,” he wrote in a 1967 New York Times article, “in inspecting the specific you can often reveal the universal.” On "Saturday Night Live," comedian Joe Piscopo’s withering impersonations of Mr. Rooney made "Did you ever wonder ... " a comic catchphrase.

Andrew Aitken Rooney was born in Albany, N.Y., on Jan. 14, 1919, the son of Walter S. Rooney and Elinor (Reynolds) Rooney. He attended Colgate University before being drafted into the Army. Having briefly worked as a copy boy for The Albany Knickerbocker News, Mr. Rooney was tapped to be a reporter for the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

“It was the luckiest break of my life -- the equivalent of 50 years in journalism school," Mr. Rooney said in a 1992 USA Today interview. He flew on the first US bombing mission over Germany, reported on the Normandy invasion, and earned several decorations, including an Air Medal and Bronze Star.

With a Stars and Stripes colleague, O.C. Hutton, Mr. Rooney collaborated on three books, “Air Gunner” (1944), “The Story of Stars and Stripes” (1946), and “Conquerors’ Peace” (1947). MGM bought the movie rights to the Stars and Stripes book, offering Mr. Rooney his first acquaintaince with marrying text to image: He wrote the screenplay (a film was never produced).

Mr. Rooney worked as a free-lance writer until a chance encounter with the radio and television personality Arthur Godfrey in 1949. Mr. Rooney went to work for Godfrey, writing jokes, and then for a succession of performers, including Victor Borge, Sam Levinson, Herb Shriner, and Garry Moore.

Mr. Rooney officially joined CBS News in 1964. As a writer and producer, he collaborated with newsman Harry Reasoner on a number of highly regarded documentaries, including "An Essay on Doors" and “An Essay on Bridges.” The latter included one of Mr. Rooney’s most memorable sentences, “An arch is two curves trying to fall.”

In 1971, CBS deemed Mr. Rooney’s “An Essay on War” too controversial to broadcast. He took it to PBS and made his on-air debut. He returned to CBS a year later, now presenting as well as writing. Notable efforts included “Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington,” “Mr. Rooney Goes to Work,” and ‘‘Mr. Rooney Goes to Dinner” (he put on 14 pounds during its production).

In 1978, Mr. Rooney served as a summer fill-in for the concluding segment on “60 Minutes,” the “Point Counterpoint” debate between Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick. He permanently replaced them a few months later. He started writing his syndicated column in 1979.

Books by Mr. Rooney include “The Fortunes of War” (1962), “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” (1981), “And More by Andy Rooney” (1982), “Pieces of My Mind” (1984), “Word for Word” (1986), “Sweet and Sour” (1992), “My War” (1995), “Sincerely, Andy Rooney” (1999), "Common Nonsense” (2002), “Years of Minutes” (2003), ‘Out of My Mind’’ (2006), and ‘’60 Years of Wisdom and Wit’’ (2009).

A passionate woodworker, Mr. Rooney also collected manual typewriters. He owned some 30 Underwoods. “I hate a typewriter that’s smarter than I am,” he liked to say.

Mr. Rooney leaves three daughters, Ellen, Martha; and Emily, the host of WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston,”; and a son, Brian, a correspondent with ABC News, of Los Angeles. Mr. Rooney’s wife of 62 years, Marguerite (Howard) Rooney, died in 2004.