He was a staple at CBS for more than 60 years, but Andy Rooney became a household name when he joined 60 Minutes on a regular basis in 1978. He retired from the program just last month, vowing that he wasn’t retiring because “writers don’t retire, and I’ll always be a writer.”
Rooney died last night in New York at the age of 92.
Another longtime fixture at CBS News, Sunday Morning host Charles Osgood knew Rooney for decades, and says his popularity on 60 Minutes was cemented early in his career.
“An important thing that people overlook about Andy is that he was a comedy writer,” Osgood tells FishbowlNY.
Rooney established his writing chops with CBS heavyweights Arthur Godfrey and Garry Moore.
Later, he moved his talents from the entertainment side to news, collaborating with Harry Reasoner for his prime time “reports.”
But it was at 60 Minutes that Rooney would write for himself and get in front of camera.
“[Rooney] didn’t know until he started going on the air, and people started seeing him, recognizing him on the street, and appreciating what he brought to 60 Minutes that he had the problem of dealing with the public,” Osgood admits. “He did not want to be perceived as someone who was celebrity-driven.”
Rooney, unlike most television personalities, would go to painstaking efforts to avoid giving admirers an autograph.
“For him, it was sort of a moral principle that was involved,” Osgood says. “He did not want to buy into the idea that his signature was worth so much more than somebody else’s.”
The Poet-Laureate of CBS News, Osgood knew Rooney had trouble embracing fame.
“I don’t think he liked that one bit,” Osgood admits.
But, Rooney confided in his final broadcast saying, “I wasn’t always gracious about it. It’s hard to accept being liked. I don’t say this often, but thank you.”
Rooney was comfortable with his writing, and he gravitated to the role of de facto public advocate on 60 Minutes with his weekly commentary.
“He liked to notice things and then say them [on the air],” Osgood recalls. “People would say, ‘He’s right about that.’”
Osgood says Rooney identified with the everyman starting decades earlier as a war correspondent for the Stars and Stripes newspaper.
The two legendary newsmen knew each other primarily from their close office proximity over the years. There was also a personal relationship.
“There was a time over a period of ten years I played tennis with him a lot,” Osgood says.
The “Evening News” doubles tournament featured CBS “all-stars” Rooney, Osgood, and the late anchor Walter Cronkite (a close friend of Rooney’s).
Rooney’s hero, though, didn’t hail from CBS, Osgood says, it was accomplished author E.B. White.
Marcy McGinnis is the former CBS News, senior VP of news coverage. McGinnis who left CBS in 2005, built a strong bond with Rooney.
“Andy was a great friend to me from the early ’70s,” McGinnis tells FishbowlNY.
She spoke most recently to Rooney after his retirement last month, and recalled her brush with fame on the venerable news magazine.
“When he did a piece about body types who should wear blue jeans and body types who should not, I was lucky enough to have my young, 25-year old butt included in those for whom blue jeans were a good fit!” McGinnis, now an Associate Dean of Journalism at Stony Brook University, says, “My hair, my jewelry and my shoes, but alas, never my face graced the 60 Minutes airwaves. His face did, however, and we are all the happier for it.”
As Rooney got older, he became more of a curmudgeon to viewers, albeit usually a beloved curmudgeon.
However, Osgood says there was no TV persona when it came to real life Rooney.
Osgood recalls an elevator ride with Rooney in what could have been a segment of “A Few Minutes With…”
“I had just bought a leather coat, and [Rooney] said, ‘Nice coat, do you have to shine that like your shoes? Do you have to polish it?’”
Osgood, an original WCBS 880 all-news anchor, says Rooney was a “walking legend” who people would admire from afar, even within the same company.
“[I'd see him] in the hallways, in the cafeteria, inside the building, [and] coming and going from work,” WCBS/Channel 2 anchor Maurice DuBois tells FishbowlNY.
DuBois says the exchanges were limited, perhaps out of respect for the aging icon.
“It was just sort of in passing, like you do with anybody else. ‘Good morning. Hello,’ but nothing beyond that.”
Despite only seeing Rooney in passing, DuBois recognizes his greatness.
“It’s this giant of a man who had a small frame,” DuBois says. “We’re sort of awed by him [at CBS] and we don’t say that about many people. It was almost as if he had some kind of aura.”
At the height of his popularity, Rooney’s status as a pop culture figure was created. In the 1980s, Rooney was memorably impersonated by Joe Piscopo on Saturday Night Live.
“He always insisted that he never said, ‘Did you ever notice?’” Osgood laughs.