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Friday, December 2, 2011

Andy Rooney: Curmugeon

Prickly and witty.

Many of us will miss Andy Rooney’s weekly segment on “60 Minutes” in which he addresses mostly mundane subjects with varying degrees of befuddlement, vexation, and on a rare occasion, pleasure. He was one of the most popular broadcast figures in the country—and truly a curmudgeon.

A little history: after his discharge from the army following World War II, Rooney worked as a freelance writer, churning out material for entertainers such as Arthur Godfrey, Victor Borge, Herb Shriner, Sam Levenson, and Gary Moore. He wrote entertaining, clever essays that made creative writing look so easy, like fluid fun. Later on, he wrote his weekly piece for “60 Minutes” that made him the homespun philosopher who entered our homes every Sunday for so many years. There were 1,097 segments in all; quite a legacy.

Rooney loved Christmas, football, tennis, among a few other things. Very few. He was much better known for the things he found objectionable, which was almost everything: he complained about wash and wear shirts that you can wash, but not wear; about any music he could not hum. He hated waiting on lines for any reason, and New Year’s Eve--he loathed it.

Beauty parlors were not filled with beauties, he observed, and he was outspoken on the subject of higher education. He believed that most college catalogs “rank among the great works of fiction of all time,” and that anyone who can come up with the money to attend college would find it “almost impossible to flunk out.” He was also blunt about his feelings for CBS, his long-time employer, and he made no secret of his dislike for Laurence A. Tisch, the network’s chief executive from 1986 to 1995.

While millions of followers delighted in his “60 Minutes” presentations, there were also a lot of people who took issue with his off-handed comments concerning serious subjects about which they felt deeply. Sometimes he made insensitive comments about suicides and minorities—definitely not good. At these times he was viewed as offensive, sarcastic, or outrageous. A complex man, Rooney’s area of expertise encompassed the smaller, lighter pieces about which he wrote. I used to hope that he would adhere to them.

On occasion, Rooney’s outspoken opinions got him into trouble with CBS News. In 1990, he found himself suspended for three months without pay in response to comments he had made about black and gay people. He later apologized for the statements that got him into hot water, but managed to offend the same groups again--in addition to women and Latin Americans. Ugh.

A few years ago, I passed him on the street in Manhattan. There was no mistaking him, with his bushy eyebrows, jowls, and scowling countenance. Wanting to respect his privacy, and avoid being insulted for interrupting his solitude, I did not tell him that I was a fan of his work. I kept walking; he would have preferred that and even thanked me for doing so.

~ Laraine Jablon

Laraine Jablon, BA, MA, is a freelance writer specializing in social, health, and spiritual concerns of seniors. She resides in Nesconset, New York, and welcomes your thoughts.