Andrew Aitken Rooney started working at CBS in 1949 as a writer. He left the network briefly in the early 1970s but returned in ’73. He became a regular on “60 Minutes” in 1978, landing his signature spot at the show’s end during the 1979-80 season. Rooney was known for his outspoken commentaries, many of which generated angry viewer mail.
At the height of the AIDS crisis, Rooney had his biggest run-in with a group and it had dire consequences. In February 1990, the gay magazine The Advocate interviewed him after he associated the human choices of drugs, tobacco and gay sex with death in a CBS News special, “A Year With Andy Rooney: 1989.” The magazine printed racist remarks attributed to him from the interview, which he vehemently denied making. A torrent of negative publicity followed, after which then-CBS News President David Burke suspended him for three months. The outcry for his return was deafening. Burke reinstated him after only three weeks, saying Rooney was not a man “who holds prejudice in his heart and mind.” The ratings for “60 Minutes,” CBS’ only top-10 hit that season, dropped while Rooney was off the air.
But the negative publicity and suspension exacted a toll. Rooney said publicly he was “chilled” and admitted the new sensitivity led him to spike a later essay regarding the United Negro College Fund.
It was a 2004 commentary, though, which led to the most complaints received about any “60 Minutes” segment. In that essay, “he said God told him that the Rev. Pat Robertson and Mel Gibson were ‘whackos.’ ” There were 20,000 complaints.
Rooney was not above using his perch for his own purposes.
He once took advantage of his popularity to get back at a critic. When Associated Press television critic Frazier Moore wrote that Rooney should quit because his material was getting old, Rooney took Moore to task by broadcasting the newswire’s New York phone number, exhorting his “60 Minutes” viewers to tell the writer what they thought of his opinion. The Associated Press logged over 7,000 calls in 48 hours, the vast majority in favor of Rooney.
On Oct. 2, Rooney’s last essay aired on “60 Minutes”, when he announced an end to his regular appearances and said “This is a moment I have dreaded. I wish I could do this forever. I can’t though. But I’m not retiring. Writers don’t retire and I’ll always be a writer.”
Rooney was hospitalized in late October for complications related to surgery. He died Friday night. || Related: “Andy’s the only person in television news that can’t be replaced” (New York Times)