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CBS commentator Andy Rooney dies at 92

By Moni Basu, CNN
November 5, 2011 -- Updated 1802 GMT (0202 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Andy Rooney was known for his witty commentary on mundane topics
  • He started his journalism career when he was drafted into the Army
  • Over his long career, he won many accolades but also sparked controversy
  • He announced his last show in October

(CNN) -- Legendary CBS News commentator Andy Rooney, known to millions for his witty essays on mundane topics, died Friday night in New York. He was 92.

He had been hospitalized after suffering complications following minor surgery last month.

"It's a sad day at '60 Minutes' and for everybody here at CBS News," said Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and the executive producer of '60 Minutes.' "It's hard to imagine not having Andy around. He loved his life and he lived it on his own terms. We will miss him very much."

Rooney made his last regular weekly appearance on "60 Minutes" on Oct. 2. A few weeks later, CBS announced he was in a hospital.

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Rooney's colleague and longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer told CNN Saturday that Rooney worked to the very end and that he would not have wanted it any other way.

"That's the way to go," Safer said. "The only thing better than three weeks would have been three minutes."

Correspondent Steve Kroft reflected on the length of Rooney's storied career.

"What a life: ninety-two years of doing what you love to do while engaging and entertaining millions and millions of people," he said.

And Lesley Stahl, also Rooney's colleague on the show, called him "our poet laureate."

"He was the Oracle of West 57th Street, an everyman if everyman wrote like a dream," she said. "He was the most popular member of our team, loved by the audience, and far more loved by all of us than he knew."

Great lines from Andy Rooney

Rooney got his start in journalism as a writer in the Army and went on to spend nearly six decades at CBS, half behind the camera as a writer and producer and then as an on-air commentator in 1978 when he joined "60 Minutes." His commentaries earned him the title King of Grouch.

On looking for a job, he said: "We need people who can actually do things. We have too many bosses and too few workers. More college graduates ought to become plumbers or electricians, then go home at night and read Shakespeare."

On his bushy eyebrows: "I try to look nice. I comb my hair, I tie my tie, I put on a jacket, but I draw the line when it comes to trimming my eyebrows. You work with what you got."

On the "shock and awe" campaign that started the Iraq war in 2003: The phrase "makes us look like foolish braggarts."

He thought of himself as an ordinary guy and wanted to keep it that way.

"Part of my success," he said, "is how average I am. I'm a very normal guy. It does not occur to me walking down the street that anyone on the street recognizes me and it bugs me when they do."

He wore his curmudgeon status like a uniform, said a CBS statement Saturday.

"His essays struck a chord in viewers by pointing out life's unspoken truths or more often complaining about its subtle lies," the statement said.

But former CBS correspondent Bob Arnot said underneath that gruff exterior was a nice man. Think of him as Uncle Andy, he said.

"The interesting thing about Andy is, he pretended to be this curmudgeon but he really wasn't," Arnot said. "He had this kind of bluster but he was the nicest, sweetest guy you could ever begin to possibly imagine."

But Rooney always remained true to himself, Safer said.

Time.com: 10 grumpy Andy Rooney segments

"The person you saw on television was the real person," he said. "Nothing he ever did was an act. He never tempered his thoughts. He said what he believed.

Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corporation, called Rooney an icon.

"Words cannot adequately express Andy's contribution to the world of journalism and the impact he made -- as a colleague and friend -- upon everyone at CBS," Moonves said.

"His wry wit, his unique ability to capture the essence of any issue, and his larger-than-life personality made him an icon, not only within the industry but among readers and viewers around the globe." he said.

Rooney was born in Albany, New York, on January 14, 1919. He attended Colgate University until he was drafted into the Army in 1941 and began writing for Stars and Stripes. He won a Bronze Star for his reporting on the battle of Saint-Lo, France.

Rooney eventually published a book, one of more than a dozen he wrote, about his World War II experiences.

After the war, Rooney became a free-lance writer but later turned to television, then in its infancy. He joined CBS in 1949 as a writer for Arthur Godfrey's radio and television entertainment show.

He went on to collaborate between 1962 and 1968 on a series of essays with his friend, the late newsman Harry Reasoner.

Over his long career, he earned six Writers Guild of America awards, one Peabody and four Emmys, two of which were for his show-ending commentaries on "60 Minutes."

He was suspended from his job for three months without pay in 1990 for comments that offended African-Americans and homosexuals.

"There was some recognition in 1989 of the fact that many of the ills which kill us are self-induced," he said. "Too much alcohol, too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, cigarettes. They're all known to lead quite often to premature death."

He apologized for those comments but was then quoted in The Advocate newspaper as saying: "I've believed all along that most people are born with equal intelligence, but blacks have watered down their genes because the less intelligent ones are the ones that have the most children. They drop out of school early, do drugs, and get pregnant."

Rooney denied making the comments about blacks, later apologizing for those he made about gays, and was reinstated after 24 days.

In 2004, he again drew controversy when on "60 Minutes" he called actor Mel Gibson and the Rev. Pat Robertson "wackos." He received more than 30,000 pieces of mail and e-mail about the remark.

Despite his on-air success, Rooney always considered himself a writer first.

In a 2010 interview conducted for his alma mater, Colgate University, Rooney told his son Brian Rooney, a television correspondent, that he always admired writer E.B. White.

"Oh, God, he was my hero. I thought he wrote better than anyone who ever lived."

He said he was proud of what he had accomplished. He had written a lot, he said, but he wished he had been more of an intellectual. He was glad, however, that he had become a chronicler of the particular.

"Well, not many other people are doing it," he said in the Colgate interview. "I am interested in details. If you go into anything far enough, you get into the details of it, and people turn out to be interested in what makes things work."

In something as simple as a door, Rooney found enough material for an essay.

"It was fun to pick some simple object like a door and look into all the aspects of a door in our lives," he said. "There are so many things about doors that are important to us, whether it is open or closed, whether you lock it or not, and it was interesting for me to look into the details of these things."

But he said he thought of himself as influential only in a minor way.

"Oh I don't think people take what I say very seriously," he said. "And I don't think they follow anything I say."

Still, he searched for ideas in the ordinary. He said people often don't notice what he, as a writer, noticed.

"There is nothing that is not an idea." he said. "I mean, I look at my desk here and it is just covered with ideas."

It was from that desk, often cluttered with things Rooney was talking about, that he appeared on "60 Minutes" each week with a diatribe to end the show.

Rooney announced Oct. 2, 2011 in his 1,097th essay for "60 Minutes" that he would no longer appear regularly and delivered his last commentary, in signature style.

"I recently bought this new laptop to use when I travel," he said. "Look at that, though. It fits right into the briefcase. It weighs less than three pounds. I lose that much getting mad, waiting to get on the plane through security at the airport. "

Rooney's wife of 62 years, Marguerite, died in 2004. He is survived by his four children: Ellen Rooney, a photographer; Brian Rooney, the television correspondent; Emily Rooney, the original host of a Boston public affairs TV program; and Martha Fishel, chief of the public services division of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Rooney also leaves behind five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private, the CBS statement said. A memorial service will be announced at a future date.

CNN's Tom Watkins, Melissa Gray and Gary Tuchman contributed to this report.

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