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Andy Rooney leaves 60 Minutes: A more diverse, provocative career than you knew

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Andy Rooney, in signing off from 60 Minutes this weekend, said that “this is the moment I’ve dreaded” — the final weekly installment of his “few minutes” segments. But Rooney is actually ending a chapter in TV history that many have likely forgotten, if you ever knew it to begin with. Rooney has long been the most highly visible link to the first generation of TV personalities — anchors, reporters, and entertainers. He’s a helluva a lot more than the “cranky,” “Did you ever notice FILL IN BLANK?” guy that too many people ridicule these days.

Rooney is a writer, with a lot of range. He wrote comedy for the immensely popular Arthur Godfrey and Garry Moore in the 1950s, and moved over to CBS News to form a close professional relationship with reporter-anchor Harry Reasoner in the early ’60s. Rooney created his first recognizable Andy Rooney-ish TV piece in 1964, with “An Essay on Doors.” Like humorists such as George Ade and Robert Benchley, Rooney has a gift for taking ordinary subjects, revealing interesting aspects of their history, and adding a point of view, often impish or good-naturedly jaundiced. His pal Morley Safer, interviewing Rooney on Sunday night, went for the easy cliches about Rooney: that he is the “grouch-in-chief,” a “curmudgeon,” the “Grandpa Moses of broadcasting.”

Bah. It’s important to point out that much of Rooney’s career has been spent not being a whimsical curmudgeon. He won a Peabody Award for his 1975 Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington special, which offers civics lessons and an analysis of the way government works — and doesn’t work — in a manner that might please both liberals and conservatives. (They used to have a term for this: even-handedness.)

Earlier, when Rooney produced “An Essay on War” (Rooney had served in Europe during World War II and has said it was the most formative experience of his life), his piece was going to be re-edited by some uncomfortable CBS execs. (The following clip is a first-rate David Letterman interview with Rooney; Letterman totally gets the historical tradition from which Rooney arose.)

Rooney bought the program from the network with his own money and brought it to PBS, back when Fred Friendly was heading it up and giving it a spine. PBS aired it, leading to Rooney’s brief but fruitful relationship with public television, most notably his segments on the wonderful, why-don’t-they-rerun-this? series The Great American Dream Machine.

Rooney has said that it was on Dream Machine that “I started doing what I do for 60 Minutes now”: Starting in 1978, delivering a few minutes of observations about things silly and serious.

There was a news-writer’s sure touch and directness in the best of Rooney’s commentaries. It’s ironic that the very thing that eventually made Rooney a figure of fun — complaining in an articulate, often clever manner about the idiocies and inconveniences of modern life — are the same things that are treasured in the work of people now considered astute critics of the culture, whether you think “astute critic” means Jon Stewart or Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow.

Then there was the famous Andy Rooney-Ali G encounter, in which cultures clashed and Rooney ossified in the popular imagination as an out-of-it crank.

Couple things about the Ali G interview: It’s very funny, in the way a good gotcha piece can be funny about someone who’s not in on the joke. But beyond that is the fact that Rooney consented to the interview, assumed Ali G was legit, and declined to condescend to what he perceived as a young man who didn’t speak properly or know how to conduct a professional interview. In other words, Rooney treated Ali G as an equal until, by his measure, Ali G proved otherwise. Then after being rebuffed by the comic, Rooney assumed the stance he gave everyone: He suffered no fool gladly. I think both Rooney and Ali G come off well, from completely opposite points of view.

I met Rooney once, roughly two decades ago. He was walking down the street, near the Museum of Modern Art. I told him I admired his work, and he quickly turned the conversation around to me. It was clear he didn’t like taking compliments, and after I’d told him I worked for the then-fledgling Entertainment Weekly, he asked me how I got the job, adding that he had a daughter who was probably my age and was looking for a job in journalism, and he didn’t know how to advise her. I presume now that he must have been referring to his daughter Emily, who has since gone on to become a very successful TV producer and on-screen personality (through no advice of mine, I hasten to add).

I know Rooney will make a big deal on Sunday night about not liking to sign autographs and being abrupt with people, but he could not have been nicer to me, a total stranger.

I think the key is that he likes to be treated with what Ali G used to use as a catchphrase: Respect.

Twitter: @kentucker

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