To honor Andy Rooney, who passed away on November 4, we are reprinting this interview that first appeared in the March 1984 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.
From a cluttered corner at CBS headquarters in New York, Andy Rooney sips day-old coffee from a plastic Harris Tweed mug and grumbles about his “overnight” success. It took 64 years to get here, and like money, it’s “a pain in the tail,” he insists. It cramps his style when he meanders through hardware stores, is a source of embarrassment down at the lunch counter and sometimes causes him to miss the bus to work.
“A writer should be sitting over in the corner watching the dance and not be out there dancing,” he muses. “I’m not too keen about my recent well-knownness; I don’t handle it very well. If somebody comes up to me on the street and says, ‘Hey, I like your stuff,’ well, I can’t hate that. But it never stops there. Pretty soon he wants to be my best friend. I tend to be rude to people like that.”
He comes by his crustiness naturally. He’s one of the last of the trench-coat journalists who covered the Big War—World War II—for the print media. He was Sergeant Rooney then, a veteran of several bombing missions and the Stars and Stripes reporter who landed on Normandy Beach four days after D-Day to document the invasion of France. Hardly a suave TV personality in the Dan Rather-Peter Jennings tradition, he looks more like a preppy leprechaun with John L. Lewis eyebrows and a fondness for growling at strangers. His bite has earned him a reputation as CBS News’ resident curmudgeon, but his bark is more fun than fact. During a recent 60-minute interview with the SatEve Post, he was downright hospitable as he shared insights, the day-old coffee and all the comforts of his infamously cluttered nest.
“Sit down, sit down,” he urged, beckoning to a black vinyl chair that had a suspiciously gimpy leg. I sat, and the leg gave way and sent me flailing toward a floor strewn with size 8’/2 EEE shoes, maps destined someday for a wall and a family portrait of somebody else’s family.
“I’ve got to fix this chair,” he muttered resolutely from a squat position as he examined the now splintered leg.
He means it. An avowed do-it-himselfer, he prefers to fend for himself and refutes the notion that celebrity status translates into clout. Forget the limousines, the house on Long Island, the cadre of secretaries poised to take a letter. He commutes daily from Connecticut via train and bus, pecks out his own correspondence on an Underwood typewriter three years older than he is, builds furniture and bakes bread. He and wife Marguerite still live in the same house where their four children grew up.
“We paid $29,500 for it, and I have no intention of moving out,” he says.
His home away from home—the modest cubicle in the CBS building on West 57th Street—has a decidedly less permanent air to it. A hodgepodge of books are stacked every which way on shelves behind his desk and beg to be arranged. A gold-colored statuette, representing some lofty award for past accomplishments, reclines on its backside atop the books and close to a large box labeled simply “Jane’s stuff.” Pictures, yet to be hung, lean against a sway-backed couch.
“Just move in?” I ask.
He nods affirmatively and adds: “Ten years ago.”
The decor is eclectic—a functional jumble of treasures that smacks of the owner. Lampshades tilt uniformly off-center, mounds of paper threaten to obscure the desk; an LBJ-Lady Bird commemorative plate is tacked to the wall, and a grouping of black-and-white Hollywood publicity pictures invite visitors to test their knowledge of film trivia. But it’s no contest. Rooney explains the “celebrities” are actually Columbia Studio’s rejects— starlets who didn’t make it big in show biz.
To this unlikely haven comes a network-news crew each week to tape “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney,” the wildly successful p.s. to television’s top-ranked show, “60 Minutes.” The humorous commentary has earned two Emmys since becoming a permanent feature of the show in September 1978. And that’s not bad for a low-budget operation.
“I don’t move a thing,” says Rooney. “It’s been a strange union problem because they say we’ve got to have a set decorator. But we don’t have a set. We shoot right in here. See that microphone? It runs into Bob Forte’s editing room. Believe me, we don’t fuss with this thing. Sometimes the cameraman will say there are too many white papers on the desk—causes a glare—so I toss some yellow paper on top and say, ‘Is this better?’ Sure, we make concessions; but it’s very homemade. Remarkably homemade.”
For the show Rooney generally sits at his desk in front of the jammed bookshelves and to the right of LB J and Lady Bird. He peers over horn-rimmed half-glasses and addresses issues close to home, wherever home may be. Viewers seldom notice the “set” since his words command their full attention. He’s the folksy philosopher who un derstands little things. He manages to say what others only feel, and this ability has established a kinship with “60 Minutes” aficionados. Often sage, sometimes silly, always succinct, his messages zing in on truths common to everyone. He can evoke chuckles when he sounds off on designer jeans and tears when he comments on the pain of growing old. The most common topics become special under his treatment, and his way with words has swelled the ranks of Rooney followers to such proportions that a brief Sunday-evening fix of his humor just isn’t enough. Fans have turned in increasing numbers to his three-times-weekly newspaper column—now syndicated in 324 publications—and to his books, the most recent, And More by Andy Rooney, a bona fide best seller of 1 million copies in hardback and 2 million in paperback. Still, it’s television exposure that has brought about the star status and the high visibility he finds so disagreeable.
“I’m irritated that some people think I only got successful when I did ’60 Minutes.’ I was doing things I was proud of 20 years ago,” he grumbles. “Fame is an overrated quality. I don’t think nearly as highly of well-known people as I did before I was one. And money. It’s a lot like fame. Overrated. Oh, I enjoy having $150 in my pocket instead of $32 or $19, but that’s all. Money is a pain in the tail. I’m no good with it—I don’t know what to do with it.”
Unbelievable? Not so, says Mr. Rooney, although he concedes perhaps once fame wasn’t quite as distasteful as it is today.
“I did a piece once called ‘Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington’ about seven or eight years ago,” he recalls. “It was a good piece—an hour long. I remember the next morning a guy came up to me at the bus stop and said he had seen the show and had really liked it. I was pleased. That was about the last time I was pleased.”
His impatience with fame is caused partly by his inability to understand why he deserves it. He refutes all claims that he’s better than Buchwald, more wry than Rogers or in the same genre as Menken, Twain or Thurber.
“That’s baloney. Buchwald is funnier than I am; Menken and Twain were so much smarter. No, I reject that. I’ll never last as they have,” he protests. “What I do is easy; I can’t believe it’s special or different. But it’s a delight—the most fun I have. I enjoy making it clear to people that we are so basically the same for all our differences. I can’t get over the fact that there is a common thread that runs through all of us. We share so many characteristics. It makes the world a little less lonely place to be, and I like that feeling.”
His talent for tugging at the common thread comes from his ability to totally tune into his subject. Heightened perception, he calls it, and it’s available on command. He explains that when he has to write a column or commentary, he merely turns up his tuner and grabs hold of something he might otherwise overlook. He looks at the subject head-on and dissects it. When the writing is done, the antennae retract and he reverts to being a tourist.
If this perception is a natural gift, it’s been carefully honed by the down-home Hoosier, Borge was veddy sophisticated, Levinson was folksy Jewish and Godfrey was, well, just Godfrey.
“Writing for those guys was a terrific lesson. I’ve probably borrowed something from all of them. They were tough; there was a lot of arguing. It was highly competitive getting your stuff into the monologues,” he admits. “There’s no writing more precise than the kind that has to provoke laughter. You know you’re hitting people when they laugh. It has to pay off, and the positioning of words is so important in triggering it.”
Joke writing led to collaboration with Harry Reasoner on several CBS News specials. Rooney provided the words and Reasoner added the voice. Not until he joined the Public Broadcasting Service’s “The Great American Dream Machine” did Rooney actually go on camera himself. Afterward, he was contacted by an advertising-agency talent scout who wanted him to narrate a headache-remedy commercial. That told him a lot about his voice, he quips.
He returned to CBS, this time to both write and narrate such on-the-air efforts as “Mr. Rooney Goes to Dinner” (he added 14 pounds by the end of the assignment), “Mr. Rooney Goes to Work” and an occasional political commentary. Viewers related to his less-than-perfect physique (a pudgy 5′ 9″), his appearance (rumpled) and his voice (restrained whine). When the dueling duo of Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick went on vacation from “60 Minutes” in the summer of 1978, Rooney was tabbed as the replacement. The temporary assignment became permanent the next year, leaving him little time for the longer, more in-depth stories he had always enjoyed.
“I miss reporting a lot,” he admits. “But the fact is, I have become more valuable to myself and everyone else by doing more writing and less reporting.”
He stops, props his 8 1/2 EEEs up on his desk and engages in a little pipe dream: “You know what I’d really love to do?” he asks. “I’d like to throw myself into writing and reporting for Charlie Kuralt. I’d like to just give him my stuff. For one thing, he does things better than almost anyone in the business. Then I could slip back into anonymity. I’m telling you, it wouldn’t bother meat all.”
He loves the language and the agony of arranging and rearranging words, the shaking-out of a piece of writing until nothing remains except the emotion that propels it forward and makes it reach out and touch the reader or listener. The creative process is tough, causing him to rant, wring his hands and pace as his assistant Jane Bradford reads, edits and passes judgment.
“Jane checks everything I do. If I spell my own name she checks and makes sure it’s all right. She drives me crazy, but she’s very good. I make a lot of mistakes, and she keeps me from making a fool of myself. The other day I was desperate to get my column done. I finally finished it and gave it to her to read, and she said it just wasn’t good enough. God, I knew she was right. I had to sit down and do it over.”
Even a bit of writing scrutinized and passed into print is not immune to Rooney’s self-criticism.
“I look at things I wrote ten years ago and think, ‘My gosh, how could I have done that?’ Then I look at things I wrote last year and think, ‘How could I have done thafl When am I going to grow up?’ ”
He claims he has a particularly difficult time ending things well, and that holds true not only for his writing but for his other passion, woodworking, as well. Both require patience—not his long suit.
“Actually, it’s a real shortcoming of mine. I guess I’ve gotten better at it in my column, but I’m a big woodworker and I’ve never been able to finish furniture very well, either. I’m interested in the idea of forming a table or a chair or a cabinet, but then I don’t have the patience to finish it the way I should.”
So immersed is he with his vocation—writing—and his avocation— woodworking—that he often describes one in terms of the other. A particularly tough script is called “a real cabinetmakers’s job of writing.” His profession underwrites his passion, and his only splurge since he became a TV celebrity has been a $2,700 power saw. He used it to build, from scratch, a free-standing writing room at the family vacation compound in upstate New York. Weekends from May to October are spent at the New York “cottage,” which is a sprawling, white colonial estate with two outbuildings—one for writing and another for woodworking. From the first he churns out columns and scripts; from the second come tables and sideboards.
“My kids have a lot of my furniture in their houses. Sometimes I make it faster than anyone wants it. I’m not a natural woodworker, but I use good wood and have pretty good ideas. Boy, you talk about being self-taught. When I built my writing room I couldn’t get over how many mistakes I made. I fell off a ladder at one point, and that stopped construction for about a month.”
In many respects he’s self-taught in his writing craft, too. His ideas are good, his instincts are on target and if the words feel right to him, chances are he’s succeeded in building a thought people can relate to. He takes care in choosing his topics and is particularly wary of subjects that might amuse the cosmopolitan folks of New York but elude residents of rural America. He frets that a recent piece on the irritations of air travel only touched a small segment of his audience. He rejects the suggestion by a CBS coworker to use telephone answering machines as the object of an upcoming diatribe. “How many viewers have answering machines?” he asks.
He stays in touch with his audience by living the normal life he champions. He avoids posh parties and the social set in an effort to protect his averageness. At a time when TV programming is determined by ratings and demographic studies, he refuses to be influenced by scientific data. Don’t burden him with the number of households tuned to CBS at 7 p.m. on Sundays. Don’t tell him which geographic areas of the country appreciate his humor most or which pockets of the population prefer a Lawrence Welk rerun.
“That’s the road to death,” he says of market studies. “It’s like trying to understand flight by dissecting the entrails of a robin. I would never study the numbers. A good pilot knows how it feels to fly right.”
And after more than 40 years in the business, he’s flying higher than ever. He’s earned his stripes with a flight plan that has proved to be impeccable: From his cluttered vantage point, he looks out at the dancers and simply wings it.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now