Andy Rooney dead at 92

Legendary "60 Minutes" commentator was known to generations for his wry, humorous and contentious TV essays

Andy Rooney, the "60 Minutes" commentator known to generations for his wry, humorous and contentious television essays - a unique genre he is credited with inventing - died Friday night in a hospital in New York City of complications following minor surgery. He was 92, and had homes in New York City, Rensselaerville, N.Y. and Rowayton, Conn.

"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 had announced on Oct. 2, 2011 in his 1,097th essay for "60 Minutes" that he would no longer appear regularly.

Rooney wrote for television since its birth, spending more than 60 years at CBS, 30 of them behind the camera as a writer and producer, first for entertainment and then news programming, before becoming a television personality - a role he said he was never comfortable in. He preferred to be known as a writer and was the author of best-selling books and a national newspaper column, in addition to his "60 Minutes" essays.

But it is his television role as the inquisitive and cranky commentator on "60 Minutes" that made him a cultural icon. For over 30 years, Rooney had the last word on the most watched television program in history. Ratings for the broadcast rose steadily over its time period, peaking at a few minutes before the end of the hour, precisely when he delivered his essays - which could generate thousands of response letters.

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Each Sunday, Rooney delivered one of his "60 Minutes" essays from behind a desk that he, an expert woodworker, hewed himself. The topics ranged from the contents of that desk's drawer to whether God existed. He often weighed in on major news topics. In an early "60 Minutes" essay that won him the third of his four Emmy Awards, his compromise to the grain embargo against the Soviet Union was to sell them cereal. "Are they going to take us seriously as an enemy if they think we eat Cap'n Crunch for breakfast?" deadpanned Rooney.

Mainly, his essays struck a chord in viewers by pointing out life's unspoken truths or more often complaining about its subtle lies, earning him the "curmudgeon" status he wore like a uniform. "I obviously have a knack for getting on paper what a lot of people have thought and didn't realize they thought," Rooney told the Associated Press in 1998. In typical themes, Rooney questioned labels on packages, products that didn't seem to work and why people didn't talk in elevators.

Rooney asked thousands of questions in his essays over the years, none, however, began with "Did you ever...?" a phrase often associated with him. Comedian Joe Piscopo used it in a 1981 impersonation of him on "Saturday Night Live" and, from then on, it was erroneously linked to Rooney.

Rooney was also mistakenly connected to racism when a politically charged essay highly insensitive to minorities was written in his style and passed off as his on the internet in 2003.

Over the next few years, it found its way into the e-mail boxes of untold thousands, causing Rooney to refute it in a 2005 "60 Minutes" essay, and again, as it continued to proliferate, in a Associated Press article a year later.

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Many assumed he wrote the screed because Rooney's longtime habit of writing or speaking plainly on sensitive topics had left him open to attacks in the past by activist groups. The racist essay was one of the many false Rooney quotes and essays bouncing around the Internet. The racism charge angered and hurt Rooney deeply, especially because as a young soldier in the early 1940s, he got himself arrested in Florida for refusing to leave the seat he had chosen among blacks in the back of an Army bus.

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.

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