Saturday, November 05, 2011

Andy Rooney by Steve Webb

In late 1983, in a funk for a lot of reasons, my anti-authoritarian streak kicked in when assigned as the Knick's TV person to get Albany Christmas memories from famous people. I truly hated that kind of story back then when others did them, and stupidly considered myself too good to do one myself. The obvious celebrities were Ted Knight, William DeVane and possibly Tim Hutton if he ever Christmasted with his grandparents. I started calling around, but thought more about taking aanother direction. I called Andy Rooney.

I wasn't really a fan. When CBS replaced Point / Counterpoint as the tag for 60 minutes, I pretty much agreed it had run its course. Jack Kilpatrick and Shana Alexander just flat weren't as interesting as Kilpatrick and Nick von Hoffman had been, and to say it had become a parody of itself ignores that Saturday Night Live beat it to the punch. The last one, if I remember, involved the "issue" of trial marriage and the two forcedly taking the opposite positions you would have expected them to. I digress. When Rooney's short essays began as its replacement, I had roughly the same attitude I had when Hee Haw replaced the Smothers Brothers comedy Hour. Carlin did the schtick better. Rooney seemed to just whine about trivialities. Another case of television news replacing content with a kind of ambiance.

Over time I realized I liked Rooney's voice because I'd known it as Harry Reasoner's voice. That when my dad was a faithful viewer of Reasoner's stint anchoring CBS's star-crossed morning newscast in the early 60s, that the persona he (and be extension I) was buying into was the affinity Reasoner had with his writer, Rooney. This made me more likely to watch Rooney's bits and read his newspaper column, but it was still way outside what I tended to enjoy in either television or op-ed commentary.

But Andy Rooney was a celebrity only because his name was identifiable. He didn’t have anything to sell and had no real stake in what I’d write. If he cared about his image, I wasn’t really aware of it. The ex-Albany person, of course, I really wanted as a Watergate junkie was E. Howard Hunt, but I’d turned up dry getting a phone number in the city I’d figured out he lived in at the time. I called Rooney at his office in CBS, calling a news dept flak first to make sure I wasn’t violating some protocoly thing.

He was perfect. No, he said. “I get asked all the time to remember something about Christmas. What was your favorite Christmas? What do you like to eat for dessert for Christmas? What’s the perfect Christmas present? I never answer any of those things.” A year earlier, I had roughly the same conversation only not about Christmas with Steve Ditko, making an obligatory attempt to see if he would break a 20-year-andd-counting silence on co-creating and drawing and writing Spider-Man for an article I was doing for the Fantaco Chronicles. Rooney was more pleasant. Ditko was more polite. This time, I pressed on. I mentioned it was Bill Dowd’s assignment, and that I wanted to fulfill it differently than simply having network TV stars. It was my impression that Bill had arranged for the edit page to run Rooney’s column, both because Bill truly loved television and because – yes – Rooney was a local made good. Mind you, I wanted to include the rejection. This was Andy Rooney being Andy Rooney, a curmugeon, a guy intent on keeping himself private except of course when he parades his junk mail and various drug store purchases in front of the camera speaking to a camera at his working desk.

He relented a little. I have no memory of what he remembered about Christmas in Albany. I would imagine, if I had had the sense at 30 to have thought to bring the possibility up, that he was telling me that for the time when his parents were living and maybe for a few years after that, Christmas in Albany was going home. I don’t think he specifically mentioned 1946, when he returned from WW2, but he might have.

I thanked him. Out of the blue, he asked, “You talking to Hunt?” Man, I’d love to, but I’ve had no luck finding him. I mentioned calling the south Florida city’s directory assistance. The conversation ended.

About 20 minutes later, someone at the city desk called across the room – entertainment was at the opposite corner of the newsroom – “Webb? You at 5488? Call for you.” I said I was. A few seconds later my extension rang. The voice didn’t identify itself, but it was clearly Andy Rooney. “There’s as an ear, nose and throat specialist named Theodore Brandow with an office on Madison. If you call him in five minutes, he will give you Hunt’s unlisted number.” Click.

It turns out that Andy Rooney, Teddy Brandow and Howard Hunt were pretty much like James, Sirius and Remus as students at the Albany Academy. Thick as thieves, a touch on the mischievous side. Brandow described some of this, and told me a trick: Get your unlisted number in your wife’s maiden name and the operator won’t even confirm you have an unlisted number. Good trick for keeping people unaware of even what city you live in. Spies, and of course Hunt had spent 22 years in the CIA before going to work for Nixon, do this all the time.

Anyway, Hunt was great too. It was one of my favorite interviews from doing personality features. He very much focused on 1946, on spending the previous two years doing OSS work on the China mainland when Christmas meant nothing and dinner meant some rice and if you were lucky a shoe. And what a pleasure it was to see the pristine snow. He said pristine, yes. And to put on black tie and have dinner at the Fort Orange club. He described a couple of aromas as a novelist would, and of course Hunt wrote a bunch of novels.

Anyway, Rooney brought that about and it was a nice thing to do. He clearly guarded that he was a very nice person, and I’m sure he wasn’t always very nice. He clearly had the same capacity for being rude to strangers as his one-time colleague in CBS’s record division, Bob Dylan, had when he interrupted someone who said “You don’t know me but” to him with “Let’s keep it that way.” Not only, though, was that a nice thing to do, but it also spawned two stories – the one that ran Christmas eve 1983 in the Knick and this one.


Leovi said...

A very interesting article.

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