LOS ANGELES (AP) - Art Linkletter, who encouraged both kids and grownups to say the "darndest things" during his decades as a genial and but gently mischievious television personality, has died at age 97.
The host of "People Are Funny" and "House Party" of the 1950s and '60s died Wednesday at his home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles.
"He lived a long, full, pure life, and the Lord had need for him," said his son-in-law, Art Hershey, the husband of Sharon LinkletterHershey said. Linkletter had been ill "in the last few weeks time, but bear in mind he was 97 years old. He wasn't eating well, and the aging process took him," Hershey said. Linkletter hadn't been diagnosed with any life-threatening disease, he said.
Linkletter was known on TV for his funny interviews with children and ordinary folks. He also collected their comments in a number of best-selling books. "Because of Art Linkletter, adults found themselves enjoying children," said Bill Cosby, whose style interviewing kids on his own show in the late '90s was often compared to Linkletter's.
"An amazing fellow, a terrific broadcast talent, a brilliant businessman. An all-around good guy," CNN's Larry King added about his longtime friend and frequent guest. Asked what made Linkletter so appealing to audiences, King said, "He had an unusual voice, a twang to his voice that was immediately recognizable. And he looked like your favorite uncle." "Art Linkletter's House Party," one of television's longest-running variety shows, debuted on radio in 1944 and was seen on CBS-TV from 1952 to 1969. "On `House Party' I would talk to you and bring out the fact that you had been letting your boss beat you at golf over a period of months as part of your campaign to get a raise," Linkletter wrote.
"All the while, without your knowledge, your boss would be sitting a few feet away listening, and at the appropriate moment, I would bring you together," he wrote.
"Now, that's funny, because the laugh arises out of a real situation." Linkletter's programs -- like many of today's reality TV shows -- often relied on ordinary people sharing too much information on national television. But his shows were far gentler than today's often mean-spirited productions. His guests experienced, at most, mild embarrassment instead of utter humiliation.
When Linkletter elicited an all-too-revealing remark from a guest, he did it with devilish charm, not malice. Though "House Party" had many features, the best known was the daily interviews with schoolchildren. Linkletter collected quotes from children into "Kids Say The Darndest Things," and it sold in the millions.
The book "70 Years of Best Sellers 1895-1965" ranked "Kids Say the Darndest Things" as the 15th top seller among nonfiction books in that period. The prime time "People Are Funny," which began on radio in 1942 and ran on TV from 1954 to 1961, emphasized slapstick humor and audience participation -- things like throwing a pie in the face of a contestant who couldn't tell his Social Security number in five seconds, or asking him to go out and cash a check written on the side of a watermelon.
The down-to-earth charm of Linkletter's broadcast persona seemed to be mirrored by his private life with his wife of more than a half-century, Lois. They had five children, whom he wrote about in his books and called the "Links." But in 1969, his 20-year-old daughter Diane jumped to her death from her sixth-floor Hollywood apartment. He blamed her death on LSD use, but toxicology tests found no LSD in her body after she died. Still, the tragedy prompted Linkletter to become a crusader against drugs. A son, Robert, died in a car accident in 1980. Another son, Jack Linkletter, was 70 when he died of lymphoma in 2007.
Art Linkletter got his first taste of broadcasting with a part-time job while attending San Diego State College in the early 1930s. He graduated in 1934. "I was studying to be an English professor," Linkletter once said. "But as they say, life is what happens to you while you're making other plans."
He held a series of radio and promotion jobs in California and Texas, experimenting with audience participation and remote broadcasts, before forming his own production company in the 1940s and striking it big with "People Are Funny" and "House Party."
Linkletter was born Arthur Gordon Kelly on July 17, 1912, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. His unwed mother put him up for adoption when he was a baby; when he was about 7, he and his adoptive parents moved to the U.S., eventually settling in San Diego. He recalled his preacher-father forced him to take odd jobs to help the family.
So Linkletter left and became a hobo, hopping trains across the West, working where he could. He recalled later that he felt the religious faith instilled by his father had been a great gift. After leaving daily broadcasting in 1969, Linkletter continued to write, lecture and appear in television commercials.
Among his other books, were "Old Age is Not for Sissies," "How To Be a Supersalesman," "Confessions of a Happy Man," "Hobo on the Way to Heaven" and his autobiography, '`I Didn't Do It Alone."
A recording Linkletter made with his daughter Diane not long before she died, "We Love You, Call Collect," was issued after her death and won a Grammy award for best spoken word recording. "Life is not fair ... not easy," Linkletter said in a 1990 interview by The Associated Press.
"Outside, peer pressure can wreak havoc with the nicest families. So that's the part that's a gamble. "But I'm an optimist. Even though I've had tragedies in my life, and I've seen a lot of difficult things, I still am an optimist," he said.
Linkletter had extensive business interests. He headed a company involved in real estate development and management and operation of cattle ranches in Montana, New Mexico and California. He held interests in oil and gas wells, owned livestock in Australia and was involved in a solar energy firm.
"In a couple of months Art Linkletter would have been 98 years old, a full life of fun and goodness, an orphan who made it to the top," reflected Phyllis Diller. "What a guy."
He is survived by his wife, Lois, whom he married in 1935, and daughters Dawn Griffin and Sharon Linkletter, as well as seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. The family said no services were planned at this time.