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Appreciation: Art Linkletter, 1912-2010

Art_linkletterArt Linkletter, who died Wednesday at the estimable age of 97, had already had a long, long career in broadcasting when he crept into my consciousness as the host of "House Party," a CBS daytime television show that ran from 1952 to 1969 (with a final year on NBC) and most famously featured his interviews with children. (Even at the age of some of his small-fry guests, I owned a well-thumbed paperback copy of his Charles Schulz-illustrated book, "Kids Say the Darndest Things.") Never talking down to them, or sinking to a grown-up's version of a child-eye's view, he was the master of this very particular form. On television, only Bill Cosby and David Letterman have done it nearly as well.

In a time of rapid social change, Linkletter was a bulwark of old-fashioned amiability and politesse, and it is somehow no surprise to learn that he was Canadian (born Gordon Arthur Kelly in Moose Jaw, Sasketchewan, in 1912), that his adoptive father was an evangelical preacher, and that he counted Norman Vincent Peale, the author of "The Power of Positive Thinking," as a mentor. But he had an impish streak, as well, which made his niceness alluring and kept his shows, as plain as they were, from ever being boring. (His attitude and approach are maintained today, on a somewhat grander scale, in the daytime shows of Bonnie Hunt and Ellen DeGeneres.) I imagine him going well with a cup of coffee and, in the foolish practice of the times, possibly a cigarette, as somewhere nearby a dryer turns.

Linkletter himself neither smoked nor drank. He was in Hollywood but not of it, a family man -- married 74 years -- with a passel of kids of his own. One of them, Jack, who died in 2007, also became a TV host and was the original inspiration for the kid interviews, telling his father he wouldn't be going back to kindergarten "because I can't read, I can't write, and they won't let me talk." Another, Diane, notoriously jumped to her death from a window, in 1969, at the age of 20, a suicide her father attributed to LSD; it turned Linkletter into an anti-drug crusader, which made him, for a while, a figure of counterculure ridicule.

You have to respect him in the end, however, because his work was itself couched in a democratic respect for and a delight in ordinary humanness. Unlike, say, Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segments, which are meant to make their subjects look stupid, or what we have currently agreed to call "reality television," which seeks to reduce unscripted behavior into trite melodrama, Linkletter's work was rooted in the belief that people are inherently interesting and entertaining: "People Are Funny" was the philosophical title of the stunt-oriented, audience-participation prime time show he hosted on radio and then television from 1943 to 1961.

One of his gambits there was to inventory the contents of a woman's purse, an exercise that strikes me as much an exploration of human commonality and variety as it was a dodge to get a laugh at a stranger's expense. It may not have been conceived as such, but there's something in that trust in humble detail, that interest in small things, that feels quite radical to me. Television, which more and more reflects the short attention spans it encourages in its viewers, could use a little more of it. 

Even after he retired from full-time broadcasting, Linkletter flitted in and out of television, as a pitchman or guest or talking head, a proponent of proactive aging, for which he was a kind of poster oldster. And he briefly returned as a regular contributor to Cosby's late-'90s franchising of the old "House Party" segment, "Kid's Say the Darndest Things." Younger viewers must have regarded him, to the extent they noticed him at all, as someone who might have meant something once. And he did, children. His methods were modest, but his vision, I think, ran deep.

-- Robert Lloyd


Art Linkletter dies at 97; broadcast pioneer created "Kids Say the Darndest Things"

Photo credit: NBC

Comments () | Archives (13)

What a nice man!

I've always admired Art Linkletter's upbeat persona, even in the face of personal tragedy (deaths of 3 children), but now, after learning of his early background, I respect the man even more. He survived maternal abandonment and adoption, long kept secret from him, had an adventurous youth, and went on to build a successful, productive life with no self-pity, whining, or substance abuse. That's the definition of a real man.

Agree with both comments. This man represented class.

Beautifully written, Mr. Lloyd. An eloquent eulogy for a great entertainer.

He was the kind of guy who testified his happiness with life, despite its
challenges, and he chose and used humor as the medium to convey it.
He did earn the love of his son, whom I knew, and who emulated his
father's socially positive style. There were unhappy elements at
work in the culture then, as now but he was able to transcend. Let's
hope we'll find individuals tostep up into Art's shoes. We need him.

Growing up in L.A., in a Spanish speaking household, before there was ever Spanish language television, my brothers and I learned English watching the small screen. And certainly one of our favorite personalities was Art Linkletter. His program was great entertainment. I can't think of anyone in today's television environment that matches this man's talent and personality.

I was a contestant on PEOPLE ARE FUNNY IN 1955. I was 15 at the time and this segment was WHO WAS SMARTER A BOY AND HIS DOG OR THE DOGCATCHER. of course, i lost. This took place at the Ivar theatre??

i think he was a good man BUT...there is much conflicting information as to whether or not his daughter was on drugs when she killed herself or whether she was just overwhelmed and depressed (*which many other sources verify*)

He was a class act from a bygone era, but he had a streak of impishness that often resulted in the best stuff. When he was interviewing kids, for example, he would usually ask them what their parents had told them not to talk about. Usually it resulted in something funny, and since he did it fairly regularly you had to wonder why parents kept telling them stuff not to talk about. He would also offer a woman a small sum of money if she had a common item (a thimble, say) and she would start shovelling stuff out trying to find it within the allotted time. Then he might make fun of something she had pulled out. It was fun with an glinty eye and it would still work today. The good stuff in the right hands always works.

Beautiful words for a beautiful life.
But a tradegy to outlive your children.
RIP Art!

In the first paragraph the writer compares the great Mr. Linkletter with the equally great Bill Cosby and, shockingly David Letterman. The writer may be a fan of Letterman, but unlike Linkletter and Cosby, Letterman is a sarcastic, immoral sad comparison. Shame on the writer!

To Robert Lloyd,

Thank you for such touching words and great insight. There will never another like him. He had tons of talent and skill, and most of all, he was a very kind man. He will be greatly missed.

Art Linkletter was genuinely nice. He was also intelligent. Those two characteristics don't always go together. He and his programs were hits because they were fun and he was likeable.
I saw his Rose Parade appearance and was amazed at how youthful he seemed.
His life proves that nice guys can get the girl, finish first, and grow rich from their endeavors. RIP, Mr. Linkletter. You are and have been an inspiration.



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