Art Linkletter, a genial mainstay of early unscripted TV best remembered as host of CBS’ long-running “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” died Wednesday in Bel-Air of natural causes. He was 97.
Linkletter also hosted NBC’s “People Are Funny” and “Art Linkletter’s House Party,” which aired on CBS radio and TV for 25 years. But he made his most enduring mark with his often uproarious interviews with children for the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” segment of “House Party.” Bill Cosby hosted a revival of the show on CBS from 1998-2000, on which Linkletter occasionally appeared.
At his peak in the 1950s Linkletter had shows on all three nets: ABC’s “Life With Linkletter,” CBS’ “Art Linkletter’s House Party” and NBC’s “People Are Funny.”
“Art Linkletter’s House Party,” which bowed on CBS Radio in 1945 and expanded to TV in 1952, was a daytime variety show that opened with a monologue from Linkletter, followed by audience participation quizzes, musical guests and comics. The show ran on radio until 1967 and on TV through 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. Now, that’s funny, because the laugh arises out of a real situation.”
For the “Kids Say” segment, Linkletter wrote to elementary schoolteachers asking for the kids they would like to be out of the class for a while. He related in an interview that he asked one boy, ” ‘Why do you think the teacher picked you out of the whole class to come down and be on my show?’ He said, ‘I’m the smartest kid in the room.’ I said, ‘Did the teacher tell you that?’ He said, ‘No. I noticed it myself.’ ”
“People Are Funny” debuted on NBC radio in 1942 and then moved to the smallscreen, where it aired from 1954 to 1961. In 1943, Linkletter took over hosting the show, in which contestants performed tasks such as calling strangers and keeping up a conversation without the person hanging up on them.
A friend of Walt Disney, Linkletter was one of several co-hosts of the live ABC spesh that covered the opening of Disneyland in July 1955. When Disney apologized to his friend for only offering him the $200 scale fee for his work on the 90-minute special, Linkletter asked Disney to grant him the concession rights to all film and cameras sold at Disneyland for its first 10 years. At the time, Linkletter already owned several Kodak concessions, and he often joked that his savvy move into Disneyland made him the highest-paid personality in TV based on 90 minutes of work.
Linkletter was a featured guest during many of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2005. He was honored with a Disney Legends kudo the same year.
“Throughout Art’s 60 years in show business, he remained one of the most respected and beloved media personalities in America,” Disney prexy and CEO Bob Iger said in a statement.
“Art had forged a great friendship with our founder Walt Disney, which led him to host Disneyland’s groundbreaking live opening day broadcast on ABC in 1955. Art had remained a good friend to the company ever since.”
Quincy Jones was among the many entertainment industry luminaries who were close to Linkletter and his family.
“Right until the end, he was one of the brightest, funniest, inspiring and profound people that I have ever known,” Jones said. “Art would always say, ‘Quincy, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,’ and he was right.”
Born Gordon Arthur Kelly in Moose Jaw, Canada, he wrote in his memoir “Confessions of a Happy Man” that he was abandoned as a baby and raised by a preacher and his wife.
Linkletter enrolled in San Diego State College with the goal of becoming a teacher but changed paths after a local radio station offered him a job. He said years later, when President Reagan nominated him to be ambassador to Australia, that it caused him some embarrassment as he was asked about his links to “KGB,” the call letters of the radio station.
Linkletter and his wife, Lois, were married in 1935 and had five children, whom he called “links.”
A lifelong Republican, Linkletter espoused USA Next, which he described as “a conservative alternative to the liberal AARP.” After his daughter Diane committed suicide, he blamed her death on LSD and became a champion of drug enforcement efforts.
When he left daily broadcasting, Linkletter ventured into business with a real estate and cattle-ranch management company. He also had interests in power companies dealing with solar energy, oil and gas wells. He published several books, including one based on “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” as well as “I Didn’t Do It Alone” and “How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life.”
He served as a pitchman for numerous products over the years, including the Milton Bradley board game Life.
Linkletter had been out of the public eye after suffering a stroke in 2008.
In addition to daughter Diane, Linkletter’s sons, Jack and Robert, preceded him in death. Survivors include his wife Lois; daughters Sharon and Dawn; seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.