'People Are Funny' host Art Linkletter dies

Known for 'House Party,' as well as comedic interviews

Art Linkletter, who endeared himself to millions of TV viewers in the 1950s and '60s as the genial host of the TV shows "People Are Funny" and "Art Linkletter's House Party," died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 97.

A radio broadcaster, TV host and author, Linkletter was a national fixture for decades. "House Party," a daytime talk show, began on radio in 1944 and then ran on CBS from 1952-69 before moving to NBC for its final season.

The primetime game show "People Are Funny" also began on radio -- Linkletter came on board in 1943 -- before moving to NBC, where it ran from 1954-61.

Between them, the two shows were nominated for four Emmys, with "House Party" winning for best daytime program in 1955. At one point, Linkletter had five shows running concurrently on network TV.

Linkletter "was a television pioneer and legend that contributed to the early success of CBS, and we will be forever grateful," CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler said. "From everyone at CBS, we offer our sincerest condolences to the Linkletter family."

Linkletter, who was recognized with a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, possessed a kindly, mischievous nature that was particularly appealing to kids, and he was able to coax "the darndest things" out of them during his trademark interviews with schoolchildren on "House Party."

His rapport with the young, inadvertent wise-crackers led to the national best-seller, "Kids Say the Darndest Things," which, in turn, inspired a 1998 CBS show of the same title, hosted by Bill Cosby, on which Linkletter appeared as co-host.

The book was the No. 1 seller for two years, and the book "70 Years of Best Sellers 1895-1965" ranked "Kids" as the 15th top seller among nonfiction books in that period. In all, Linkletter penned at least 23 books, including 1990's "Old Age Is Not for Sissies."

Linkletter was a shrewd businessman as well: When his friend Walt Disney asked him to host a live TV special marking the grand opening of Disneyland, he agreed in exchange for operating the park's camera and film concessions for 10 years.

He also became a popular public speaker, once explaining his down-home appeal by saying, "I stand fearlessly for small dogs, the American flag, motherhood and the Bible. That's why people love me."

Known as a family man, he married Lois Foerster in 1935. They had five children, whom he referred to as "the Links."

"To know Art, it was easy to see how a man of such humble beginnings could achieve as much as he did in life," said music producer Quincy Jones, Linkletter's longtime friend and neighbor. "Right until the end, he was one of the brightest, funniest, inspiring and profound people that I have ever known. Art would always say, 'Quincy, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,' and he was right."

But his life was touched by tragedy. In 1969, his 20-year-old daughter Diane jumped to her death from her sixth-floor Hollywood apartment. Linkletter blamed her death on LSD use -- even though toxicology tests showed no evidence of LSD in her system -- and became a fervent anti-drug crusader.

His son Robert died in a car accident in 1980 at the age of 35, while another son Jack died of lymphoma in 2007 at the age of 70.

Linkletter was born Arthur Gordon Kelly on July 17, 1912, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. His unwed mother put him up for adoption, and he was raised by the Linkletters, an itinerant preacher and his wife, who eventually moved their family to San Diego.

Linkletter worked his way through what was then called San Diego State College, where he graduated in 1934 with degrees in English and psychology. He soon began work as an announcer at San Diego CBS radio affiliate KGB, where he eventually became program director.

Linkletter also served as the director of the public address system and radio spokesman for the 1935 World's Fair in San Diego.

Moving to San Francisco, Linkletter pursued his showbiz interests, developing various shows while also laying the foundation for his business empire by buying up apartment buildings.

As the chairman of Linkletter Enterprises, he eventually came to oversee everything from TV shows to real estate holdings to oil wells and Australian sheep ranches. He also served on the boards of directors for such companies as MGM, Western Airlines, Kaiser Hospitals and the French Foundation for Alzheimer's Research.

Meanwhile, he traveled extensively, delivering 50-60 speeches each year about gerontology and aging, Alzheimer's disease and drug abuse.

Some of his positions proved controversial -- at one time, he advocated for the government to filter out "hard-core porn" from public library Internet stations -- but he was tremendously popular with mainstream Americans.

In addition to serving on President Nixon's National Advisory Council for Drug Abuse Prevention, he sat on the Presidential Commission to Improve Reading in the United States and the President's Commission on Fitness and Physical Education, and he was named Ambassador to Australia and Commissioner General to the 150th Australian Anniversary Celebration by President Reagan.

A past president of the board of trustees of the UCLA Center on Aging, Linkletter was honored with the center's annual Icon Award in 2000.

Linkletter is survived by his wife and daughters Dawn and Sharon.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Watch an interview with Linkletter from the Archive of American Television below.