By EW Staff
Updated May 26, 2010 at 07:30 PM EDT
Credit: Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.

No offense to Kid ‘n Play, but Art Linkletter’s House Party was always better. Linkletter’s program, which began on radio in 1944 before moving to TV eight years later, set a record for daytime longevity and featured Linkletter — who died Wednesday at age 97 at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles — interviewing children who could always be counted on to blurt out truths too uncomfortable for grown-ups to tell. It was a perfect showcase for the genial host, whose self-deprecating manner and masterful talent for pulling unintentionally funny cracks from everyday people made the show a hit for 25 years running. “What do your parents do for fun?” the host once asked a youngster. “Search me,” the kid replied, “They always lock the door.” Linkletter eventually turned some of the more inspired moments into Kids Say the Darndest Things. The book sat atop the nonfiction best-seller list for two years and remains one of the top-selling books in American publishing history.

Linkletter was also one of the fathers of modern reality TV with his People Are Funny, an audience participation quiz show that began on NBC in1954. Contestants were chosen from the studio audience to complete challenges or perform wacky stunts, such as trying to cash a check written on a 40-pound watermelon. Losers would be doused with water or pelted with pies. Like House Party, People Are Funny found Linkletter graciously ceding the spotlight to regular folks.

Linkletter’s success is particularly astonishing considering his hardscrabble background. Born in Moose Jaw, Canada, in 1912, he was abandoned by his parents and grew up the adopted son of a poor preacher. After high school, Linkletter enrolled at San Diego State, hoping to become a teacher, but his plans changed after he got an unexpected phone call offering him a job at a local radio station. “I said sure,” Linkletter recalled. “It was 1933, the bottom of the Depression. If a gravedigger called me, I would bedigging graves today.”

Linkletter never slowed down, even toward the end of his life. He was a regular fixture on the speaking circuit and spent his freetime skiing and surfing. “No one can keep from aging, but there is no need to grow old,” he said. He also served as the national chairman for the United Seniors Association, an AARP alternative now known as USA Next. (In 1969, Linkletter’s daughter committed suicide, and the TV personality blamed LSD, even though official reports said drugs played no part.) “Over the years I have tried to create an image of a happy man dedicated to fun and laughter,” Linkletter said in 1960. “I have been willing to joke about my own faults and foibles and to talk about the troublesome things in my life, and I have kidded people about theirs. The world needs laughter more than ever, and I intend to spread it around.” Mission accomplished. –Reed Tucker

Photo Credit: Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.