Art 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 small 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, Saskatchewan, 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 counterculture 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 1943-61.
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, "Kids 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.