The door to Art Linkletter’s low-slung home in Bel Air, Calif., swings open. “Come in!” says a familiar voice. It takes a moment to register that the television icon himself—not a publicist, a housekeeper or anyone else—opens his own front door.
But it’s a clear indication that Linkletter remains the friendly host loved by generations of TV viewers on the popular shows People Are Funny and House Party, which aired from 1952 to 1970, making it one of the longest-running daytime variety shows in television history.
“This house is my one extravagance,” Linkletter explains. “I live a very modest life. I don’t have a personal jet, a yacht. I don’t have horses and I don’t gamble.”
The home, which he shares with Lois, his wife of 70 years, bears the stamp of many loving touches over time, including the needlepoint rugs, crafted by Lois, scattered on the hardwood floors.
Time has taken its natural toll on Linkletter, who turned 94 last July. His hair is thinner and there are a few more wrinkles than when he was a familiar presence on televisions across America. But he still has the quick smile and twinkle in his eyes that once famously enabled him to get kids to say the darndest things.
As he approaches the midpoint of his ninth decade, Linkletter has become a beacon of hope for aging with dignity. He is alert, active and has no plans to retire any time soon—a point driven home when he politely excuses himself to take a phone call to discuss a solar power plant he is building in Nevada, only one of several business irons he has in the fire.
“He does all the right things,” says Dr. Gary Small, author of The Longevity Bible, who has known Linkletter for 10 years through their work together at the Center on Aging at the University of California-Los Angeles, for which Linkletter serves as president. “He is engaged, he is physically and mentally active, and he has a positive outlook.”
Linkletter has co-authored his own new book on aging, How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life, with Mark Victor Hansen, the co-creator of the famous Chicken Soup for the Soul series. When Hansen approached Linkletter with the idea for a book, he initially was not receptive.
“I said, ‘No thanks, Mark,’” Linkletter recalls. “‘I have written 27 books, including Old Age is Not for Sissies. I don’t need the money and I have nothing more to say.’” But when Hansen pointed out that baby boomers—getting older every day—needed sage advice, Linkletter changed his mind.
“My life has been a series of accepting challenges,” he says.
Among those challenges has been the loss of two of his five children. His son Robert died in an automobile accident in 1980, and his 20-year-old daughter, Diane, jumped out of the window of her kitchen apartment under the influence of LSD in 1969.
“I had a call immediately from Norman Vincent Peale, my friend, my mentor,” following Diane’s death, Linkletter recalls. “He said, ‘Art, the Lord is calling you to help the families of America in what is a growing epidemic.”
So Linkletter walked away from television and turned his energies to a passionate anti-drug crusade. He spoke at churches, on radio and TV, and wrote the book Drugs at My Doorstep.
Linkletter currently is facing the loss of yet another of his children. His 69-year-old son Jack has been undergoing treatment for mantle cell lymphoma. “His chances of living are slender,” Linkletter says. “The Lord only lends our children to us. I have learned from these tragedies that these experiences leave you either enhanced or diminished as a person. My choice is to help other people.”
Linkletter was born out of wedlock in a small hospital in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada, where he was abandoned by his biological parents and adopted by John Linkletter, a street preacher, and his wife, Mary. They were loving parents, but poor, living on congregational offerings. After moving around Canada for a while, they relocated to Lowell, Mass., and then to California.
Even as a young boy, Linkletter was a hustling, bustling entrepreneur with an assortment of odd jobs,
including selling lemons door to door. He worked at various ventures nonstop until he graduated from high school—after skipping several grades—at the age of 16.
“I wanted to go to college, but I had no money,” he says. “So I decided to see the world. I was very adept at hitchhiking, so I said goodbye to my parents and never lived with them again.”
He managed to find work wherever he went because he had picked up a skill in school that stood him in good stead: He could type 80 words per minute. He was pecking away at his keyboard in the bond department of the National City Bank on Wall Street in 1929 when the market crashed. He simply packed up and moved on.
After taking a job as a sailor on a cruise to South America, Linkletter decided there was security in teaching and returned to San Diego, where he enrolled in a free community college.
In his final year of school, “I got this telephone call from a local radio manager,” he says. “He said, ‘I’ve been hearing about you from your professors. Everybody talks so well of you, I wonder if you’d like to be part-time radio announcer?’ ”
That call changed his life. But after studying the comedic radio shows of Jack Benny and Bob Hope, Linkletter wasn’t sure he had what it took to be a success in broadcasting. Then the radio industry discovered the “man on the street” interview, and Linkletter recognized a good idea when he heard it. He sold himself to a local sponsor and got his own radio show. Having been a member of his school’s debate team, he knew that talking was something he could certainly do.
His career in radio broadcasting prospered, beginning with local shows and moving to national ones. But then he was fired from his job as the radio director for the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco following a dispute with his boss over what entertainment should be featured on the opening broadcast. “I went home and told Lois, ‘I have a whole new plan for my life. I am never going to work for anybody again.’ And I never have,” he says.
Linkletter became the ultimate freelancer, creating his own TV shows and building a diversified business empire involved in the building and management of storage property, office buildings, cow-calf operations, real estate development, cattle and sheep ranches in Australia, and various oil ventures around the world.
As Linkletter closes in on his 100th birthday, he still finds time to schedule 75 paid speaking engagements a year, attend numerous board meetings, work on behalf of the United Seniors Association and plan an annual weeklong gathering for the 27-member Linkletter clan—which includes son Jack, daughters Dawn and Sharon, and their spouses, kids and grandkids—at a resort.
What’s his secret? It’s no secret, he says.
“I have this saying that I use in my lectures,” he says, then recites a brief poem.
I never want to be what I want to be
Because there is always something out there yet for me
I get a kick out of living in the here and now
But I never know the best way how
Because there is always one hill higher with a higher
Something waiting to be learned, I never knew
So until my days are over, never fully fill my cup
Let me keep on growing.