Obituary: Huell Howser / Folksy public television host

Oct. 18, 1945 - Jan. 7, 2013

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He interviewed painters on the Golden Gate Bridge and sat atop the H of the Hollywood sign. He followed Julie Nixon Eisenhower up the stairs to her father's tiny boyhood bedroom in Yorba Linda, Calif. He profiled an 88-year-old white woman who proudly remained in her South Central Los Angeles home after all her white neighbors fled to make way for black residents.

There was the beauty parlor owner who won a whistling championship; the woman who picked roses every day and delivered them to her local post office; the artist who made portraits out of clothes-dryer lint.

Huell Howser, who roamed the highways of the Golden State as the folksy host of "California's Gold," perhaps the most popular public television show in the state, died Monday at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 67.

Ryan Morris, his assistant at Huell Howser Productions, said he died of natural causes.

Over 27 years, Mr. Howser, a barrel-chested former Marine who spoke with a Tennessee-bred twang, hosted more than 2,000 travelogue-type shows for public television in his adopted state. Besides "California's Gold," his series over the years bore titles like "Videolog," "Road Trip with Huell Howser" and "Visiting with Huell Howser."

He interviewed orchid growers, steelworkers, sky divers and regulars at the weekly Friday night vintage car show in Garden Grove, in Orange County.

"He paid attention to the California of farms, ranches, small businesses -- the California of ordinary Americans," Kevin Starr, a former state librarian and the author of a seven-volume history, "Americans and the California Dream," said Wednesday.

"He had an almost ministerial or rabbinical effect on people," Mr. Starr continued. "They would hug him, touch him. People forgot that the camera was there."

Mr. Howser achieved a measure of national fame when he was parodied on "The Simpsons" in 2005. A character named Howell Huser, after visiting the Simpsons' hometown, Springfield, went on television to declare it the "Worst Town Ever."

Huell Burnley Howser was born in Gallatin, Tenn., on Oct. 18, 1945, to Harold and Jewel Howser. (Huell is a combination of their first names.) His father was a lawyer. He graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in history and served in the Marines.

"TV ain't brain surgery," Mr. Howser told The New York Times in 2001. "I attribute any success I may have in television to the fact that I never took any courses in it."

In 1988, in one of his most famous segments, Mr. Howser reunited an 80-year-old animal trainer, Charlie Franks, with Nita, the prized elephant he had turned over to the San Diego Wild Animal Park upon his retirement 15 years earlier.

Closing the segment, Mr. Howser intoned: "What a glorious day when two old friends, Charlie and Nita, were reunited, spent some time together reliving the good old days and then said their last goodbyes."

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