Lunch with Huell
PBS host Huell Howser on life, death and an unscheduled visit with ‘The Simpsons’
By Aaron Proctor 08/20/2008
I arrived at Pie ‘N Burger a little late for an interview with Huell Howser, the host of KCET’s “California Gold” whose exclamations of “That’s Amayyyzing!” are imitated by just about everyone who’s ever watched local TV over the past two decades.
But being slightly tardy was alright with the personable Howser, who by the time I arrived was already cheerily chatting up customers in his distinctive Southern drawl and stopping for anxious fans who didn’t hesitate to ask for autographs and impromptu photo sessions.
Wearing sunglasses and dressed in a gray-on-white bowling shirt and slacks, Howser seemed as much at home at the popular restaurant near Caltech as he would, well, anywhere. At a table near the rear, we talked for an hour about his career, which kicked off in 1981 — soon after growing up watching in awe as his “Atticus Finch-like” lawyer father Harold tried cases in the sweltering heat of Tennessee courtrooms — with a stint as a news reporter at KCBS, Channel 2.
During our time together, Howser also spoke about the importance of helping others, how each new story is just as important as the last and what it means to be a celebrity and “on” when venturing outside the confines of one’s own home. — Aaron Proctor
This isn’t lunch … this is like an event. How does that make you feel?
It’s very complimentary. It’s not like an actor who people see on TV who is playing a role. I’m the same here or on TV or whatever and people feel like they know me.
It must be very rewarding to know how happy you make people.
It’s nice to have feedback; it’s nice to know people are watching. It would be very hard to be this excited, this enthusiastic about what you’re presenting if you never knew that anybody watched and appreciated it. … Everybody needs a pat on the back or a ‘well done.’ You know, it’s so easy to do that but so few bosses take the time to do that. You know, just pass you in the hall and go, ‘Hey that’s a good article you wrote last week, well done.’ That takes, what, five seconds? It’s nice when you’re on the receiving end of that.
It’s hard to imagine you being angry.
That’s because I stay home when I’m angry or frustrated or tired or sick or whatever. You are rude to one person and people go, ‘You know, he seems so nice on TV, but in person he didn’t even say hello or anything.’ So when you step out of the house or the office, you have got to be prepared to give and give and give and give. They want you to stand up, have your picture taken with them, and you do it. What if I would have said no? No. 1, that’s not a good thing to do, under any circumstances. No. 2, if you said no, 500 people would have known that by this afternoon.
Did you ever see that episode of “The Simpsons” in which you were parodied by a character named Howell Heuser?
I didn’t even know I was on “The Simpsons.” I got home on a Sunday night and there were 50 different messages on my phone. … I got into the office the next morning and called Matt Groening and said, ‘This is Huell Howser,’ and there was this quiet on the other end of the phone because I knew he thought I was upset. I said, ‘If you’re going to do a parody of me, I could use the money and the exposure. If you’re gonna continue, just let me be my own voice next time.
You were honorary mayor of Sierra Madre last year. How many other cities have given you that honor?
I’ve gotten lots of keys to cities. … I don’t think these keys carry any particular clout. I think if you’re stopped for speeding, that doesn’t help.
But if you’re stopped for speeding, you’re Huell Howser …
I was stopped once for speeding going 75, 85 miles an hour on the Grapevine toward Bakersfield. The guy pulls me over, I give him my license and he goes, ‘Oh, my gosh, my wife isn’t going to believe that I got to give you a ticket.’ Everybody else would have said, ‘Huell, my wife and I watch you on TV all the time … slow down next time, and get on your way.’ No. He wrote out the ticket and the whole time he was writing it he was relaying his favorite stories that he and his wife had watched over the years.
What kind of name is Huell, anyway?
I remember being a child, asking my parents at the dinner table why they gave me such a horrible name. I still have the image in my mind of my mother’s jaw dropping. I learned it is a combination of my father’s name, Harold, and my mother’s name, Jewell.
Did you ever think you’d get the celebrity reaction you receive when you go somewhere?
What is so bizarre is that I walked in here as somebody who is known from television and everyone knew who I was. A heart surgeon who had just left Huntington Hospital and successfully operated on a child and saved her life could walk in here and not a single person would know who that heart surgeon is. That puts it all in perspective.
It’s pretty safe to say, then, that you would not be able to name the most amazing thing you’ve seen because everything is equally amazing in its own way.
You’re one of the few people who ever figured that out. Spending the day in South Pasadena with a woman who grows roses and takes them to the local Post Office to share with everybody … How do you compare that day with a day going to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge? No two experiences are the same. They’re all part of life.
I heard somewhere that you want to die on the air …
I want it to happen at the end of a show. I’m saying my goodbyes to everyone and then suddenly I clutch my heart and fall over. The credits roll as the dust covers me and everyone at home says, ‘Well, Huell had a good run but I think that’s his last episode.’ … I want to be cremated. I’ve made a list of my favorite 20 places in California, and it’s going to be a two-week vacation where [my sister and her husband] come to California and get my urn full of ashes and go to these 20 places, staying in the best hotels, eating at the finest restaurants, and at each place they leave a piece of Huell. I’ve got it exactly mapped out.
Sounds like it would be a good 14-, 15-part PBS special.
Yeah. I could see that. I could live beyond the grave, at least for a miniseries.