Update 5:45 p.m. KPCC host John Rabe offers up this remembrance of Huell Howser. You can also view Rabe's appearance on HuffPost Live Monday in the video window at the end of this story.
Huell Howser — the longtime California TV personality and host of "California's Gold," who died early Monday — was an icon, and — as he told me in 2011 — something of an iconoclast.
"Whatever success I have found in this business," he said, "I have done it without doing any of the things that people said I had to do in order to be successful." No agent, no manager, no public relations staff, no private parking space.
His TV shows were essentially Huell with a mike and a camera ... you traveled with Huell as he met the Lint Lady, as he shouted over the noise at the only drag strip in the city of LA, and as he wowed over a dog eating an avocado in an avocado grove (view the video below). You can hear him say it: "I've never seen a dog eat avocados before."
Another thing Huell Howser didn't have: a voice coach to get rid of that wonderful, broad, genuine Tennessee accent. On the day I followed him as he taped an episode on National Donut Day (really!), that was the only thing he really bristled at.
"People say we find it interesting that a guy with an accent like yours is hosting a program about California. I ask them, 'Well what kind of an accent should the host of a program about California have!?' Because California always has been and always will be made up of people who come here from all over the world with all sorts of accents in search of the California dream."
That's his story, too.
Huell Howser was born in Gallatin, Tenn., where his parents — Harold and Jewell — combined their names to form his. He earned a BA in history in Tennessee and worked for one of its U.S. Senators, Howard Baker.
Howser arrived in Los Angeles in 1981 and worked for a few years at Channel 2 before he landed at public TV station KCET. His short features there evolved into "California's Gold" and all the spinoffs that made him probably the most recognized personality in the state.
Tom Coston, a Howser fan and regular viewer from Pasadena, told us, "It's kinda sad, because we hear a lot of national news and get overwhelmed by the global picture, and even though that's all great, we're connected to the world, he connected us to our local environment."
And then there were the celebrity fans. Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," said, "Any time I come across an episode I have to watch. In our culture in America on TV everything we are surrounded by cynicism, and jadedness ... and that's not him." (You can hear more of Groening's views on Howser at the link below.)
The "Simpsons" parody of Howser as a reporter who falls off a turnip truck — for real — is funny, and a loving tribute. But it's not true. LA Observed's Kevin Roderick says that when he was a newspaper reporter covering obscure areas of the state, he found that Howser had left his footprints everywhere. "When he goes out into these places, sure he feigns not knowing that much about his subject before he gets there, but he knows an awful lot about California, an awful lot about Los Angeles.
He has become for many people their go-to teacher about California history and the stories of Los Angeles."
But there's more to it. Maybe by being a regular guy, Huell Howser demystified the whole process by showing viewers if he can do it, you can do it. In 2011 he told me, "Hopefully we're opening up their minds to the fact that they can create their own adventures, that they can learn their own history."
Huell retired about six weeks with no fanfare. He left his archive to Chapman University, which is building a website that'll include all of his TV work.
Update 3:40 p.m. We asked you how Huell Howser inspired you, what he taught you and what places you visited or piece of history you tucked away because of him. Watch videos and read more here.
Update 1:30 p.m. KCET's head of communications, Ariel Carpenter, tells KPCC that there will be a large special report on SoCal Connected Monday night honoring Howser. The station plans to continue to air his shows as always and re-air episodes Howser told KCET were his favorites.
KCET issued a statement on Howser's death:
We are deeply saddened by the news of Huell's passing. This is a tremendous personal and professional loss to his friends and colleagues, as well as his legions of fans. Huell elevated the simple joys and undiscovered nuggets of living in our great state. He made the magnificence and power of nature seem accessible by bringing it into our living rooms. Most importantly, he reminded us to find the magic and wonderment in our lives every day. Huell was able to brilliantly capture the wonder in obscurity. From pastrami sandwiches and artwork woven from lint to the exoticism of cactus gardens and the splendor of Yosemite — he brought us the magic, the humor and poignancy of our region. We will miss him very much.
Update 1:18 p.m. California TV icon Huell Howser died Sunday night. His assistant Ryan Morris says Howser died at home of natural causes.
Previously: California Television legend Huell Howser died at his home Sunday night, his assistant confirmed to KPCC Monday.
Huell Howser's assistant Ryan Morris has confirmed to John Rabe that Huell Howser died last night at home. Details to follow.— Off-Ramp (@KPCCofframp) January 7, 2013
There are no further details at this time; check back with KPCC for more details as we get them.
From his website:
"Huell Howser moved to Los Angeles in 1981 from his home state of Tennessee to become a reporter for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, he had no idea he’d fall in love…with California. His enthusiasm for his new home inspired the idea for the television series that started it all, California’s Gold. Huell had a simple idea: if he traveled the state with an open heart and an open mind, a microphone and a camera, he would uncover a treasure of California stories."
Related: AirTalk: Remembering Huell Howser
Video of Huell Howser singing "California Here I Come"
Video of an encounter with an avocado eating dog
See everywhere Howser went and find out more about those locations on the map below, produced by KCET.
View Where's Huell? in a larger map
Watch KPCC's John Rabe talk about Huell Howser on HuffPost Live:
Share your memories of Huell Howser in the comments below.
Correction: An earlier version of this story may have misstated when Howser started on California public television.