Huell Howser, shown on top of the Golden Gate Bridge in an undated photo. (KCET )
He was so good at talking to people on TV that "The Simpsons" gently mocked his folksy, aw-shucks demeanor. But now it looks as if Huell Howser intends to fade away without comment.
Howser, the white-maned public TV host with the Southern accent who's famed for blurting out "That's amazing!" during interviews, has retired from making original episodes of his program "California's Gold," which travels around the state tracking down interesting people and places. The shows air on numerous statewide public TV stations, including KCET-TV Channel 28.
Speculation that the 67-year-old Howser is seriously ill has been circulating among local TV industry veterans in recent weeks, and insiders reported that he has not been seen for months at his Los Angeles office. On Tuesday the Sacramento Bee reported that Howser was retiring but added that he doesn't wish to make an official announcement.
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"Huell is retiring from filming new shows or making appearances (or interviews) but the show will continue to air in reruns for awhile," Ryan Morris, Howser's assistant, wrote in an email to The Times. "We have been gradually winding down all year but Huell has decided to stop, come December 31st."
As for the talk about Howser's ill health, Morris added: "I have heard the rumors and while Huell does not always tell me everything, he seems to be doing fine. He is just trying to get away from television and enjoy some free time."
Howser arrived at his unique local celebrity through fate and his own industriousness. A Tennessee native, he worked as a features reporter for the station now known as KCBS-Channel 2. During the 1980s he switched to making documentaries and interview programs about California, punctuated by his homespun enthusiasms ("Oh my gosh!" is one frequently heard interjection).
He kept the costs low, producing the programs himself with a small staff. He has no agent or publicist and likes to keep the production techniques primitive to avoid rattling his subjects: "If you have a sound guy with a big boom mike it's intimidating as hell," he told The Times in 2009.
But the past few years have proven difficult for Howser. KCET left PBS after a bitter dispute with the network, and Howser, who preferred to keep good relations with everyone, was trapped in the middle, privately unhappy with KCET's move but determined to remain supportive of the station he'd called his home base for years.
A KCET spokeswoman did not answer an email seeking comment Tuesday.
Nevertheless, the sizable legion of Howser fans ensures a legacy that will remain for years.
"No one said 'Wow!' like Huell Howser — everything about California turned him into a kid on Christmas morning," said Martin Kaplan, the Norman Lear chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at USC. "He was about as far from irony as you can get. He made corny cool."
"Simpsons" co-creator Matt Groening is a longtime fan, so much so that in 2005 the animated series mocked him with a character thinly veiled as Howell Huser.
"Everyone at 'The Simpsons' does a Huell Howser impression," Groening told The Times in 2009. "We all love him. I have on my permanent do-not-delete TiVo Huell's visit to the Bunny Museum."