Linkletter was born Gordon Arthur Kelly in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. In his autobiography, Confessions of a Happy Man (1960), he revealed that he had no contact with his natural parents or his sister or two brothers since he was abandoned when only a few weeks old. He was adopted by Mary (née Metzler) and Fulton John Linkletter, an evangelical preacher. When he was five, his family moved to San Diego, California, where he graduated from San Diego High School at age 16.
During the early years of the Great Depression, he rode trains around the country doing odd jobs and meeting a wide variety of people. In 1934, he earned a bachelor's degree from San Diego State Teachers College (now San Diego State University), where he was a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. While attending San Diego State, he played for the basketball team and was a member of the swimming team. He had previously planned to attend Springfield College but did not for financial reasons.
In 1935 he met Lois Foerster. They were married at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, November 28, 1935. Their marriage lasted until Linkletter's death, 74 1⁄2 years later.
He earned a degree in teaching, but worked as a radio announcer at KGB in San Diego. Radio paid better than teaching, and Linkletter directed radio programs for fairs and expositions in the mid-1930s. In 1943, Linkletter pleaded guilty to falsely claiming US citizenship; he was fined $500 and permitted to apply for citizenship. In the 1940s, Linkletter worked in Hollywood with John Guedel on their pioneering radio show, People Are Funny, which employed audience participation, contests and gags. The series served as a prototype for future radio and television game shows. People Are Funny became a television show in 1954 and ran until 1961.
Other early television shows Linkletter worked on included Life With Linkletter with his son Jack (1969–1970) and Hollywood Talent Scouts (1965–1966). He acted in two movies, People Are Funny (1946) and Champagne for Caesar (1950). Linkletter declined the opportunity offered by his friend Walt Disney to build and operate the Disneyland Hotel due to Linkletter's doubts about the park's prospects. But, out of friendship for Disney, Linkletter volunteered his experience as a live program broadcaster to help organize ABC's coverage of the Disneyland opening in 1955. Besides being an on-air host, he recruited his two co-hosts: Ronald Reagan and Bob Cummings. The park opening experience convinced Linkletter Disneyland was going to be a huge success. When Disney asked what he could do to show his gratitude for the broadcast's role in the successful launching of the park, Linkletter asked for Disneyland's camera and film concession for its first 10 years, to which Disney readily agreed. This turned out to be very lucrative. He appeared for two stints of two weeks each, as a guest host of The Tonight Show in 1962 between Jack Paar's departure and Johnny Carson's arrival as its new host.
In the 1950s, Linkletter became a major investor in and promoter of the hula hoop.
Art Linkletter's Kids was a 1963–64
gag cartoon panel drawn by the prolific cartoonist
Stan Fine and distributed by
King Features Syndicate. In 1963, Linkletter became the endorser and spokesman for
Milton Bradley's The
Game of Life. His picture appeared on the game's $100,000 bills and also on the box alongside the statement "I heartily endorse this game".
After three public meetings in 1967, an eight-member Los Angeles City Council committee "cleared" Linkletter and City Council Member
Tom Shepard of charges that they were linked in a scheme to influence city purchase of the "financially troubled"
Valley Music Theater in
Linkletter invested wisely, enabling his considerable philanthropy. In 2005, at the age of 93, he opened the Happiest Homecoming on Earth celebrations for the 50th anniversary ofDisneyland. Half a century earlier, he was the commentator on the opening day celebrations in 1955. For this, he was named a Disney Legend.
Linkletter was once a spokesman for National Home Life, an insurance company. A Republican, he became a political organizer and a spokesman for the United Seniors Association, now known as USA Next, an alternative to the AARP. He was also a member of Pepperdine University's Board of Regents. He received a lifetime achievementDaytime Emmy award in 2003. He was inducted into the National Speakers Association Speaker Hall of Fame. He was a member of the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation (which ended in November 2008).
He received honorary degrees from several universities, including his alma mater, San Diego State University; Pepperdine University; and the University of Prince Edward Island. He served for many years as a trustee at Springfield College and donated funds to build the swim center named in his honor.
In 1978 he wrote the foreword to the bestselling self-help book Release Your Brakes! by James W. Newman, in which he wrote, "I believe none of us should ever stop growing, learning, changing, and being curious about what's going to happen next. None of us is perfect, so we should be eager to learn more and try to be more effective persons in every part of our lives."
Art and Lois Linkletter outlived three of their five children. On October 4, 1969, 20-year-old Diane died after jumping out of her sixth-floor kitchen window. Linkletter claimed that her death was drug related because she was on, or having a flashback from, an LSD trip (toxicology tests later determined there were no drugs in Diane's system at the time of her death). After Diane's death, Linkletter spoke out against drugs to prevent children from straying into a drug habit. His record, "We Love You, Call Collect", recorded before her death, featured a discussion about permissiveness in modern society, along with a rebuttal by Diane, titled "Dear Mom and Dad". The record won a 1970 Grammy Award for the "Best Spoken Word Recording".
Robert Linkletter died in an automobile accident on September 12, 1980. Son Arthur Jack Linkletter died from lymphoma in 2007.
In early 2008, Linkletter suffered a mild
stroke. He died on May 26, 2010 at his home in
Bel Air, Los Angeles, California.
After his death, Phyllis Diller stated, "In a couple of months Art Linkletter would have been 98 years old, a full life of fun and goodness, an orphan who made it to the top. What a guy." He was survived by his wife, Lois and daughters Dawn Griffin and Sharon Linkletter, as well as seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.