For someone who entered our homes on a daily basis through the TV screen, Huell Howser is still somewhat of an enigma. "A Golden State of Mind" -- the documentary on Howser and his iconic series that will be re-airing on December 17 at 9 p.m. -- sheds more light on the TV personality's "storytelling genius," groundbreaking vision, and southern roots. Here's what we learned from the film.
What's in a Name?
"Huell" is a portmanteau of Howser's parents' first names Harold and Jewell. As "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening described it, the name has a poetic and optimistic ring to it that's fitting for someone who was so jovial.
Raccoons and Beavers
Howser was born in Gallatin, Tennessee on Oct. 18, 1945. In the film, he describes his childhood as idyllic and "Leave It to Beaver"-like. He wrote for his high school newspaper at University School of Nashville and studied history and politics in college at the University of Tennessee, where he also served as student body president.
Good News Bear
Howser began his TV career at WSM-TV in Nashville, Tenn., where he first developed his everyman persona. He produced shows with human interest segments, such as "Happy Features" and "The Happy World of Huell Howser," where "the people themselves" were the stars. Demetria Kalodimos -- the longest continuous evening news anchor in WSM-TV history -- put it best when she said that Howser was "as comfortable sitting next to the pig farmer as the opera singer."
In a rare instance of butting heads with management, Howser went against orders and covered the story about Tennessee's (Old) Governor's Mansion being torn down and replaced with a Popeyes. He was suspended for 30 days and quit during his first night back, which ended up being a blessing in disguise as it ultimately prompted his move to California. He went on to work for CBS in New York City then its affiliate in Los Angeles.
Here's the controversial segment about the demolition, which aired in the summer of 1979.
The idea to host a show about California history, geography, topography, food, culture, and diversity germinated after he moved to the Golden State in 1981. Howser took two weeks off from work, jumped in his car, and drove his way down the state. He visited all 13 PBS affiliates, pitched the idea for a show, and the rest was history. He began mining California for stories from that point forward.
His producer Phil Noyes joked in the documentary that Howser "bum-rushed" his subjects. People opened up to him because he had a way of making them feel at ease while still asserting his confidence as an interviewer. He put his hand on people's shoulders or grabbed their hands and just start walking and talking.
Howser wasn't interested in profiling celebrities, but the people and places that made California distinct. He didn't adhere to a class system; he believed that everyone deserved to be portrayed.
No Lights. Camera, Action!
Howser set out on his adventures with a one-person crew. He had no field producer, no production sound mixer, no grip. In fact, he didn't even allow his cameraman Cameron Tucker to use lights or a tripod during shoots.
Howser drew audiences in with long takes and largely unedited, meandering shots. On average, he and editor Michael Garber cut between two and three hours of airable content in a two-day period, which Garber said is unheard of in the industry. For example, the daughter of the owner of Galco's sent Howser a letter about their family's soda pop shop. The episode was filmed just two weeks after and aired only two weeks later. There was practically no editing involved.
Sincerest Form of Flattery
Instead of being angry with James Adomian for impersonating him during stand-up performances and in web videos, Howser called the comedian in high spirits and said, "It must be pretty easy to do a dumb southern accent."
Read the tribute that Adomian wrote following Howser's death.
The "Simpsons" Treatment
Groening was a huge fan of Howser's. A character modeled after Howser (called Howell Huser -- voiced by Karl Wiedergott) made an appearance on the show in a 2005 episode (as a tourist who fell off a turnip truck). Howser called Groening personally and volunteered to actually lend his voice to the animated hit. So for the first time in "Simpsons" history, another episode was dedicated to the character voiced by the real-life person. The 2009 episode found Howser playing himself as the host of a show akin to Food Network's "Unwrapped."
We finally get to see the mysterious man behind the camera. Cameraman Luis Fuerte, who worked with Howser for 12 years, makes in an appearance in the film. The doc features interviews with Howser's friends, colleagues, and production team.
The "California's Gold" episode about jacaranda trees was one of the final shows Howser shot. Fittingly, the emotional episode dealt with the themes of endings, renewals, and miracles. "Without the ability to do his shows, he didn't see much reason to go on anymore," Noyes said, referring to Howser's battle with prostate cancer and untimely death at the age of 67 on Jan. 7, 2013.
Catch up on the episodes of "California's Gold," "Visiting," and "Road Trip" featured in the documentary.