Luis Fuerte cannot recall ever really seeing Huell Howser upset on a shoot for his KCET program California's Gold, which the two worked on together for about 12 years.
That's no surprise to loyal viewers of the show that is still popular in reruns on Channel 28, as the late Howser, with his thick Tennessee accent and friendly, curious manner, always seemed as if there was nowhere else he wanted to be than the chunk of the Golden State he was visiting at that moment—especially when he let out his catch-phrases: "That's amazing" and "Oh, my gosh."
We often heard another: "Louie, take a look at this."
Fuerte is Louie, the loyal cameraman who dutifully took Howser's on-camera direction.
"Our working relationship just kind of clicked," Fuerte says. "If I saw something that was not working at all, I'd stop him and talk to him and suggest something. He'd either go with it or say, 'We're okay.' We were totally opposites. He was into the stardom thing. Not me. I wanted to be behind the camera, just trying to make things work."
But Fuerte is now stepping into the spotlight with the upcoming release of his book, Louie, Take a Look at This!: My Time With Huell Howser. Though it's not due out from Prospect Park Books until April 11, copies are included with DVDs of Fuerte's favorite California's Gold episodes for those who donate during a KCET pledge special Saturday.
Demand is already high. When Fuerte was interviewed on Feb. 9, he had a dozen speaking events scheduled. Not bad when you consider he had to be prodded into writing the book. He'd been asked to receive an honorary degree for Howser, who died in 2013 at age 67, from Chapman University, home of the Huell Howser Archives that include all the California's Gold videotapes.
"Chapman approached me and said, 'You need to write a book about your adventures. It was just you and Huell working together, and it would be interesting to know what happened behind the scenes,'" Fuerte says. "I gave it some thought because book writing is not my forte."
Fuerte talked with several writers and eventually recruited Yucaipa's David Duron to serve as co-author on the project, which took nearly three years to complete.
While the California's Gold work had left a lasting impression, Fuerte had to go with Duron to the Chapman campus in Orange to rewatch videos so he could refresh his memory. "Almost all the tapes I had shot," he says, "and it brought back memories like this happened on this shoot. It brought back a lot of stories that had kind of been left behind. Little by little, we worked these into the book. David did a lot of hard work on it."
Asked for favorite stories he and Howser had worked on, Fuerte replied, "There's so many. We did some great stories, and we did some not-so-great stories. A popular one was the Golden Gate Bridge and stories out in the desert. I remember shooting in Death Valley in the winter with winds 60 miles per hour. There were a lot of adventures we experienced, and we had a lot of fun."
Of course, Howser was a master of conveying the fun they were having to viewers. "Huell had this way about him," Fuerte says. "He would just make people feel so at ease and relaxed, even while they were being interviewed. It was that Tennessee accent or his manner; people just loved telling their stories to him. He would walk from one person to another. He just had this ease about him. I don't see that in too many people who produce shows like this."
Larry King and Marc Maron, who are both considered excellent interviewers, have said they don't want to know too much about someone they will be talking with ahead of time so a natural conversation unfolds. Howser employed the same style. "He would not want to know too much about the story," Fuerte says. "He wanted it to be spontaneous."
And amazing. (Sorry.)
"I once told Huell, 'You could do a story on a doorknob and make it interesting.' He'd say, 'Well, how long do you think the doorknob has been here?'"
Fuerte, the son of a Mexican immigrant, was born in San Bernardino, served two years in the U.S. Navy and learned TV engineering at a community college after his discharge. He joined KCET in May 1972 and met Howser in the late '80s, when the veteran broadcaster recruited the cameraman for his new human-interest show exploring California. Fuerte went on to win five Emmys for his work from about 1989 through 2001.
That last year is when he left his role with Howser, and Fuerte retired from KCET three years later. "I still loved what I was doing, so I started my own production company," he says. "We did a lot." But in 2012, at age 70, he said, "That's it." He retired for good and now lives with his wife in Rialto.
Asked after 48 years in television what his toughest shoots had been, Fuerte takes a long pause before coming up with literal polar opposites from California's Gold: joining window washers on the tallest building in Los Angeles and going down 2,000 feet into gold mines.
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"It was an adventure," Fuerte says matter-of-factly.
"I think it's the simplicity in telling the stories about California," Fuerte says about why people still love the shows so many years after he and Howser made them. "We visited places people don't know about. We learned so much traveling the state, the diversity of the people and terrain. I love this state. Huell called it his adopted state. This state is a world of its own.
"And people loved that Tennessee accent and his way of saying, 'That's amazing' with that Southern accent. I have my own southern accent from across the border."
Huell's California Adventure: Huell & Luis Hit the Road pledge special airs on KCET/Channel 28. Sat., 7 p.m.