"His excitement was truly infectious," Lucero said. "Nothing was staged."

But even those who poked fun at his upbeat attitude were seldom mean-spirited or cruel — their affection for him was evident through the wisecracks.

"He had this Gomer Pyle thing going, which is hard to do," said Carolla, the comedian who enjoyed mocking Howser. "He would talk to people, just an ordinary person, and seemed genuinely interested and surprised at anything they said, treating them like they were amazing. He was such a kind soul. The world could use a few more Huell Howsers."

He was such a local fixture that a Pink's hot dog was named after him. Although those who came into contact with him said he was the same off-camera as he was on, he maintained a sense of mystery.

Never married, Howser was intensely private, rarely giving glimpses into his own life. He had an apartment on Rossmore Boulevard in Los Angeles, but he also lived in his "dream house" in Twentynine Palms, which he decorated with midcentury furniture he bought from secondhand stores in Palm Springs.

Howser was aware that his ever-present cheerfulness was an eyebrow-raiser.

"Sometimes, people say, 'Are you putting that on?'" he said in 2009. "That's kind of a sad commentary, don't you think? Like there's got to be something wrong with someone who's enthusiastic and happy like that. Do I have bad days? Yes. Do I get depressed? Yes. Am I concerned about the state of the California economy and budget? I'm not some Pollyanna who doesn't recognize that there's hunger and poverty and racism in the world."

Howser was born Oct. 18, 1945, in Gallatin, Tenn., near Nashville. His father, Harold, was a lawyer, and his mother, Jewel, was a homemaker. "Huell" is a combination of both their names.

In 2011, Howser announced that he was donating all episodes of his series to Chapman University, a private college in Orange, to be digitized and made available for a worldwide online audience.