7 TV Celebrities Your Parents Loved

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The trailer for the new movie Julie & Julia brings back fond memories. Julia Child was the first voice impression I perfected as a teenager. My kids have no idea who she was. At the same time, they know who Billy Mays was and I didn't until his recent death made the news. That caused me to think about the celebrities my generation shared and of whom those of you under 35 probably have no experience. It didn't take long to think of a half-dozen people who achieved television fame in the 60s, 70s, and 80s even though they weren't actors or singers.

1. Euell Gibbons

Say the name Euell Gibbons and people of a certain age will tell you that many parts of a pine tree are edible. Born in 1911, Gibbons helped his family through the Depression by gathering wild foods. As an adult, he traveled the country, trying out various jobs and homes and always foraged for food growing wild. His first book, "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" became a classic. Gibbons was regarded with respect by the natural food movement. His appearances on TV shows and in commercials made him a household name, and the subject of jokes and parodies. Gibbons died in 1975 at age 64.

2. Clara Peller

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Many Baby Boomers who wouldn't recognize the name Clara Peller will know who she is as soon as they hear her say, "Where's the Beef?" The Wendy's ad campaign that began in 1984 made Peller a star. She was 80 years old before she began her acting career. "Where's the Beef?" became a nationwide catch phrase, and Peller appeared on talk shows, other commercials, and even in a couple of movies using the phrase (or something close to it) for comedic purposes. Peller died in 1987 at age 85.

3. Justin Wilson

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Louisiana native Justin Wilson made a career of telling Cajun stories and jokes, but his biggest fame came from cooking shows he did for PBS. Wilson's Cajun idioms and delivery as well as the stories he told while cooking kept the audience glued to their sets, waiting to hear the catchphrase "I gar-on-teee!" Wilson was 87 when he died in 2001. See a clip of Wilson in action.

4. Dr. Ruth Westheimer

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Dr. Ruth make sex easier to talk about. Before Dr. Ruth, no one said "penis" in public, and we weren't all that sure how to pronounce "vagina" because even our sex education teachers used euphemisms. Her radio show Sexually Speaking took off in 1980 and led to a syndicated show and then television. The 4'7" sex therapist with the cute accent reminded us of our grandmothers, which made hearing her advice even more fun. What a lot of people didn't know was that her life before becoming a sex icon was even more amazing. Dr. Ruth was born in Germany in 1928 and was sent to an orphanage to escape the Nazis. Both her parents died in concentration camps. She emigrated to Palestine at age 17 and lived in a kibbutz. She joined the Haganah and served as a sniper in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. Ruth Siegel, as she was named then, was wounded by an exploding shell and spent months in recovery. Her formal education began in 1950, which led to several degrees and a career as a sex educator and television personality. Dr. Ruth is still active at age 81.

5. Marlin Perkins

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Marlin Perkins hosted the nature show Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom from 1963 to 1985. He was a respected zoologist and zoo curator, and had accompanied Sir Edmund Hilary on a 1960 Himalayan expedition to find the yeti. Perkins' more than two decades in the national spotlight made him a spokesman for the conservation movement, and he helped popularize the idea of protecting endangered species. As the years went by, Perkins handed more and more of the fieldwork for the show off to co-host Jim Fowler, which led to affectionate parody and running jokes. The show itself was unpredictable, with the animals sometimes upstaging the hosts. Perkins died in 1986 at the age of 81.

6. Bob Ross

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Bob Ross is one bygone celebrity that mental_floss readers are familiar with, whether or not they ever saw him in his heyday. He was the host of The Joy of Painting on PBS from 1983 to 1994. He always completed a painting in the alloted half-hour or less, impressing everyone with his speed and confidence. Ross used the wet-on-wet oil painting technique, where layers of paint could be partially mixed and shaded because all the painting was done before any paint was allowed to dry. He described his landscapes as happy places, and encouraged viewers to lift their spirits through painting. Ross died in 1995 at age 52. You can still buy painting kits and supplies through his website.

7. Julia Child

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Julia Child was America's first celebrity chef. She was born in 1912 and served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II handling classified communications. After the war, Child went to cooking school in France, where she teamed up with two other chefs to open a school of their own and published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. Her first TV show premiered in 1963. Child had several series on PBS up through the 1990s, drawing an audience who wanted to cook for the joy and pleasure of it. They also loved the chef with her inimitable voice and laid-back personality. Child died in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday. Her kitchen is now a part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, and can be seen in this interactive site. You can watch Child cook and listen to her marvelous delivery in several videos.

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August 13, 2009 - 4:27am
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