WISHFUL THINKING: The day comes when he is called, and as he makes his way up the ramp to the gates of Game Show Heaven, St. Monty (quest hosting for St. Peter) greets him. 'Who have we here? Why, it's Artie Linkletter. Now Artie, before we let you in, we want to ask you one question -- Is there anything your mommy told you not to say today?"

The Kid Bit.

Five days a week for 25 years. On "House Party" and "People Are Funny," pioneer audience participation shows. Giving away prizes if you could guess what was in the house. Getting you through your washing and waxing with a wide-angle wink and a mop-and-glow smile. Linkletter was every housewife's daytime favorite. Mr. Congeniality. Do drop in.

But interviewing the school kids -- that was the bit that made him.

So simple. So sweet. So spontaneous.

"Without a doubt, it's what I'll be remembered for. Everywhere I go I hear it -- 'Why don't you interview the kids again?' "

Art Linkletter laughs his private laugh. A laugh that asks -- Are these people putting me on?

"We found we couldn't invite the great kids back more than three times," he says.

Invite the kids back? Like performers?

"Three times was the limit -- after that they lost it. They started thinking of themselves as stars."

Doesn't Art Linkletter say the darndest things?

"Here and there I'm sure we played a few kids cheap," he says. "No doubt about it . . . When you're a young, charging performer, you do it . . . Everyone who does audience shows is kind of making fun of people. Some of the early shows I cringe at. But don't forget, we were experimenting in television then. We were inventing this business as we went along. People like me and Ralph Edwards were, in effect, inventing the talk show. Only we never thought of restricting it to celebrities . . . Now I wouldn't do a lot of the things I did then. We hit people in the face with pies. We put them in tar and feathers. We dumped them in lakes . . . I got away with it because I wasn't squeezing people. I opened the door and people went down the chute. But I didn't do it with malice or glee. Sometimes I smiled and said, 'Oh God, we shouldn't do this to you -- it's terrible.' "

He smiles. The full 32.

This is amazing to hear, this salesman's cynicism. From Art Linkletter!

Consider the source. In the Golden Age of television, Art Linkletter's persona was a guy who never seemed to even have a clue what was going on. Pleasant enough, though a bit of a bland-out. Not that far from the game-show equivalent of Chester A. Riley and Stu Erwin. Or Lawrence Welk without the bubble machine. Or Ozzie Nelson without homemade fudge waiting on the kitchen table. And now, as he sits and talks about the moves he made, it's obvious that he was in total control. He not only knew, he was out in front on it.

HE IS NOT just a rich man, he is a very rich man. Knows how to buy, knows how to sell. Lots of businesses. Big-time capitalist. Used to hotel suites. Used to limos. "Just came back from Morocco where I was a guest of the king."

Made his first million "long, long ago."

Says proudly, "I don't need money."

Spends most of his time lecturing. Lectures on positive thinking, the art of selling, drug abuse. This time, physical fitness, at a presidential conference at the Shoreham.

Does something called "An Evening With Art Linkletter." Speaks 80 to 100 times a year. To big crowds. "I speak to 10, 12, 14,000 people. For an hour at a time. I tell some funny stories at first, but then I get serious" -- he snaps his fingers -- "just like that. And the rest is substantive. I'm not just some clown."

Says proudly, "When I come out on stage people think substantial thoughts about me."

Hasn't been on television in more than a decade.

Says proudly, "They've asked. I say I'm not interested . . . Oh, I could do it. Look, the two best interviews are under 10 and over 70 -- they say what they think and they don't screen their thoughts. But I'm not the right demographic for TV. Too old. Or so they say. ABC wanted me to go on 'Good Morning America' with kids for about eight or 10 minutes a day. They wanted me to talk to kids about news events. We did a pilot. It didn't work. Kids don't know about news events. Kids are still kids. A skimknowledge of the world, but they don't understand it."

Isn't even on re-runs.

"Oh, they ask. I'd just as soon not have them on -- they're dated."

Very rich. Very proud.

Something like a shrug.

"I'd rather have my memory of them."

Something like a shudder.

"A lot of the stuff I did was ridiculous. I enjoyed it, but the shows I did weren't the kind of shows I'd look at."

The shows he did were the progenitors of shows like "Real People," "The Gong Show," "The Dating Game." "Family Feud." "Let's Make a Deal." Shows that exist to belittle the people they feature. The real name for shows like that should be, "How Low Will You Go?"

Allen Funt. Monty Hall. God help us, Chuck Barris: Art Linkletter, these are your children.

"Chuck Barris makes me sick."

Something like a dream.

"All the time I was doing my shows, what I wanted to do was '60 Minutes.' That's the show I should have done. I could do the Morley Safer stuff -- not the hardball stuff -- the big story with the human touch. I always wanted to. But I was a commercial guy, a fun guy, and in those days you just didn't cross over into news easily."

"I ALWAYS wanted to be a star. When I was in college in California I made lists of the stars who came out from New York, like Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Burns and Allen, and a newcomer named Bob Hope. I wrote down what their talents were and tried to analyze them. I knew I didn't have any. But then someone invented the 'man on the street,' and I knew that was my talent; I knew I could talk to people . . . My colleagues in Hollywood didn't know what to make of me. They didn't understand -- I had no talent . . . But the most important talent you can have in television is to be liked. People liked me. Secondly, I sincerely and truly liked people, and I was curious about their answers. Even the jerks -- I wanted to know what made them such jerks. And my reactions were neither smart-alecky nor tasteless. I didn't try to exploit people the way a comic would."

He wrinkles his brow. Many wrinkles. Been around the block.

"Groucho was popular at the same time. You know my partner and I used to own Groucho's show? At one time we had more shows on the air than Goodson and Todman. Anyway, Groucho did the same kind of thing I did. But he would take people's answers and cut their throats with them. And the strange thing was, he liked doing it. He really didn't like people."

You didn't like Groucho?

"No. Hardest interview I ever had. He didn't give a damn about you. You'd ask him a question, and he'd try and give you an answer that was so outrageous that it would end the interview. You'd ask him something like, 'If you weren't in show business, what would you do?' And Groucho would say, 'I'd be a Buddhist undertaker in Nairobi.' And of course that would end it. Where could you go from there?"

"MY COLLEAGUES in Hollywood . . ."

Like Ronald Reagan.

"I go back 30 years with him. We lived a block away from him and his first wife, Jane. And Nancy was my leading lady on a TV film -- 'The Oddball.' I've been to his birthday parties in California many times. Know all the 'kitchen cabinet,' they're all social friends. The Darts. The Bloomingdales. The Wrathers. We all live in the same neighborhood, around Bel Air and Brentwood. You know Ronnie always had the reputation of being serious. They joked about him in the old days of Hollywood -- ask Reagan the time and he'll tell you how to build a watch. We both used to make speeches on free enterprise. He did them for GE and I did them for Royal Crown. When he talked to me first about running for governor of California, I told him, 'Ronnie, you're running for the wrong office. You ought to be in the Senate.' Being governor of California is like being president of General Motors. I saw him as a speaker, not a management guy. You know, we're very much alike, Ronnie and I -- except that he's president."

A chuckle.

Linkletter's spearmint blue eyes dance along the stage of his lifetime.

"It seems so odd. Even he'll say it's hard to realize. Ronnie's one of the guys you stand around with and tell stories."

Something like a sigh.

"It's a marvelous thing to know, that it actually can happen."

IT COULDN'T happen for Linkletter. He is Canadian by birth, and therefore ineligible to be the Big Enchilada.

But he says he's had offers to run for things -- and not just school board.

"Oh yes. Mayor of L.A. Senator. Governor. All three. I've had Republican groups come and ask me to run. My answer was: I don't want the job. I have no desire to be in government service."

Which is what he says he told his other close friend who happened to be president. As close as Linkletter may be to Reagan, he is closer still to Richard Nixon. Close enough to have slept in the White House when he used to visit. Close enough to tell an interviewer that Nixon "blew it" and not worry that the opinion would cost him.

Calls him "Dick."

As in, "Dick wanted me to be ambassador to Australia. It was just after he got into office, in 1969. I'm very popular there. I was a pioneer in the Outback. Developed land when no one else would touch it. I was 'The Good American.' Didn't take the money and run. Didn't exploit the people. I still have big sheep and cattle stations there now. But I didn't want the job. I asked Dick, 'Do you want me to sit around in some developing nation, or do you want me to continue my drug abuse crusade, to help save the kids of America?' I gave him a choice he couldn't refuse."

The drug abuse crusade. It started tragically for Linkletter in 1969 when his daughter took LSD and leaped out an eighth-floor window. A suicide. Linkletter scorched the country preaching about the evils of drugs. He suffered no fools, and he made it clear that anyone who disagreed with him was just that. He charged in at the height of the Vietnam protests, spitting into the eyes of a social and political movement that immediately stamped him -- The Enemy. Another establishment waterboy.

Something like a nod.

"I polarized the whole thing. I made my speeches, and I saw I wasn't getting through. I'm enough of a salesman to know that when you're not winning, you'd better re-think your position. Mine was wrong. So I went into the streets. I rapped with the kids, and I came to realize that if I was one of them I'd probably try some of these drugs too. I changed my approach. Now I don't tell them not to try drugs. I just point out what they don't know about drugs, and what can happen to them if they use them."

What happened in the '60s?

"It was a revolution."

Who won?

He points a finger at the questioner.

"You lost. But you changed some things forever."

SIXTY-NINE years old.

Obviously: Vigorous. Healthy. Approachable.

Interestingly: Egotistical. ("I can't think of S anyone who has the kind of credibility I do.") Cynical. ("Know more than you show. You have to have 100 horsepower under your hood, even if you only use 20.") Canny. ("I asked questions that I knew were open to possible dynamite, like 'What do your parents do for fun?' ") But engagingly so. Charmingly so. The way only people who have gone the distance can be charming. Because they seem too powerful to be hurt, and too secure to care.

Honestly, if it came down to one question, one question for Art Linkletter. What else would it be but -- Art Linkletter, what animal would you like to be?

Big laugh.

"You know one of the funniest things ever on the show came when I asked a boy that, and he said, 'I'd like to be an octopus.' An octopus? Why would you want to be an octopus? 'There are a lot of bad boys in my class, and if I was an octopus, I could grab them with my testicles and hit them.' "

FYI: Art Linkletter wants to be an eagle.

"Proud. Free. Independent."