Larry King: A Name As Big As Those He Interviewed

Larry King: A Name As Big As Those He Interviewed

“A great interviewer and a great listener … are not the same thing,” Bette Midler, one of the biggest pop artists and comedians of the 80s and 90s, said of Larry King.   “He always made me feel as though I were the only person in the room.”

Like Midler’s soulful Wind Beneath My Wings, King lifted the spirits of presidents and psychics and movie stars and malefactors — or just about anyone who had a story to tell or a pitch to make — during his half-century as radio and television anchor.

Of those 50 years, half of them were at CNN, the network that almost became synonymous with King, when he anchored between 1985 and 2010 the channel’s highest-rated, longest-running prime-time program that reached millions across America and around the world.

Ted Turner, founder of CNN, puts it profoundly: “If anyone asked me what are my greatest career achievements in life, one is the creation of CNN, and the other is hiring Larry King.”

CNN was only five years old when Turner recruited King to join the network and host a nightly interview program.

“Larry was one of my closest and dearest friends and, in my opinion, the world’s greatest broadcast journalist of all time,” adds Turner. “Like so many who worked with and knew Larry, he was a consummate professional, an amazing mentor to many and a good friend to all.” 

CNN’s president Jeff Zucker chips in: “His curiosity about the world propelled his award-winning career in broadcasting, but it was his generosity of spirit that drew the world to him.”

The world was indeed King’s stage. 

With the folksy personality of a Bensonhurst schmoozer, King interviewed an estimated 50,000 people of every imaginable persuasion and claim to fame — every president since Richard M. Nixon, world leaders, royalty, religious and business figures, crime and disaster victims, pundits, swindlers, “experts” on U.F.O.s and paranormal phenomena, and untold hosts of idiosyncratic and insomniac telephone callers.

“He had a great sense of humor and a genuine interest in people,” says former president Bill Clinton. “He gave a direct line to the American people and worked hard to get the truth for them, with questions that were direct but fair.”

But King was more than an interviewer. He was an entertainer.

He was also self-effacing and an easy target to poke fun at, particularly during his twilight years at CNN. The pinched look, guffaws and coke-bottle glasses, the suspenders and old-time microphone on the desk in front of him all made him look a grandpa who had stayed on too long at the game.

But talk to him, and he could take you places with his words, and you’d enjoy the journey. 

Those who had will be sorry he’s no more, as was the case with the multitudes who sent tributes his way after his death on Jan. 23, 2021, at the age of 87, of what seemed to be complications caused by the coronavirus.

Lawrence Harvey Zeiger — that’s his real name — was born on Nov. 19, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, as the second son to Edward and Jennie Gitlitz Zeiger, immigrants from Austria and Belarus. 

Devastated by his father’s death in 1943, King, a good student who had skipped the third grade, neglected studies and listened to the radio — Brooklyn Dodgers games, “The Lone Ranger,” “The Shadow” and Arthur Godfrey, whom he worshiped.

Finishing high school at Brooklyn’s Lafayette, he never went to college. Becoming a delivery boy instead to support his widowed mother, King pressed ahead with his love to work in broadcasting.

But for four years, nothing happened and he remained a deliverer and messenger. Then a CBS staffer advised him to try Florida, a growing market where radio openings existed.

At 23, King went to Miami and was hired by a small station, WAHR, to sweep floors and run errands. When a disc jockey suddenly quit, he was asked to take over the 9 a.m.-to-noon broadcast.

Minutes before airtime on May 1, 1957, at the station manager’s suggestion, the name Lawrence Zeiger was abandoned and Larry King (the surname taken from a liquor distributor’s advertisement) sat before a live microphone for the first time.

“I was petrified,” he told People magazine in 1980. “The theme music was supposed to fade, and I was supposed to do a voice-over. But every time the music faded I’d turn it back up again. Finally, the station manager stuck his head into the studio and said, ‘Remember, this is a communicating business.’ I let the music go down and told the audience what had just happened. Those were my first words on the radio.”

He also did two afternoon newscasts. He was good at it, and other stations noticed. In 1958, he joined WKAT and began a morning show at Pumpernik’s, a Miami Beach restaurant, interviewing patrons to boost the breakfast trade. His guests included Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Hoffa and Bobby Darin. Celebrities soon made a point of stopping in. Business boomed.

“I found I had an ability to draw people out in an interview,” King recalled in a 1982 memoir, “Larry King by Larry King.” Never knowing who would be interviewed or what would be said, he ad-libbed, and that became his shtick.

In the early 1960s, King did late-night radio interviews on WIOD, was a color commentator for Miami Dolphins football games, and dabbled in television with a talk show on WLBW and a weekend show on WTVJ. He later wrote columns for The Miami Herald and The Miami News. Ella Fitzgerald and Ed Sullivan befriended him. Jackie Gleason became his mentor and got him an interview with Frank Sinatra.

But as his career flourished, his problems multiplied. He spent lavishly on cars and clothes, lost heavily on horse races and fell behind in his taxes. Despite a large income, he plunged into debt. He declared bankruptcy in 1960. In 1971, he was charged with defrauding a former business partner of $5,000 and lost his broadcasting and newspaper jobs. The charges were dropped in 1972. But with his reputation damaged, he could not find work.

Over the next few years, he tried to rebuild his career with freelance writing and radio jobs on the West Coast and public relations work at a Louisiana racetrack. In the mid-’70s, after the fraud case had blown over, he was rehired by WIOD and as a Dolphins commentator and Miami News columnist. With $352,000 in debts, he declared bankruptcy for a second time in 1978.

That year was also a new beginning for King. He was hired by Mutual to succeed the recently deceased Long John Nebel as host of a weeknight coast-to-coast radio talkathon for night owls and early risers. “The Larry King Show,” featuring interviews and listener calls, drew a devoted national following, won a Peabody Award in 1982, eventually expanded to 500 affiliates and ran until 1994.

Turner put him on CNN in 1985, and his first guest was Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York. At the peak of his success, King was a media whirlwind. He produced (with various writers) several memoirs, two books on heart disease and volumes on many other subjects; appeared in dozens of movies and television shows; wrote columns for USA Today for two decades; and was showered with awards, honorary degrees and the adulation of fans.

King’s personal life itself was the stuff of supermarket tabloids — married eight times to seven women; a chronic gambler who declared bankruptcy twice; arrested on a fraud charge that derailed his career for years; and a bundle of contradictions who never quite got over his own success but gushed, star-struck, over other celebrities, exclaiming, “Great!” “Terrific!” “Gee whiz!”

Former President Bill Clinton with Larry King in 2007 on CNN Larry King Live (Associated Press)

Interestingly, King himself made no claim to being a journalist, although his show sometimes made news, as when Ross Perot announced his presidential candidacy there in 1992. And he was not confrontational; he rarely asked anyone, let alone a politician or policy maker, a tough or technical question, preferring gentle prods to get guests to say interesting things about themselves.

To former President Nixon: “When you drive by the Watergate, do you feel weird?”

To former President Ronald Reagan: “Is it, for you, frustrating to not remember something?”

To Donald J. Trump, when he was still best known as a real estate mogul: “Does it have to be buildings?”

King bragged that he almost never prepared for an interview. If his guest was an author promoting a book, he did not read it but asked simply, “What’s it about?” or “Why did you write this?”

Nor did he pose as an intellectual. He salted his talk with “ain’t,” and “the” sounded like “da.” To a public skeptical of experts, he seemed refreshingly average: just a curious guy asking questions impulsively.

“There are many broadcasters who’ll recite three minutes of facts before they ask a question,” he said in a memoir, “My Remarkable Journey” (2009, with Cal Fussman). “As if to say: Let me show you how much I know. I think the guest should be the expert.”

Politicians, crackpot inventors, conspiracy theorists and spiritual mediums loved his show, which let them reach huge audiences without facing challenging questions. King called it “infotainment,” and for millions across America and some 130 countries around the world, it was a delightful, if sometimes bizarre, hybrid of information and entertainment, delivered in prime time for an hour each weeknight.

Over the years, King had an appearance that barely changed. He was gaunt and bony, with a prominent nose, receding hair, thin lips and beady eyes behind oversize black-rimmed glasses. He was always raptor thin, a strict dieter since a 1987 heart attack and quintuple bypass surgery. In his trademark shirt sleeves and suspenders, he slouched in a chair on his elbows and peered over a desk at his guests. His voice, a raspy rumble, delivered bursts of irreverence and humor, but his questions were usually brief and friendly.

The topics were anything: politics, crime, religion, sports, business, news events like O.J. Simpson’s long-running 1995 murder trial, with its endless players and analysts. But he rarely plumbed subjects deeply, and he was accused by critics of pandering to the sensational, like the deaths of Anna Nicole Smith and Michael Jackson, by reminiscing with their confidants.

Mainstream journalists scoffed at his lean treatments and nice-guy techniques. But his audiences and sponsors were faithful.

The centerpiece of his career, “Larry King Live,” became television’s highest-rated talk show and CNN’s biggest success story. It won a Peabody in 1992, and for its last show, on Dec. 16, 2010, he assembled a galaxy of stars, including President Barack Obama on a recording, to pay tribute to King.

Off CNN, in 2012, King migrated to the internet with a show streamed by on Ora TV, Hulu and RT (a United States version of Russia Today). The show was called “Larry King Now.” 

When King was hospitalized on Jan. 2, 2021, a family friend told People magazine that the TV icon had overcome plenty before. “Larry has fought so many health issues in the last few years and he is fighting this one hard too, he’s a champ.”

That concurred with what King himself admitted a year earlier — that death no longer frightened him. “I have less of a fear of dying now,” he said in early 2020. ”I’m 86 and it is what it is. I just want to keep working until the end. I’d like to die at work — I’ll retire right there!”

In summation, King was as big name as the guests on his show. Rising from poverty and without college education, he became one of America’s most famous TV and radio personalities, a newspaper columnist, the author of numerous books and a performer in dozens of movies and television shows, mostly as himself.

* Adapted from tributes by New York Times, Washington Post and TheList

Larry King in 2013 with Craig Ferguson on Kathy Griffin’s show “Kathy.” (Bravo via New York Times)


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