Larry King, the braces-athletic every man whose broadcast interviews with world leaders, movie stars and regular Joes helped define American conversation for half a century, died on Saturday. He was 87.
King died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Ora Media, the studio and the network he co-founded, tweeted. No cause of death was reported, but CNN had previously reported that he was in hospital with COVID-19.
A long-time nationally syndicated radio host, from 1985 to 2010, he was a nightly fixture on CNN, where he won many awards, including two Peabody Awards.
With his celebrity interviews, political debates and current discussions, King was not just an enduring personality on the air. He also distinguished himself with the curiosity he brought to every interview, whether he questioned the victim of the attack, known as the “Central Park Jogger” or billionaire industrialist Ross Perot, who in 1992 shook the presidential race by announcing his candidacy on King’s show.
In the early years, “Larry King Live” was based in Washington, DC, which gave the show a sense of gravity. Likewise king. He was the clear number between which Beltway bigwigs could reach their audience, and they did, earning the show’s prestige as a place where things happened, where news was made.
King conducted an estimated 50,000 on-air interviews. In 1995, he led a peace summit in the Middle East with PLO President Yasser Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He welcomed everyone from the Dalai Lama to Elizabeth Taylor, from Mikhail Gorbachev to Barack Obama, Bill Gates to Lady Gaga.
Especially after he moved to Los Angeles, his program was often thick with celebrity news, including Paris Hilton talking about her stay in prison in 2007 and Michael Jackson’s friends and family members talking about his death in 2009.
King boasted of never preparing for an interview. His non-confrontational style relaxed his guests and made him easy to understand for his audience.
“I do not pretend to know everything,” he said in an Associated Press interview in 1995. “No,” How about Geneva or Cuba? “I ask,” Mr. President, what do you not think of this job? ‘Or’ What’s the biggest mistake you made? ‘It’s fascinating. “
At a time when CNN, as the sole player in cable news, was considered politically neutral, and King was at the heart of it, politicians and people at the center of controversy would seek out his show.
And he was known for having guests who were notoriously elusive. Frank Sinatra, who rarely gave interviews and often attacked reporters, spoke with King in 1988 in what would be the singer’s last major TV appearance. Sinatra was an old friend of King and acted accordingly.
“Why are you here?” King asks. Sinatra replies, “Because you asked me to come and I had not seen you for a long time to begin with, I thought we should meet and talk, just talk about many things.”
King had never met Marlon Brando, who was even tougher to get and tougher to interview, when the acting giant asked to be on King’s show in 1994. The two hit it off so famously that they ended their 90-minute talk with a song and an on-the-mouth kiss, a picture that was all over the media in the following weeks.
The “regular-guy” method was dated
After a gala week on the occasion of his 25th birthday in June 2010, King suddenly announced that he was leaving his show and told viewers, “It’s time to put on my braces every night.” Named as his successor in the time slot: British journalist and TV personality Piers Morgan.
Upon King’s departure in December, suspicion grew that he had waited a little too long to hang up these braces. Once a leader in cable TV news, he ranked third in his time slot with less than half the nightly audience during his peak year, 1998, when “Larry King Live” drew 1.64 million viewers.
His extensive, regular guy when it comes to interviews then felt dated in an era of pointed, intrusive or charged interrogations of other hosts.
Meanwhile, occasional flubs had made him seem out of touch, or worse. A good example from 2007 found that King asked Jerry Seinfeld if he had voluntarily left his sitcom or been interrupted by his network, NBC.
“I was the TV series’ number 1, Larry,” Seinfeld replied with a happy look. “Do you know who I am?”
Always a workaholic, King would be back with special offers for CNN within a few months of performing his nightly duties.
He found a new type of celebrity as a regular speaker on Twitter when the platform emerged and won over 2 million followers who at the same time mocked and loved him for his esoteric style.
“I’ve never been in a canoe. # Itsmy2cents, he said in a typical 2015 tweet.
His Twitter account was essentially a revival of a USA Today column that he wrote for two decades full of one-time thoughts. Norm Macdonald delivered a parody version of the column when he played King on “Saturday Night Live,” with deadpan lines such as “The more I think about it, the more I appreciate the equator.”
King was constantly parodied, often by age jokes on late night talk shows from hosts including David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, who often show up with the latter to get into the barbecue himself.
King came honestly questioned but without frills.
He was born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger in 1933, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who ran a bar and grill in Brooklyn. But after his father’s death when Larry was a boy, he met a troubled, sometimes poor youth.
A fan of such radio stars as Arthur Godfrey and the comedians Bob & Ray, when they reach adulthood, King set his sights on a broadcasting career. With the word that Miami was a good place to break into, he went south in 1957 and landed a job sweeping the floor of a small AM station. When a DJ suddenly stopped, King was released into the air – and got his new last name by the stationmaster, who thought Zeiger was “too Jewish.”
A year later, he moved to a larger station, where his duties were extended from the usual pattern to hosting a daily interview program broadcast from a local restaurant. He quickly proved just as skilled at talking to the waitresses and celebrities who began to pass by.
In the early 1960s, King had gone to an even larger Miami station, got a newspaper column and become a local celebrity himself.
At the same time, he became a victim of living big.
“It was important for me to come across as a ‘great man,'” he wrote in his autobiography, which meant “I made a lot of money and spread it lavishly.”
He accumulated debts and his first broken marriage (he married seven times seven women). He gambled, borrowed wildly and failed to pay his taxes. He also became involved with a shadowy financier in a system to bankroll an investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination. But when King skimmed some of the cash to pay his late tax, his partner sued him for large-scale bottling in 1971. The charges were dropped, but King’s reputation seemed ruined.
King lost his radio program and struggled for years to find work. But in 1975, the scandal had largely run out and a Miami station gave him another chance. After regaining its local popularity, King was signed in 1978 to host the radio’s first nationwide call-in show.
Originally from Washington on the Mutual Network, “The Larry King Show” was eventually heard on more than 300 stations, making King a national phenomenon.
A few years later, CNN founder Ted Turner King offered a slot on his young network. “Larry King Live” debuted on June 1, 1985 and became CNN’s highest rated program. King’s start at $ 100,000 a year eventually grew to more than $ 7 million.
Covid-19 hospital stay
A cigarette habit with three packs a day led to a heart attack in 1987, but King’s fivefold bypass surgery did not slow him down.
Meanwhile, he went on to prove that, in his words, “I’m not good at marriage, but I’m a good boyfriend.”
He was only 18 when he married his girlfriend Freda Miller in 1952. The marriage lasted less than a year. In the following decades, he would marry Annette Kay, Alene Akins (twice), Mickey Sutfin, Sharon Lepore and Julie Alexander.
In 1997, he married Shawn Southwick, a country singer and actress 26 years younger. They would file for divorce in 2010, cancel the application and then file for divorce again in 2019.
The couple had two sons, King’s fourth and fifth children, Chance Armstrong, born in 1999, and Cannon Edward, born in 2000. In 2020, King lost his two oldest children, Andy King and Chaia King, who died of unrelated health problems within weeks of each other.
He had many other medical problems in recent decades, including more heart attacks and diagnoses of type 2 diabetes and lung cancer.
In early 2021, CNN reported that King was in the hospital for more than a week with COVID-19.
Through his setbacks, he continued to work into the late ’80s, taking on online talk shows and infomercials as his appearances on CNN dwindled.
“Work,” King once said. “That’s the easiest thing I do.”