Larry King, breezy interviewer of the famous and infamous, dies at 87

Larry King, who quizzed thousands of world leaders, politicians and entertainers for CNN and other news outlets in a career spanning more than six decades, has died aged 87, his media company said in a statement on Saturday.

Larry King, who shot the breeze with presidents and psychics, movie stars and malefactors — anyone with a story to tell or a pitch to make — in a half-century on radio and television, including 25 years as the host of CNN’s globally popular “Larry King Live,” died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 87.

Ora Media, which King co-founded in 2012, confirmed the death in a statement posted on King’s own Twitter account and said he had died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The statement did not specify a cause of death, but King had recently been treated for COVID-19. In 2019, he was hospitalised for chest pains and said he had also suffered a stroke.

A son of European immigrants who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and never went to college, King began as a local radio interviewer and sportscaster in Florida in the 1950s and ’60s, rose to prominence with an all-night coast-to-coast radio call-in show starting in 1978, and from 1985 to 2010 anchored CNN’s highest-rated, longest-running program, reaching millions across America and around the world.

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 Nixon, world leaders, royalty, religious and business figures, crime and disaster victims, pundits, swindlers, “experts” on UFOs and paranormal phenomena, and untold hosts of idiosyncratic and insomniac telephone callers.

King might have made a fascinating guest on his own show: the delivery boy who 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.

His personal life 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!” and “Gee whiz!”

He 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 policymaker, a tough or technical question, preferring gentle prods to get guests to say interesting things about themselves.

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

He 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 sceptical 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.”

Talk show host Larry King poses with his girlfreind, Shawn Southwick after King's star was unveiled May 8 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame along Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. May 8, 1997. REUTERS

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.

King lived in Beverly Hills, California, and his show was broadcast mainly from CNN’s Los Angeles studios but sometimes from New York or Washington, where he had been a radio interviewer for Mutual. As in his radio days, he took questions and comments from callers, who often had to be cut off for verbosity or for using obscenities.

King had what one writer called a face made for radio. It was gaunt and bony, with a prominent nose, receding hair, thin lips and beady eyes behind oversize black-rimmed glasses. He was 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 humour, 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.

After decades of success, however, “Larry King Live” began losing its high ratings and A-list bookings as many viewers turned to partisan voices like MSNBC’s liberal Rachel Maddow and Fox’s conservative Sean Hannity. By 2010, King’s audience had fallen to a fraction of his peak years. He stepped down in December, and CNN replaced him with “Piers Morgan Tonight.”

In 2012, King migrated to the internet with a show streamed by Ora.tv on Ora TV, Hulu and RT (a US version of Russia Today). The show was called “Larry King Now.” But it was hardly the same.

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, speaks to Larry King during an interview, Sarah Ferguson appeared on the Larry King Live programme on the CNN network in New York, Nov 20, 1997 REUTERS

Larry King was born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger in Brooklyn on Nov. 19, 1933, the second son of Edward and Jennie Gitlitz Zeiger, immigrants from Austria and Belarus. Their first son, Irwin, had died earlier. A younger brother, Martin, became a lawyer.

Larry King’s father ran a bar and grill but worked at a defence plant after World War II began. He died of a heart attack in 1943, and the family went on welfare until King’s mother found work as a seamstress in Manhattan’s garment district.

Devastated by his father’s death, 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 worshipped. He graduated from Lafayette High School in 1951 with barely passing grades.

His 1952 marriage to Frada Miller was quickly annulled. Later, he was briefly married to Annette Kaye; they had a son, Larry Jr., whom King did not know about until 33 years later. In 1961, he married Alene Akins, who had a son by a previous marriage, Andy, whom King adopted; they were divorced in 1963.

He and his fourth wife, Mickey Sutphin, were divorced in 1966 after having a daughter, Kelly, who was adopted by her subsequent husband. In 1967, he again married Akins; they had a daughter, Chaia, and were divorced in 1972. In 1976, he married Sharon Lepore; they were divorced.

His 1989 marriage to Julia Alexander also ended in divorce. In 1997, he married Shawn Southwick; they had two sons, Chance and Cannon.

Two of King’s children with Akins, Andy and Chaia, both died in 2020. In addition to his wife and their two sons, his survivors include another son, Larry Jr., and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

After high school he wanted to work in radio but was uncertain how to start. For four years, he was a deliverer and messenger. Then a CBS staffer advised him to try Florida, a growing market where radio openings existed.

At 23, he 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.

Billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump (R) talks with host Larry King after taping a segment of King's CNN talk show, in New York, US, Oct 7, 1999. REUTERS

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 he did late-night radio interviews on WIOD, was a colour 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.

Former President Bill Clinton (R) speaks with Larry King on CNN in New York, US, Sept 3, 2002, about the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund. REUTERS

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.

Ted Turner put him on CNN in 1985, and his first guest was Gov. Mario 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; had dozens of movie and television roles; wrote columns for USA Today for two decades; and was showered with awards, honorary degrees and the adulation of fans.

The centrepiece 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 the King.

 

©2021 The New York Times Company