His 9 p.m. show “Larry King Live” ran from 1985 to 2010 on CNN. For many years, the inquisitive man with his signature suspenders and hunched shoulders hosted CNN’s top-rated show and over the years, he and CNN founder Ted Turner became close friends.
His long-running USA Today column, with its random thoughts and observations separated by ellipses, was a precursor to a Twitter feed.
Over the decades, King interviewed hundreds of celebrities, newsmakers and politicians from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Patty Hearst to Marlon Brando and Paul McCartney. He estimated he had gabbed with more than 50,000 people, enough to fill a large stadium. He hosted 6,120 shows for the Atlanta-based cable network, with identical studios set up in Los Angeles, New York and Washington depending on where he was at any given time. He lived in Beverly Hills in his later years.
CNN released a statement Saturday morning honoring King, praising his “generosity of spirit that drew the world to him. We are so proud of the 25 years he spent with CNN... From our CNN family to Larry’s, we send our thoughts and prayers, and a promise to carry on his curiosity for the world in our work.”
While many fellow journalists found his interviewing approach too soft, he had plenty of defenders.
“Larry asked the questions that viewers wanted asked,” said Tom Johnson, president of CNN from 1990 to 2001. “All politicians enjoyed being booked on his show. He could handle breaking news flawlessly. ... If Larry had any enemies, I never met them.”
Wendy Walker, King’s producer from 1993 to 2010, was taken aback when she first interviewed with him and he proclaimed he was an “infotainer.” But she quickly learned what he meant. “You can do any subject as long as it’s entertaining,” she said. “He was a huge part of that ingredient. He was entertaining. And super super smart. He read newspapers all day long. He had a great memory and remembered things historically.”
Frank Sesno, who joined CNN as its D.C. executive editor in 1984 and would often sub in for King on his show. said King’s interview approach would often relax his subjects in such a way that they would often reveal more than they otherwise would.
“His questions created a story,” Sesno said. “Larry was a storyteller with his interviews. It’s an art. It needs a beginning, middle and ending. He would open with these big, open-ended unchallenging questions. Then there would be a suspenseful, tension-filled middle that then needs a resolution. He could do that with a president or an author or a parent who lost a child.”
King took pride doing minimal prep for his interviews, the opposite of how most journalists approach that part of their job.
“It’s more fun that way,” King said in an interview in 2009 with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to promote his memoir “My Remarkable Journey.” “It’s how I started interviewing people when I was young and it worked for me. It would drive me nuts preparing so much. I ask short questions. I hate people who show off and talk about themselves all the time and use the guest as as prop.”
Sesno said King, besides being a great questioner, “was a fabulous raconteur. He had a little of that Borscht Belt comedian in him.”
King also put his radio background to good use by taking callers, always citing their name and city. “He was doing audience engagement long before Twitter and Facebook,” Sesno said. “His audience became part of his program.”
Over time, his style of show went out of style as more personality-based, politically oriented shows hosted by the likes of Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity on rival networks found traction. But even as his ratings waned, King said he was not a fan of his direct rivals.
“I don’t like it when the host counts more than the guest,” he said. “I tend not to watch them and not because of ideology. My show is about the guest.”
King was born Nov. 19, 1933, as Lawrence Harvey Zeiger in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in a working-class, immigrant, Jewish family. He fell in love with radio as a child and would imitate radio announcers in school. His nickname? “Larry the Mouthpiece.”
But after his father died when he was 9, he focused more on his family. As a young adult, he worked at a hat factory, delivered packages for UPS, and sold Borden Milk. But the radio siren called and he found a gig in Miami. The general manager thought his last name Ziegler was too “ethnic” so his new employee chose King from an ad in a newspaper for a King’s Wholesale Liquor.
King over the years built a reputation in Miami as a great interviewer, landing extra gigs on TV and the newspaper as well. But he was terrible with his finances, got caught up in a stock market manipulation scheme and was arrested for larceny. Though the charges were later dropped, he disappeared from the airwaves for several years Eventually, he was able to get back on the radio and would become one of the first nationally syndicated talk show hosts, paving the way for the likes of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh.
Credit: MICHAEL TWEED
Credit: MICHAEL TWEED
In 1985, Turner was seeking a prime-time host and liked King’s radio style and thought it would translate well on his news network. It did and King’s long-form interview show became a go-to place for celebrities promoting their latest project, politicians announcing presidential runs or anyone seeking to clean up a messy scandal. CNN’s international reach turned King into a recognizable figure worldwide.
“There was a time when everyone wanted to be on Larry King,” Sesno said.
King himself was no stranger to the gossip pages. He married eight times to seven different women and has three surviving sons, Chance, Cannon and Larry King Jr. Two others children died in 2020.
“I’ve only been in love three times in my life,” King said to the AJC in 2009. “Why I got married more times than that, I don’t have a clear answer. … But I don’t regret it. I don’t owe any previous wife anything. I’m friendly with them. Sometimes I question people who are married 50 years. How much compromise had they done? How much did they have to give up? Marriage is very difficult, a hard job.”
He admitted to being obsessed with death and would read the obituaries in the newspaper as part of his morning ritual according to a profile in The New York Times in 2015. One of his favorite questions to ask interview subjects was “What do you think happens when we die?’