CNN highest rating anchor was master of ‘infotainment’
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 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!” “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 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?”
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.”
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.
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. 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 such as 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, such as 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 such as MSNBC’s liberal Rachel Maddow and Fox’s conservative Sean Hannity. By 2010, King’s audience had fallen to a fraction of what it had been in 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 called Larry King Now. But it was hardly the same.
Larry King was born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger in Brooklyn on November 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.
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, Lawrence, 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. He graduated from Lafayette High School in 1951 with barely passing grades.
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 9am-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.“
“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.
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 $5000 and lost his broadcasting and newspaper jobs. The charges were dropped in 1972. But with his reputation damaged, he could not find work.
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.
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.
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 December 16, 2010, he assembled a galaxy of stars, including then-president Barack Obama on a recording, to pay tribute to the King.
The New York Times