By Bayo Akinloye
“There’ll never be another broadcaster like Larry King!”
On January 23, 2021, the world awoke to a tweet from Larry King’s Twitter account. It wasn’t his last tweet. It wasn’t his tweet either. His last tweet on the social media platform was dated November 27, 2020. Bespectacled, frail-looking, King ruled the universe of live talk shows with his simplicity, ingenuity, and humility. He set new standards for journalists in the art of interviewing. On Saturday, the man died. Earlier this year, two of King’s children, son Andy and daughter Chaia, died within weeks of each other.
“With profound sadness, Ora Media announces the death of our co-founder, host, and friend Larry King, who passed away this morning (Saturday) at age 87 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles,” the January 23 tweet revealed.
The veteran talk show host tested positive to COVID-19 and was moved to the intensive care unit on New Year’s Eve and was receiving oxygen. After showing signs of recovery, he was moved out of the ICU at a Los Angeles hospital and was breathing on his own and to prove that the 87-year-old broadcasting legend shared a video phone call with his three sons. He won the war but not the battle. In the past, King had bravely faced a heart attack that required quintuple-bypass surgery, and in 2017 he underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumour in his lung.
For 63 years and across the platforms of radio, television, and digital media, Larry’s many thousands of interviews, awards, and global acclaim stand as a testament to his unique and lasting talent as a broadcaster. While it was his name appearing in the shows’ titles, Larry always viewed his interview subjects as the true stars of his programmes, and himself as merely “an unbiased conduit” between the guest and audience.
Whether he was interviewing a US president, foreign leader, celebrity, scandal-ridden personage, or an everyman, Larry liked to ask short, direct, and uncomplicated questions. He believed concise questions usually provided the best answers, and he was not wrong in that belief. His interviews from his 25-year run on CNN’s ‘Larry King Live,’ and his Ora Media programmes ‘Larry King Now,’ and ‘Politicking with Larry King’ are consistently referenced by media outlets around the world and remain part of the historical record of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Born November 19, 1933, King was recognized with awards including two Peabodys, an Emmy award, and 10 Cable ACE Awards. He began his career as a local Florida journalist and radio interviewer in the 1950s and 1960s and gained prominence beginning in 1978 as host of The Larry King Show, an all-night nationwide call-in radio programme heard on the Mutual Broadcasting System. From 1985 to 2010, he hosted the nightly interview television programme, Larry King Live, on CNN. From 2012 until 2020, he hosted Larry King Now on Hulu and RT America. He continued to host Politicking with Larry King, a weekly political talk show which has aired weekly on the same two channels from 2013 until his death.
But life was not always rosy for King.
A Zeiger Became a King
Born in Brooklyn, New York, he was one of two children of Jennie (Gitlitz), a garment worker who was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Aaron Zeiger, a restaurant owner and defence-plant worker who was born in Kolomyia, Austria-Hungary. He attended Lafayette High School, a public high school in Brooklyn. Then, his father died at 44 died of a heart attack (King himself would later suffer at least one heart attack) which resulted in his mother, brother, and himself being supported by welfare. King was “greatly affected” by his father’s death, and was reported to have lost interest in school. He briefly attended a course in Shipping Management at the New York City College of Technology but dropped out after less than a year. After graduating from high school, Larry worked to help support his mother.
A Kingly Career
From an early age, he desired to work in radio broadcasting. That dream did come true but not on a silver platter. A chance meeting with a CBS staff announcer was all that King needed to announce his arrival to the world. The announcer suggested to King to go to Florida which was a growing media market with openings for inexperienced broadcasters. King listened and stepped into Miami. After initial setbacks, he gained his first job in radio. The manager of a small station, WAHR (WMBM) in Miami Beach, hired him to clean up and perform miscellaneous tasks. When one of the station’s announcers abruptly quit, King was put on the air. His first broadcast was on May 1, 1957, working as the disc jockey from 9 am to noon. He also did two-afternoon newscasts and a sportscast. He was paid $50 a week.
He acquired the name Larry King (he was born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger) when the general manager, Marshall Simmonds, claimed that Zeiger was too ethnic and difficult to remember, so minutes before airtime, Larry chose the surname King, which he got from an advertisement in the Miami Herald for King’s Wholesale Liquor. Within two years, he legally changed his name to Larry King.
King’s Miami radio show brought him local attention. A few years later, in May 1960, he hosted Miami Undercover, airing Sunday nights at 11:30 pm on WPST-TV Channel 10 (WPLG). On the show, he moderated debates on important local issues of the day. During this period, WIOD gave King further exposure as a “colour commentator” for the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League, during their 1970 season and most of their 1971 season.
On January 30, 1978, King went national on a nightly Mutual Broadcasting System coast-to-coast broadcast, inheriting the talk show slot that had begun with Herb Jepko in 1975, then followed by “Long John” Nebel in 1977, until his illness and death the following year. King’s Mutual show rapidly developed a devoted audience.
Then, the train moved to Cable News Television. The Larry King Live CNN show began in June 1985 in which King hosted a broad range of guests from controversial figures of UFO conspiracy theories and psychics, to prominent politicians and leading figures in the entertainment industry, often doing their first or only interview on breaking news stories on his show. After doing his CNN show from 9 to 10 pm, King then travelled to the studios of the Mutual Broadcasting System to do his radio show, when both shows still aired.
Unlike many interviewers, King has a direct, non-confrontational approach. His reputation for asking easy, open-ended questions has made him attractive to important figures who want to state their position while avoiding being challenged on contentious topics. King had said when interviewing authors, he did not read their books in advance, so that he would not know more than his audience. Throughout his career, King interviewed many of the leading figures of his time. According to CNN, King conducted over 30,000 interviews in his career.
He also wrote a regular newspaper column in USA Today for almost 20 years, from shortly after that first national newspaper’s debut in Baltimore-Washington in 1982 until September 2001. The column consisted of short “plugs, superlatives and dropped names” but was dropped when the newspaper redesigned its Life section. The column was resurrected in blog form in November 2008 and on Twitter in April 2009.
On June 29, 2010, King stepped down from his nightly job hosting Larry King Live.
In March 2012, King co-founded Ora TV, a production company, with Mexican business magnate, Carlos Slim. On January 16, 2013, Ora TV celebrated their 100th episode of Larry King Now. In September 2017, King stated that he had no intention of ever retiring and expected to host his programme until he died. That happened this January.
Ora TV signed a multi-year deal with Hulu to exclusively carry King’s new talk-oriented web series, Larry King Now, beginning July 17. On October 23, 2012, King hosted the third-party presidential debate on Ora TV, featuring Jill Stein, Rocky Anderson, Virgil Goode, and Gary Johnson. In May 2013, the Russian-owned RT America network announced that they struck a deal with Ora TV to host the Larry King Now show on its network. When criticized for doing business with a Russian-owned TV network in 2014, King responded, “I don’t work for RT,” commenting that his podcasts, Larry King Now and Politicking, are licensed for a fee to RT America by New York-based Ora TV.
“It’s a deal made between the companies … They just license our shows. If they took something out, I would never do it. It would be bad if they tried to edit out things. I wouldn’t put up with it.”
On his art of interviewing, King noted in a Television Academy interview: “An interview is an interview. It’s basically who, what, where, when, and why. And while it is certainly kind of an exalted place to sit with the Prime Minister of Great Britain or the president of a country, it’s still… ‘why do you do what you do? How do you feel about what you do? What do you think about what’s happening in the world?’ It comes down to an interviewer is an interviewer.
“I never sat down with a president of the United States or a world leader or head of a country and thought, ‘whew, this is the head of a country — I have to be different!’ I’m still every man. What would a guy in the street say to Chirac of France if you had a chance to talk to him?”
On His Love Life
King married eight times. He married high-school sweetheart, Freda Miller, in 1952 at age 19 but the union ended the following year at the behest of their parents, who reportedly had the marriage annulled. King was later briefly married to Annette Kaye, who gave birth to his son, Larry Jr., in November 1961. King did not meet Larry Jr. until the latter was in his thirties.
In 1961, King married his third wife, Alene Akins, a Playboy Bunny, at one of the magazine’s eponymous nightclubs. King adopted Akins’ son Andy in 1962. The following year, the couple divorced. In 1963, he married his fourth wife, Mary Francis ‘Mickey’ Stuphin, who divorced King. He remarried Akins, with whom he had a second child, Chaia, in 1969. The couple divorced a second time in 1972. In 1997, Dove Books published a book written by King and Chaia, ‘Daddy Day, Daughter Day.’ Aimed at young children, the book tells each of their accounts of his divorce from Akins.
On September 25, 1976, King married his fifth wife, mathematics teacher, and production assistant, Sharon Lepore. The couple divorced in 1983. King met businesswoman Julie Alexander in 1989 and proposed to her on the couple’s first date on August 1, 1989. Alexander became King’s sixth wife on October 7, 1989, when the two were married in Washington, D.C. The couple lived in different cities, however, with Alexander in Philadelphia, and King in Washington, D.C., where he worked. They separated in 1990 and divorced in 1992. He became engaged to actress Deanna Lund in 1995, after five weeks of dating, but they remained unmarried.
On His Death
In July 2009 and again on February 2014, King appeared on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien and on Conan respectively, where he told O’Brien about his wishes to be cryonically preserved upon death, as he had revealed in his book, My Remarkable Journey. In December 2011, preceding a CNN Special on the topic, the Kings had a special dinner with friends Conan O’Brien, Tyra Banks, Shaquille O’Neal, Seth MacFarlane, Jack Dorsey, Quincy Jones, and Russell Brand where his intent to do so was reiterated, among other topics that were discussed.
King had stated that his interest in cryonics was partly due to not believing in an afterlife or a higher power. King asserted he was an atheist, and that he doubted religious claims, in part because of human suffering from natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. When asked what he would like his legacy to be, King, referring to himself, said, “His life led to more people having information that they didn’t have before, and he taught us a lot and we learned a lot and enjoyed it at the same time. He brought a great deal of pride to his business.”
King battled other health problems over the years, including prostate cancer and type-two diabetes. In 1987, he suffered a heart attack that required quintuple-bypass surgery, and in 2017 he underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumour in his lung. King, who was married eight times, also had a long history of health issues, including his first heart attack in 1987. In April 2019, TMZ reported that King suffered a heart attack prior while preparing to visit the hospital for a previously scheduled angiogram. After arriving via ambulance, doctors reportedly performed an angioplasty to repair a collapsed artery.
––Bayo Akinloye, Alumnus, International Visitor Leadership Programme, United States
Fellow, Thomson Reuters Foundation, United Kingdom.