Talk show host Larry King was an American writer, journalist and broadcaster best known for hosting the nightly interview program on CNN called Larry King Live, one of the longest running talk shows on American television.
King was born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jennie (née Gitlitz), a garment worker, and Edward Zeiger, a restaurant owner and defence plant worker. He was raised in a "very cultural Jewish" family.
His father died at 44 of a heart attack when King was nine, and his mother had to go on relief to support Larry and his younger brother. His father's death affected King greatly, and King lost interest in school, ruining his chances to go to college.
After graduating from high school, he worked to help support his mother. In his 20s, King worked as a UPS delivery boy and it seemed his dream of a job in radio wouldn't occur.
A CBS staff announcer, who King met by chance, told him to go to Florida where there was a growing media market and where there were openings for less experienced radio personalities. King rode a bus to Miami.
After initial setbacks, King got his first job in radio through persistence. A small station, WIOD in Miami Beach, hired him to clean up and perform miscellaneous tasks. When one of their announcers quit, they put him on the air.
His first broadcast was on May 1, 1957, when he worked as the disc jockey from 9am to noon. He also did two afternoon newscasts and a sportscast. He was paid $55 a week.
He acquired the name Larry King when the general manager said that Zeiger was too ethnic and hard to remember, and instead suggested the surname King, which he got from an ad in The Miami Herald for King's Wholesale Liquor.
He started interviewing on a midmorning show for WIOD, at Pumpernik's restaurant in Miami Beach. He would interview anyone who walked in. His first interview was with a waitress at the restaurant.
Two days later, singer Bobby Darin, in Miami for a concert later that day, walked into Pumpernick's as a result of coming across King's show on his radio; Darin became King's first celebrity interview guest.
His Miami radio show launched him to local stardom. A few years later, in May 1960, he hosted Miami Undercover, airing Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m. on WPST-TV channel 10 (now WPLG).
On the show he moderated debates on important issues of the time. WIOD gave King further exposure as the color commentator for the Miami Dolphins' broadcasts during the Miami Dolphins perfect season of 1972.
Legal and Financial Troubles
In the early 1970s, he was entangled in legal and financial troubles. He was arrested on December 20, 1971 and charged with grand larceny. The charges stemmed from a deal he had made with Louis Wolfson, who had been convicted of selling unregistered stock in 1968.
The circumstances of what occurred between the two are unclear. According to King, he told Wolfson that he could arrange a special investigation by John Mitchell, the incoming US Attorney General, to overturn the conviction. Wolfson agreed, and paid King $48,000. King never delivered, and could not pay back the money.
When Wolfson was released from prison, he went after King. According to Wolfson, King served as an intermediary between Wolfson and New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. Garrison was investigating the assassination of President Kennedy, but needed to raise funds for the investigation.
Wolfson offered to pay $25,000 to help fund the investigation. The arrangement was that Wolfson gave Larry King cash (about $5,000 per visit). King was supposed to give this to Richard Gerstein, the State Attorney for Dade County, Florida. Gerstein was to transfer the money to Garrison.
This took place over a year or two. Wolfson eventually found that not all the money he gave to King made it to Garrison. The larceny charge was dropped because the statute of limitations had run out. But King pled no contest to one of 14 charges of passing bad cheques.
As a result of these troubles, he was off the air for three years. During those three years he worked several jobs. He was the PR director at Louisiana Downs, a race track in Louisiana and he wrote some articles for Esquire Magazine, including a major piece on New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath.
Comeback to Radio and TV
King managed to get back into radio by becoming the colour commentator for broadcasts of the Shreveport Steamer of the World Football League on KWKH. Eventually, King was rehired by WIOD in Miami.
In 1978 he went national, inheriting the nightly talk show slot on the Mutual Radio Network, broadcast coast-to-coast, that had been "Long John" Nebel's until his death, and had been pioneered by Herb Jepko.
One reason King got the Mutual job is because he had once been an announcer at WGMA-AM in Hollywood, Florida which was then owned by C. Edward Little. Little went on to become president of Mutual and was the one who hired King when Nebel died.
King's Mutual show developed a devoted audience, paving the way for the likes of Art Bell and King's weekend relief host Jim Bohannon, among many, many others.
It was broadcast live Monday through Friday from Midnight to 5:30am eastern time. Larry would interview a guest for the first 90 minutes, allowing callers to continue the interview for another 90.
At 3am, Larry would allow the callers to discuss any topic they pleased with him, until the end of the program, where he expressed his own political opinions. They called that segment "Open Phone America".
Some of the regular callers included "The Portland Laugher", "The Miami Derelict", "The Todd Cruz Caller", "The Scandal Scooper", and "The Water is Warm Caller".
The show was wildly successful as a loss leader, starting with relatively few affiliates and eventually growing to more than 500. It ran until 1994.
For its final year, the show was moved to afternoons but, because most talk radio stations at the time had an established policy of local origination at the time (3 to 6 P.M. Eastern Time) that Mutual offered the show, a very low percentage of King's overnight affiliates agreed to carry his daytime show and it was unable to generate the same audience size.
The afternoon show was eventually given to David Brenner and radio affiliates were given the option of carrying the audio of King's CNN evening program.
He started his CNN show in June 1987. On the Larry King Live show, King hosted guests from a broad range of topics. This included controversial figures of UFO conspiracy theories and alleged psychics. One notable guest was Sylvia Browne, who in 2005 told Newsweek Larry King, a believer in the paranormal, asked her to do private psychic readings.
Unlike many interviewers, Larry King had a direct, non-confrontational approach. His interview style was characteristically frank and no-nonsense, but with occasional bursts of irreverence and humour. His approach attracted some guests who would not otherwise appear.
King, who was known for his lack of pre-interview preparation, once bragged that he never pre-read the books of authors who appeared on his show. In a show dedicated to the surviving Beatles, for example, Larry asked George Harrison's widow about the song "Something" which was written about George Harrison's first wife. He seemed surprised when she did not know very much about the song.
Throughout his career he interviewed many of the leading figures of his time. In all, CNN claims that he conducted more than 40,000 interviews over the course of his career.
1987 Heart Attack
On February 27, 1987, King suffered a major heart attack and then had quintuple-bypass surgery. Coincidentally, this occurred the day after Larry King took over the Don and Mike Show. It was a life-altering event.
Previously smoking was one of his trademarks and he was not apologetic about this habit. King was a three-pack-a-day smoker and kept a lit cigarette during his interview so he would not have to take time to light up during breaks. He went on to encourage curbing smoking to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
King wrote two books about living with heart disease. "Mr. King, You're Having a Heart Attack: How a heart attack and bypass surgery changed my life" was written with New York's Newsday science editor, B. D. Colen.
"Taking on Heart Disease: Famous Personalities Recall How They Triumphed Over the Nation's #1 Killer and How You Can, Too" features the experience of various celebrities with cardiovascular disease including Peggy Fleming and Regis Philbin.
Court TV Life
Larry started his career at Court TV in 1991. He co-hosted "King & Chung Nightly" and worked as a senior correspondent for the network until 1992. Since leaving, he's retained the title "Court TV contributor."
He currently provides commentary on trials on Court TV program "Banfield & Ford: CourtSide".
As result of heart attacks, he established the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, an organisation to which David Letterman, through his American Foundation for Courtesy and Grooming, also contributed.
King gave $1-million to George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs for scholarships to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
On September 3, 2005, King aired, "How You Can Help," a three-hour special designed to provide a forum and information clearinghouse for viewers to understand and join nationwide and global relief efforts. This was following the devastation to the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina.
Guest Richard Simmons, a native of New Orleans, told him, "Larry, you don't even know how much money you raised tonight. When we rebuild the city of New Orleans, we're going to name something big after you."
On September 10, 1990, while on The Joan Rivers Show, Rivers asked King which contestant in the pageant was "the ugliest." King responded, "Miss Pennsylvania. She was one of the 10 finalists and she did a great ventriloquist bit [...] The dummy was prettier."
King was a judge for the September 8, 1990 pageant. King later sent Miss Pennsylvania, Marla Wynne, a dozen long-stemmed roses and a telegram apologising for saying she was the ugliest contestant in the Miss America Pageant that year.
On September 23, 2004, John Clark sued King and CNN after an interview with his ex-wife, Lynn Redgrave, aired. Clark argued that he was defamed by the banner statements scrolling at the bottom of the screen, and that the pre-taped show did not allow him to appear to defend himself.
The court would not allow the suit to proceed ruling that he was not defamed. Two years later, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, dismissed his appeal.
King received many broadcasting awards. He won the Peabody Award for Excellence in broadcasting for both his radio (1982) and television (1992) shows. He has also won 10 CableACE awards for Best Interviewer and for best Talk Show Series.
In 1989, King was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. In 2002, the industry magazine Talkers named King both the fourth-greatest radio talk show host of all time and the top television talk show host of all time. King was the only person to place in the top ten on both lists.
King is an honorary member of the Rotary Club of Beverly Hills. He is also a recipient of the President's Award honoring his impact on media from the Los Angeles Press Club in 2006.
King is the first recipient of the Arizona State University Hugh Downs Award for Communication Excellence, presented April 11, 2007, via satellite by Downs himself.
Downs, the highly respected broadcaster and TV host, sported red suspenders for the event and turned the tables on King by asking “very tough questions” about King’s best, worst, most emotional and most influential interviews during King’s 50 years in broadcasting.
The award is sponsored by the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University.
King was married eight times, to seven different women:
Shawn Southwick (September 5, 1997 to 2019)
Julie Alexander (7 October 1989 - 1992)
Sharon Lepore (1976 - 1984)
Alene Akins, former Playboy bunny (1967 - 1972 and 1961 - 1963)
Mickey Sutphin (1963 - 1967)
Annette Kay (1961 - 1961)
Freda Miller (married right after high school graduation, 1952)
He also had relationships with Angie Dickinson (c. 1983 to c. 1988); Deanna Lund (1996-?) and Rama Fox (1992-1995).
He had another son, Larry King, Jr. (b. 1962), whose mother was not married to King.
Larry died on Saturday 23 January after being hospitalised for Covid-19 towards the end of 2020. He was 87.