Larry King Gets a Royal Send Off

3:27 AM PST 12/17/2010 by Alex Ben Block
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images

He tells The Hollywood Reporter he might just return as a standup comedian.

He was the king.

And Larry King got a royal send off Thursday evening first on the air, where his final CNN show was filled with friends like Regis Philbin and Donald Trump, celebrities, U.S. presidents and network news anchors; and then at Spago in Beverly Hills where the cream of his generation rose to the occasion, packing Wolfgang Puck's spacious restaurant, to toast not only the end of the Larry King Live program after a quarter century run, but also the end of an era in the rapidly evolving world of broadcast news.

"This is the end of a show, not the end of a man," declared Bill Maher, who along with Ryan Seacrest kept Larry company throughout the final one hour show.

But it was more than the end of a show; it was the end of an era.

King isn't leaving simply because he is 77 and wants to be there to take his two youngest sons to baseball practice more often. His ratings have slipped as the Fox news juggernaut has taken the world of cable news by storm, and MSNBC has shifted from news to commentary. That is why King is being replaced in January by Brit Piers Morgan, best known on this side of the Atlantic as a variety show judge. It is unlikely his show will be as simple as King's -- a series of long interviews, which allow the subject to speak their mind, and often for as long as they like without interruption.

That was the kind of civility King offered, and it attracted many people who were nervous about being interviewed. Barbara Walters made a half joking reference to the intense competition for "gets" in the news business -- getting interviews with top newsmakers and huge celebrities at key moments.

"You were my biggest competitor," said Walters. "I hate to see you go but a little part of me says, 'Oh terrific! Now I can get them.' Nobody has done them as well."

King did always insist on being fair to all sides, but it in his own unique way, to the chagrin of many in journalism. King's formula from his days as a talk show host on radio in Miami, through the years on the Mutual radio network and others; and to the end was to ask questions that the average guy would ask -- which gave him license not to prepare for interviews. He never read the book and rarely saw the movie before an interview. He did get some notes from his producers' and he was well informed about politics and history, but the reason many from stars to world leaders liked his show was that he wasn't going to confront them with a lot of carefully prepared research on tough subjects. Instead, King famously would let people off the hook, as he did with author James Frey in 2006 only days after it was revealed he had lied about the sourcing and accuracy of his bestseller, A Million Little Pieces, never addressing the mounting national scandal directly.

On the final show Seacrest declared "This is not Larry's funeral," and said that we don't know what will come next for Larry. To which Maher wisecracked, "Like any other show."

"That's true he doesn't want to know," said Seacrest defensively.

"That's correct," said King before going to a commercial.

Some nights on global primetime it almost seemed King wasn't even paying that much attention. Nationally syndicated radio host Stephanie Miller recalled going on his show during a baseball pennant race. King is famously a baseball fan and often attends L.A. Dodger games.

The next day a listener on Miller's radio show said, "'I'm so sorry I had to miss you on Larry King last night, I was watching baseball.'" Recalled Miller. "I said 'well, so was Larry King. Because literally we were on the set with Larry King and he was watching baseball.' Was he preparing to interview Gorbachev? No. He was watching baseball. He was watching the game."

The approach Miller saw as a foul ball, the nation's chief executive praised like it was a home run.

When President Obama appeared via satellite to congratulate King as "one of the giants of broadcasting," he made reference to Larry's reputation for eschewing preparation. "You say all you do is ask questions," said the president. "But for generations of Americans the answers to those questions have surprised us. They've informed us and opened our eyes to the world beyond our living room."

Maher jumped in and praised King's average Joe approach for its simplicity while noting the changing of the guard in TV news. "Larry is the ultimate minimalist," said Maher. "We are losing the greatest minimalist of all time. In this era were going to miss that."

We will also miss King's ability to be as big a celebrity as those he interviewed without saying much more than what he described as his favorite and most frequently asked question: "Why?"

He showed his ease even in an awkward video exchange with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who of course had done King's show many times while an actor.

Declaring it "Larry King Day" in the state, Schwarzenegger said now his problem is getting people working again in California, He thanked King for "doing your show out of Los Angeles. We need the money. We need the jobs. This was terrific."

Making reference both to his role as The Terminator and to the first lady, Maria Shriver, Larry thanked Schwarzenegger and said to "say hello to the wife and keep this in mind: (in a deep, accented voice) "I'll be back."

King said he will be back doing specials on CNN and other television work. He may also have another career -- as a standup comic.

Among the many guests at Spago was George Schlatter, who produced the seminal comedy series Laugh In, as well as the American Comedy Awards for many years. He is also a pal of King's who often joins him for breakfast on weekends at Nate 'n Al's, an old school Jewish deli in Beverly Hills, where the king holds court with his longtime childhood pals from Brooklyn, various celebrities, producers, writers and buddies.

"Larry King's success as a broadcaster, his magic as an interviewer, has gotten in the way of his career as a comic," said Schlatter. "You wake Larry King up in the middle of the night, he'll do 50 one-liners of some jokes you've never heard before. He is seriously one of the funniest people in the world. But this broadcast thing got in the way of everything. It screwed it up."

After King made his triumphant arrival at Spago following the show, and after he spoke to the packed press box in front -- making sure to give the TV news crews the sound bite they had waited hours to grab -- he worked his way through the room greeting guests including Jane Fonda, Cheryl Hines, producers Mike Medavoy, Bud Yorkin and Steve Tisch, George Stevens Jr., publicist Howard Bragman, E.T.'s soon to retire beauty Mary Hart and husband Burt Sugarman, and hundreds of others, including press shy 93-year-old billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, in his mustard blazer, who is seen at Hollywood events about as often as Halley's comet passes the earth.

After his entrance, King told THR when asked about Schlatter's suggestion he do standup comedy that he is thinking about it.

"It's one of the things I'm looking at," said King. "It's something I would like to do."

King arrived accompanied by his wife Shawn and his two sons, Chance 11, and Cannon, 10, who did a series of wicked impressions of his dad on the last telecast.

King has been married eight times to seven women, and has another son he did not see for years, and an adopted son, Danny Southwick, with Shawn, whose maiden name was Southwick. Danny did not appear on the final show along with Shawn and the two boys.

There was also no mention that King and Shawn had announced they were getting a divorce only this past April, or that Shawn had reportedly tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of pills.

The King's eventually got back together, dropped legal proceedings, and announced: "We love our children, we love each other, we love being a family."

That was the picture they presented on the final night.

Shawn did joke that if the TV specials and other things don't keep King busy, she told her husband we "will get him a paper route. We've got to keep you out of the house, at least a little."

King not only plans to say active, but he plans to stay around as well. In 2009, he told Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show that he wants to be cryogenically preserved upon his death.

So who knows? Maybe he will be brought back to life in some future era where there is once again a demand for genteel hosts and news that attempts to be fair to all sides, and arrogant toward none. If that happens, he might host a radio show on another planet and once again we will hear him crackle across the airwaves, taking a call from a listener and snapping, "Hello Earth!"

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