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The man born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger on Nov. 19, 1933, started talking on the air on May 1, 1957, and has scarcely stopped since. That first job was at a small Miami Beach radio station, WIOD, where as the story goes, he was given a shot as the morning DJ when another announcer quit. King also did news and sports, earning a reported $55 a week. But then he started interviewing — on a WIOD midmorning show set in a Miami restaurant — and he has never looked back. Now, as he celebrates his 50th anniversary in broadcasting, King is approaching his 50,000th interview (though he isn’t entirely sure when that will happen). Over those decades, he has chatted up every U.S. president since Gerald Ford, as well as Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Bette Davis, Jackie Gleason, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, to name just a few. King recently took time out from his current duties on CNN talker “Larry King Live” — which he has hosted since 1985 — and from a busy schedule promoting his 50-year celebration to speak with Ray Richmond for The Hollywood Reporter about his life, his career and how fortunate he feels to have stuck it out so long in such a tough business.
The Hollywood Reporter: So, how does a guy survive a half-century in radio and television?
Larry King: Honestly, I can’t believe it myself. All that I’d ever dreamed about is being on the radio. Then TV came in, and I wanted to do that. But 50 years? C’mon, that’s crazy stuff. You just go one day at a time, and if you’re really lucky, they let you keep doing it.
THR: You seem to still have genuine enthusiasm for the job. That comes through on the show. But aren’t there days where you feel a little bit sick of this?
King: No. Truly, no. I have curiosity for life. The enthusiasm hasn’t died. I’m blessed to have it so long. I mean, this is an amazing gig to have, and I know it. I’ve been able to see the world. To drive down Sunset Boulevard and see a billboard with my picture on it still flips me out. I still have to pinch myself every day, ’cause I’m just a guy from Brooklyn doing what he loves.
THR: To what do you attribute your uncanny longevity?
King: There’s a lot of luck involved, obviously. You need to have talent, and I have it — but a lot of people have it. If (CNN founder) Ted Turner doesn’t call me, where am I? Not here, that’s for sure. Who knows where I’d be.
THR: How has your style, or the way you view yourself on the air, changed over the years?
King: You know, I’ve got to say, I don’t think I’ve changed even a bit. I still see myself as a conduit. I’m lucky enough to have the chair, and the camera’s on me. My role is to respond through the guest and make sure he or she is center stage. If you turn on my show, 95% of the time the guest should be on camera. If he isn’t, something’s wrong. But this interview gig doesn’t change. I believe that less is better. You ask good questions, listen to the answers and try to follow up. That’s my role. If I do too much research, I know the answer to the question in advance, and I hate that. It kills the interview.
THR: Do you feel like you’ve become a better interviewer with time?
King: Not sure. I’ll tell you, I was really good at this really early on. I understood pacing almost instinctively. What I don’t feel is that I’ve gotten worse. I don’t feel like I ever repeat myself. That’s where you really start having a problem is when you start feeling the deja vu.
THR: How much did your heart attack change you?
King: Completely. I went from a chain smoker who ate junk and never exercised to someone who works out, takes vitamins, eats right and is super-aware of his body. I stopped smoking the day of the heart attack and haven’t lit up since — not once. And I don’t miss it at all. It woke me up, because I don’t want to die. I want to hang around and see how this all comes out. I still find the world utterly fascinating.
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