Larry King, CNN's Question-and-Answer Man for a Quarter-Century, Dies at 87

Larry King Show Taping November 2003 - Getty - H 2017
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Larry King

The popular interviewer, once the toast of Miami and host of a nationwide radio talk show, prepared as little as possible for each program: "I'm there to learn."

Larry King, the self-made man from Brooklyn who spent six decades proudly winging it as an interviewer on the radio and as the host of his own nightly talk show on CNN, has died. He was 87.

King died Saturday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to a statement posted to his official social media accounts. A cause of death was not specified, though King was hospitalized with COVID-19 this month.

In a statement, King's family paid tribute to who they said the  world knew as the "great broadcaster and interviewer" but "to us it was dad." "He was an amazing father and, he was fiercely loyal to those lucky enough to call him a friend. We will miss him every single day of our lives," they wrote. His family also stated "in lieu of flowers," to consider making a donation to the American Heart Association or the Beverly Hills Fire Department EMS, "to which a debt of gratitude is owed for the wonderful care they provided to our dad in his final years."

CNN went live with the news of King's death shortly after 8 a.m. ET as New Day Weekend turned toward remembering one of its own. Network anchor Brian Stelter read on air a statement from CNN president Jeff Zucker and noted how King helped to put CNN on the map as a "force on cable, a force on television."

Zucker's statement reads: "We mourn the passing of our colleague Larry King. The scrappy young man from Brooklyn had a history-making career spanning radio and television. His curiosity about the world propelled his award-winning career in broadcasting, but it was his generosity of spirit that drew the world to him. We are so proud of the 25 years he spent with CNN, where his newsmaker interviews truly put the network on the international stage. From our CNN family to Larry's, we send our thoughts and prayers, and a promise to carry on his curiosity for the world in our work."

King, who never made it to college and never took a journalism class, first made his mark in Miami and then from a studio in Washington, D.C., where he hosted the first national radio talk show in the U.S. and attracted a weekly audience of 3 million-5 million listeners.

He hosted Larry King Live on CNN from June 1, 1985, until Dec. 18, 2010, earning a listing in the Guinness Book of Records as having the longest running show with the same host in the same time slot.

King was living in D.C. and hosting the overnight The Larry King Show for Mutual Radio when his agent, Bob Woolf — most famous for representing such superstar athletes as Larry Bird and Joe Montana — called him with an offer from Ted Turner: the CNN founder wanted King for a one-hour interview show to air weeknights at 9 p.m. on the cable news network.

"Waking up to the news of the passing of Larry King felt like a punch to the gut," Turner said in a statement. "Larry was one of my closest and dearest friends and, in my opinion, the world’s greatest broadcast journalist of all time. If anyone asked me what are my greatest career achievements in life, one is the creation of CNN, and the other is hiring Larry King."

On CNN's fifth anniversary, King went on the air as host of Larry King Live — "I knew 10 minutes into that show that it was going to work" — and his first guest was then-New York governor Mario Cuomo. The indefatigable King did the program out of D.C. while still hosting his radio show and writing a column for USA Today.

King gave up the radio gig in 1994 and three years later moved to Los Angeles. In the late 1990s, Larry King Live regularly reached more than 1.5 million U.S. viewers a night.

The Peabody Award winner often boasted that he prepared as little as possible for each show, and King kept his questions short and to the point. Many criticized him for delivering too many "softballs" to his guests, and he took umbrage with that.

"I'm basically who, what, where, when, why," he said in a 2010 chat for the website The Interviews: An Oral History of Television. "I try to ask questions that only take one or two sentences; if it takes three sentences, it's a bad question.

"I don't show off. I don't use the word 'I,' it's irrelevant in an interview. It's only done to say what you're thinking. If you see an interviewer who says, 'I was wondering,' or 'Let me ask you this,' it's hysterical to me, because that's what they're there for.

"I've never gone on the air with the idea to embarrass a guest or build up or build down a guest. I'm there to learn."

He interviewed tens of thousands of people, everyone from President Nixon and Vladimir Putin to Tammy Faye Bakker and Paris Hilton. (He nabbed the first interview with the socialite after she was sprung from an L.A. jail in 2007; she told him "it was a pretty traumatic experience.")

And King famously took calls from listeners and viewers.

After he had recovered from a heart attack in 1987 — he was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day — he was back on TV but had lost some weight. His wife suggested that he wear suspenders, and they became his trademark: Mikhail Gorbachev once met him for dinner sporting a pair.

King announced in June 2010 that he was leaving CNN, and the last edition of Larry King Live was broadcast six months later. Piers Morgan Tonight, hosted by the British TV personality and journalist, debuted in its place on Jan. 17, 2011, but lasted only until March 28, 2014.

King showed up as himself on dozens on TV shows (Murphy Brown, 1600 Penn, American Crime Story) and films (Dave, The Exorcist III, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Bulworth, Primary Colors, Swing Vote, Legion) and voiced the character of Doris in three Shrek movies.

Lawrence Harvey Zeiger was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn on Nov. 19, 1933, a son of Jewish immigrants. His father died of a heart attack when the boy was 9, and his mother moved the family to nearby Bensonhurst.

King became a huge fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and took advantage of free tickets from the Police Athletic League to sit in the bleachers at Ebbets Field and do make-believe play-by-play of the games. He was at the ballpark when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947.

He often said that he "left Brooklyn, but Brooklyn never left me."

King graduated from Lafayette High School (later attended by Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax) but was not able to attend college, having to work to help support his mom. Still, he always dreamed of working in radio.

In early 1957, he was walking in Manhattan when a friend introduced him to the executive who was in charge of the staff announcers at CBS.

"I told him, 'I've always wanted to be in radio but I've never spoken into a microphone. What should I do?' " King recalled in a June 2017 interview with Forbes. "He said, 'Why don't you give Miami a shot?' " The city had a lot of stations that employed nonunion workers, he was told.

So King boarded a train to Florida, moved in with his uncle and auditioned for a job at WAHR, a 250-watt radio station. An exec complimented him on his voice, and when a morning DJ-news reader position opened up, he was hired for $50 a week.

Minutes before his first broadcast at 9 a.m. on May 1, 1957, the station manager asked him what on-air name he was going to use, telling his newest employee that Larry Zeiger would be "too ethnic."

The manager then pointed to a page in the Miami Herald that contained an advertisement for King's Wholesale Liquors on Washington Avenue. "How about Larry King?” he suggested. So Zeiger went with that.

After about a year, King moved to WKAT and developed an on-air comic character, the rogue Captain Wainright of the Miami-Dade Police.

In 1962, King's breezy style and resonant Brooklyn lilt won him a morning WIOD hosting gig that emanated from a booth at the coffee shop Pumpernik's, where he interviewed Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce, Danny Thomas and other celebrities who were passing through. He also broadcast from a houseboat that had been used for the Troy Donahue ABC detective series Surfside 6.

King's style of listening to answers and then responding, rather than peppering his guests with pre-determined queries, began at Pumpernik's around this time, he told the Herald in April 2017.

"One day, Bobby Darin walked in. That's the way I started. Bobby Darin. Jimmy Hoffa. We didn't book them. I couldn't prepare for them. I didn't know they were coming," he recalled. "It was from the seat of my pants.”

Be it from land or sea, King was suddenly Mr. Miami. He hosted and produced a Sunday night interview program, Miami Uncovered, on WLBW-TV, did radio commentary on Dolphins games and wrote columns for the Herald.

Quickly, though, it all came crashing down. King was fired from every one of his jobs after he was arrested in 1971 for grand larceny in a complicated case involving payments to New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was investigating the murder of John F. Kennedy. He fled town and agreed to broadcast University of California at Berkeley football games.

However, when he was cleared of all charges and invited to return to WIOD, he told Cal he wasn't coming and resumed his multimedia career in Miami.

King's five-hour Mutual program premiered in April 1978 in 26 cities (his pal Jackie Gleason was his first guest) and eventually was distributed to about 580 stations as the first radio talk show heard all over the U.S.

After he exited CNN, he hosted another interview program, Larry King Now, for an online production outfit called Ora TV that was funded by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

He also was seen in a seat behind home plate at Dodger Stadium and on Larry King at Bat on the club's cable channel. (The lifelong fan saw his son, right-handed pitcher Chance King, drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 39th round in 2017.)

King was married eight times. He wed his high-school sweetheart Freda Miller when he was 18, but that marriage was annulled; he also married Alene Akins, a former Playboy bunny, twice. His last wife was Shawn Southwick, whom he wed in 1997 after they had a chance encounter outside Tiffany's in Beverly Hills.

King also is survived by children Larry, Jr., Chance, Cannon and the entire King family.

Asked by Forbes why he lasted in the industry for so long, King replied: “The only secret in this business is no secret. Be yourself. I can’t make the viewer like me. I don’t even think about it. I’m just myself. If it’s good enough, it’s good enough.”