Larry King has interviewed the royal and reviled


When disgraced Enron Corp. CEO Jeffrey Skilling granted his first interview after being charged, it was Larry King who received the plum exclusive. King sat with Watergate break-in legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the day the notorious Deep Throat revealed his identity. He was granted jailhouse interviews with death-row inmates Sante and Kenneth Kimes and Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman to be executed in the state of Texas. It seems that no matter who they are, if they're willing to talk, more often than not it's King they want to talk to.

In fact, the man in the trademark horn-rimmed glasses, tie and suspenders (no jacket, sleeves rolled up) -- who has been at this broadcasting game for 50 of his 73 years -- says he'd like to put in 10 more years on-air for CNN. And despite undergoing a procedure to unblock a major artery in mid-March, King seems poised to deliver on that promise.

"The remarkable thing about Larry is that he knows so much about so much," marvels longtime correspondent for CBS' "60 Minutes" Mike Wallace, who turns 89 in May. "He also works so damned hard. There's a reason he has been around so long, and it's that he does the homework. This, too, is key: He never sets out to embarrass anyone -- ever."

King's love affair with the microphone started on radio in Miami Beach in 1957 and naturally evolved into television, primarily with his ascension to the CNN throne with the launch of his seminal interview show "Larry King Live" in 1985. An overwhelming number of newsmakers and celebrities of consequence have joined King over the past 22 years on CNN; he has conducted nearly 50,000 interviews since he began chattering on the airwaves. And now, he is being honored with heartfelt tributes that speak not only to his longevity but the vast respect he's garnered along the way as the master of the face-to-face conversation.

Adds longtime "60 Minutes" executive producer (and Wallace's boss) Don Hewitt: "I've known a lot of people who were experts in six or 12 things, but Larry seems to be an expert in everything. He's also never confrontational, which is majorly important. In an age when so many people are miserable, he seems to be one of the happy ones."

To mark King's half-century in broadcasting, CNN is giving King the royal treatment starting tonight with a weekly "50 Years in Broadcasting" salute featuring, among others, Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric, CNN lead anchor Anderson Cooper, King's regular guest host (and King's first choice to succeed him) Ryan Seacrest and former President Bill Clinton, as well as Bill Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher." Radio is getting into the King 50th act as well. Beginning at midnight tonight and running through Friday, XM Satellite Radio is turning a special channel (XM 130) over to honoring King.

There remains a general consensus that, with apologies to a certain company slogan, nobody doesn't like Larry King. Certainly, no one has managed to attract the extraordinarily eclectic breadth and top-drawer level of guests as King. He has chatted up seven U.S. presidents, royalty and the creme de la creme of Hollywood -- the famous and the infamous, the beloved and the loathed.

And Wallace believes this is because "he is probing and tough without ever disrespecting his subject. He can handle the most tabloidlike subject in a dignified way."

Wendy Walker agrees. As the senior executive producer for "Larry King Live," she has served as King's primary producer since 1993 and has watched him up-close throughout. What impresses her most about King is his "direct and hard-hitting but gentle" style.

"A lot of reporters and interviewers go in with an agenda and know what they want to get out of someone from the start," Walker observes. "Larry's technique is the total opposite. In all of the years we've worked together, I've never seen him work to get somebody to say a certain thing just to make headlines. That's why people who won't do talk shows will come on with Larry. They know they'll be treated fairly."

Walker also is impressed with the fact that King "never gets frazzled. I'm the one to get nervous, not him. Whether he's interviewing a head of state or an anonymous eyewitness to an event, his approach is the same. He's all about making sure the person is heard and is able to say what they came on the show to say. And he lets the audience draw their own conclusions rather than trying to draw anything for them. CNN's been really lucky to have its image tied to his."

Maher, a frequent "Larry King Live" guest and one of King's personal friends, agrees.

"Larry King has done something never achieved before in American broadcasting," Maher said via e-mail. "He's earned an undying respect and a cult following without having lesbian midgets spank each other. Fifty years says it all. This is American journalism as it was intended: an interviewer looking his guest square in the eye and letting America judge the truth. Larry King is the Larry King of our generation."

While it isn't easy remaining topical 50 years into one's career, King has managed to do just that by using his natural news instinct along with his innate curiosity, which mirrors that of his viewers, believes Wayne Newton, the longtime Las Vegas singer and entertainer who has been friends with King since the mid-1960s.

"Larry has great intellect, discipline and knowledge of his guests," Newton says. "He is also expert in asking difficult questions in a noncombative way so his subject is never made to feel defensive or threatened. You never know what Larry's feelings are on a particular subject because he makes it all about the guest, who has the feeling of talking to a friend."

In reaching this 50th anniversary, however, King has faced more than his share of adversity. He has been married seven times to six different women (currently to Shawn Southwick, 47, whom he wed in 1997). He endured legal and financial troubles in the early 1970s that kept him off the air for three years. And he famously suffered a heart attack 20 years ago that led to the creation of the Larry King Cardiac Foundation -- and his quitting smoking.

Longtime talk-show host and entertainment mogul Merv Griffin has known King through it all, dating back to the 1960s and '70s. "When Larry had his radio show, he asked me if I thought his interview format would translate to TV," Griffin recalls. "'No,' I said. 'Absolutely not. Not enough action!' Thanks for not listening to me, Larry."

Seacrest never would have offered such an opinion, noting, "Larry is the master of the live interview. He is essentially doing a radio show on TV, and it works. I admire his natural ability to open up the lives and stories of newsmakers to his audience."