TV news legend Larry King, who died on Saturday at 87 in Los Angeles, hosted CNN’s Larry King Live for 25 years.
With a career spanning five decades, he interviewed more than 50,000 people, including every single US president since Gerald Ford, Dr Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, LeBron James, Paris Hilton, Margaret Thatcher, and even Vladimir Putin.
Born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger, he took up a radio job in Florida at 20 to follow a dream he had since he was five. When his boss asked him to choose a less ethnic last name, he saw an advertisement for King's Wholesale Liquor and became Larry King.
The son of European immigrants, he grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and never went to college. As a broadcaster, he rose through the ranks, becoming the host of an all-night coast-to-coast radio call-in show starting in 1978. He then joined CNN where he anchored its highest-rated, longest-running program.
King raked in many awards, despite the criticism he received for his easy, non-confrontational style. “I’m not there to pin someone to the wall. I try to ask perceptive questions, thoughtful questions that get at an arrival of what that person is, how they are and what they bring forth,” King once told Time’s Gilbert Cruz.
Hunched over his vintage microphone that referenced his time as radio man, with an owl-like gaze through his spectacles, King would ask questions that many would deem dumb. In fact, he often boasted that he never prepared for his interviews. His show was not a forum for him to showcase his knowledge but a platform for people to tell their stories.
In an interview with Jerry Seinfield in 2007, he asked, “They didn’t cancel you, you cancelled them?”. “Do you know who I am?” retorted the miffed comedian. When the video once again resurfaced after King’s death (though to be fair, it never really disappeared; there are versions of that clip with over 2.5 million views on YouTube), Seinfield said he was just having some fun.
King never prodded politicians and businessmen with technical questions. He didn’t care about seeming intelligent or as having the audacity to nail Putin down. He just wanted to have a chat as the world watched him. His 1994 interview with actor Marlon Brando is probably one of the most iconic pop cultural moments. Famous for refusing to talk to reporters, Brando appeared on King’s show, at the end of which, the two broke into song, ‘Got a Date with an Angel’ by Al Bowlly, and the actor gave King a quick peck on the lips, saying, “Goodbye, darling”. The interview in itself, might leave viewers baffled with non-answers and non-sequiturs flowing from Brandon, but what it speaks of is the skill with which King could make any person comfortable. No topic was off the table. From politics to crime to sports to business to even OJ Simpson’s trial and Michael Jackson’s death. He retired from his eponymous talk show in 2010.
King was not happy with the replacement — Piers Morgan, the British journalist known for his aggression and politically incorrect jokes. Over the last few years, he hosted his own show, ‘Larry King Now’, on Ora TV, an on-demand digital network he helped found.
His personal life was just as colourful. King was married eight times to seven women. He was a father to five, a grandfather to nine and a great-grandfather to four. He was a gambler who declared bankruptcy twice and was charged with defrauding a former business partner of 5,000 dollars.
King was no stranger to illness, having undergone surgery for lung cancer, and suffering a stroke in 2019. He was diabetic, and in January, he was being treated for Covid-19.
The death of Larry King is symbolic. Like the microphone, King stood as a link to a certain time, an era of radios and networks and cable television. With his passing, that link seems severed forever.
No one can stand in his place, mostly because today’s combative social media would not be able to stomach his non-aggressive approach. Hosts who have taken his approach, be it Jimmy Fallon, who aired a clip featuring Donald Trump where he is seen joking and asking inane questions, or Ellen DeGeneres, who watched a ballgame with George W Bush, have been criticised for refusing to ask the tough questions.
As King said as he signed off from ‘The Larry King Show’, "Instead of goodbye, how about so long?"