By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — Particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to previous health scares, which included a heart attack, stroke, prostate cancer, lung cancer, and diabetes, broadcasting icon Larry King died Saturday (1/23) at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The 87-year-old King had been sick for at least 10 days prior to being hospitalized with coronavirus.
Official word was released on King’s Twitter account. “For 63 years and across the platforms of radio, television, and digital media, Larry’s many thousands of interviews, awards, and global acclaim stand as a testament to his unique and lasting talent as a broadcaster. Larry liked to ask short, direct, and uncomplicated questions. He believed concise questions usually provided the best answers, and he was not wrong in that belief.”
It was anything but a ratings juggernaut, but the plotline for NBC-TV’s “Hello Larry” (1979 – 1980) involved radio talk show host Larry Alder (portrayed by McLean Stevenson) moving from Los Angeles to work at Portland’s fictional KLOW. A short time earlier (1978), “Hello Larry” became a typical utterance by actual radio listeners across America when the Mutual Broadcasting System began syndicating “The Larry King Show,” which would become one of the most popular late-night radio shows of all-time. Bostonians and New Englanders in that same timeframe could make a legitimate case that renowned late-night talk host Larry Glick – heard on Boston’s WBZ-AM – was the “Hello Larry” inspiration.
Practically a poster boy for suspenders, Brooklyn-born Lawrence Zeiger is highly worthy of being dubbed a broadcasting ironman for his lengthy radio and CNN stints. Not only that, he was such a Nate ‘n Al’s partisan that well-traveled folklore has it that a critical reason he bought his home was because it was in close proximity to that particular Beverly Hills deli. Fiercely loyal, King routinely gathered with his chums from the old neighborhood at the Beverly Hills branch of Nate ‘n Al’s, which closed temporarily in March 2020 and reopened two months later. One could easily make the case that King was the top, pure, mainstream radio talk host. Regardless how one chooses to slice it though, ascribing Larry King as an iconic talk radio personality would not be in any way hyperbolic. Aired each weeknight between 12:00 midnight – 5:30 am, “The Larry King Show” featured the highly-inquisitive host asking every imaginable question of a guest for the program’s initial 90 minutes, with the guest usually then taking listener calls for a similar period.
Any criticism of King being an inept, softball interviewer is nothing but laughable – especially if such assessment pertains to his radio days. Sure, what he did wasn’t as intricate as performing quintuple bypass surgery (King was 53 when he underwent that procedure in February 1987); however, there is an elegant skill and artistry in conducting a long-form broadcast conversation. In that arena, King had few, if any, equals. Notwithstanding his lack of a college degree, he stood his ground with U.S. presidents; the most impressive list of world leaders; newsmakers; and he frequently dabbled with pop culture personalities, many of whom were simply the “flavor-of-the-month.” Through it all, King emerged as broadcasting’s quintessential interviewer. Whenever asked what made him such a magnificent interviewer, King consistently said that he refrained from using the word “I” as often as he could. The trademark setup during “Open Phone America,” where he fielded calls on any topic, was King barking the name of the caller’s city followed by a generally raspy, “Hello.” That carried through to his CNN program, as did his impatient, “What’s your question?” whenever a caller got longwinded and/or star-struck.
Countless bits have satirically skewered King, most notably Keith Olbermann or Rob Bartlett, who was priceless in character when he appeared on “Imus in the Morning.” They would typically follow the name of an offbeat-sounding hamlet with an out-of-the-blue, King-worthy, “Hello.” Without doubt, King was as adept and adroit at keeping caller interaction focused as any other host in the business. As evidence of King’s superior talent, no less than ten cable ACE awards; two Peabody awards; and one Emmy resided inside his trophy case.
Radio always fascinated King who, in May 1957, realized his dream of being an on-air talent in the medium when a small Miami Beach station paid him $55 a week to do – among other station assignments – a daily 9:00 am – 12:00 noon air shift. Three years later, the intense sports fan was hosting WPST-TV, Miami’s Sunday night “Miami Undercover” and would eventually do color analysis of Miami Dolphins football games on Miami radio outlet WIOD. Similar duties followed for the World Football League’s Shreveport Steamer.
In 1989, King met future wife, Julie Alexander, who would be number six in that heavily-populated category. Wasting no time and evidently undaunted by the fact they lived in different cities, King proposed to the blond, Philadelphia-based businesswoman on their very first date. One didn’t exactly have to be Kreskin to correctly guess that it was not long before they were divorced. To put it mildly, a pronounced fondness for the ladies was an ongoing part of King’s reputation, underscored by the fact that he was married eight times and even tied the knot twice to Playboy bunny Alene Akins (1961 – 1963 and 1968 – 1971). As David Letterman might quip, “Good gig.” Amid extensive coverage on prime access entertainment shows, King and his wife Shawn Southwick King filed for divorce in mid-April 2010, although they called it off one month later. The two had been married since 1997 and it was, by far, the longest of any of King’s other marriages. In fact, it actually totaled more than his previous three combined. While King said he wanted to divorce Southwick in 2019, it was revealed during King’s COVID-19 treatment that the two were still very much married, although estranged.
Over and above his high-profile familiarity among radio and television audiences, King wrote a weekly USA Today column for almost 20 years (1982-2001). People routinely excoriated it, yet it had to be a popular guilty pleasure since it caught so many eyes. There was a vintage, approximately 90-second segment on “The Larry Sanders Show,” HBO’s definitive talk show sendup, where sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) needed several “King’s Things”-like non-sequiturs for the “Hank’s Thought” portion of his fan club newsletter. With great deliberation, he produced six pearls that absolutely had to make King smile. They were: “It’s October and we all know what that means.” “If Princess Di were here, I’d tell her, ‘Hang in there.’” “I’d kill for a Dreamsicle right now.” “Maybe it’s me, but I think Sharon Gless should be on TV every night.” “If I had my druthers, there would be no more world hunger.” “I sure do miss the Cowsills – that mini-skirted mom sure was sexy.”
The Beverly Hills location of one of King’s investments, The Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Company, opened in March 2011. Exactly one year later (March 2012), the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim Helu, announced that King would be his first hire for the internet television station that Helu launched, Ora.TV. Using a fairly simple yet highly plausible formula, CNN claimed that King had conducted 50,000 interviews over his 50 years in the industry. There were occasions at the tail end of his run at the Cable News Network though that he would unfortunately look like a caricature of himself. Often stiff and ill-at-ease as the show was reaching its final broadcast (December 16, 2010), King was nonetheless a paradox when featured as a guest elsewhere. When given time to be himself in those settings, King underscored his priceless ability to perform the most critical function of an upper-echelon talk radio host, which is to tell a story. The goodie bag from which he selected was overflowing and the masterful broadcaster artfully used excellent timing and inflection to capture King-sized laughs.
Therefore, it wasn’t shocking that when King left CNN, he took his storytelling act on the road. Obviously, he recounted the “Gil Moppo” narrative (“Go home Moppo – you’re dead”) innumerable times, yet King made each delivery fresh. Two other King Classics haven’t been as widely-told on the air, but are exceptionally noteworthy. In just his early-20s, King had moved to Miami and one Sunday morning, he decided to drive to Palm Beach. The gorgeous surroundings, however, so distracted him that he banged into the convertible in front of him. Fortunately, it was an ultra, slow-speed accident, so there was little to no damage. The driver of the car that was hit emerged befuddled from his vehicle to query the shaken King as to how he could have possibly gotten into an accident with literally no other traffic anywhere in sight. Thinking fast, King promised that he would vote for that person who happened to be then-Massachusetts Senator and presidential candidate … John F. Kennedy.
Whether or not it is apocryphal, the other favorite King story indisputably serves as the platinum-standard for any high-hormone individual who has ever answered a radio station’s request line at night. The shared thread with the previous story is that it allegedly happened in King’s nascent radio days in Miami. In a non-broadcast setting, King marvelously sets the stage by using numerous embellishments but, in short, a husky-voiced female caller invited him to share what would be an immediate, amorous rendezvous. Once again displaying a sharp mind, King announced to his radio listeners that they were in for a special treat, as he would play a complete side of an album. Doing that, he surmised, would allow sufficient time to have his tryst and return to the station without anyone being the wiser. The manner in which King recounted the story indicated the woman’s physical attributes did not disappoint his expectations. Able to kill two birds with one proverbial stone, he monitored the station and took advantage of the mood music he had programmed. What he didn’t anticipate though was the needle getting stuck, prompting him to hastily curtail his escapade and race back to the station.
On a July 2009 “Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” appearance, King revealed that he wished to be cryogenically-preserved at death, a la Boston Red Sox hall of famer Ted Williams. Per King’s Twitter account posting, funeral arrangements and a memorial service will be announced later in coordination with the family. “Cucamonga, California – Hello.”
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at email@example.com.