To most of us he was known primarily as a celebrity interviewer on his Larry King Live show, which aired on CNN for 25 years from 1985 – 2010. In a career that spanned some 60 years it has been estimated that he conducted as many as 60,000 interviews, but, as you will see, he was involved in many other pursuits as well.
Lawrence Harvey Ziegler was born on November 19, 1933 in Brooklyn, NY. His parents were Orthodox Jews who had immigrated to the US in the 1930s. His father, who worked in a defense plant and owned a restaurant was a first-generation immigrant from Austria-Hungary; his mother was a garment worker who had been born in Russia.
His father died from a coronary when Larry was only nine years old. This had a profound impact on Larry. The family went on welfare, and Larry lost interest in school, although he did manage to complete high school. Upon graduation rather than attending college Larry began to work to support his family.
Larry had always had a desire to work in the broadcasting business. At the suggestion of a friend he decided to try his luck in Florida, which, at the time, was reputed to be a growing market with a plethora of opportunities. His first job was at WAHR, a small station in Miami Beach. He started at the very bottom as a janitor and errand boy.. When one of the announcers abruptly quit he was pressed into service as a disc jockey, newscaster and sportscaster. He was paid the princely sum of $50 per week.
The station manager told Larry he had to change his name because “Ziegler” was “too ethnic.” Nowadays that would have been viewed as racist, but in the 1950s changing names was not uncommon in the entertainment field. Supposedly, Larry chose the surname “King” from an advertisement he had seen for “King’s Wholesale Liquor.” Eventually, he changed his name legally.
Even back then, Larry would interview anyone at anytime. For example, he hosted a show at a local restaurant in which he would interview anyone who happened by. His first interview was of a waiter at the restaurant. His first celebrity interviewee was singer, Bobby Darin, who while in town for an engagement, just happened to enter the restaurant for a meal.
King first big break came when he met Jackie Gleason (aka the Great One”) in the mid 1960s. As some of you may remember Gleason’s weekly variety show was broadcast from Miami. Gleason took a liking to King and became very supportive. In King’s words, Gleason “became a mentor of mine.”
In 1970-71 King worked as a color commentator for the Miami Dolphins. Sports fans will recall that during that period the Dolphins had an excellent team and even went to the Super Bowl in January 1972. Unfortunately for King he missed the game. He was fired when he was arrested when a former business partner accused him of grand larceny. Ultimately, the charges were dropped.
During the 1970s King hosted a sports show with the moniker “Sports-a-la-King,” which featured the soon-to-be-familiar format of guests and callers-in. In 1978 King landed a gig with the Mutual Broadcasting System in which he broadcasted a nightly talk show coast to coast. The show continued in different formats until December 31, 2009.
King’s signature show, Larry King Live, commenced on CNN in June 1985. In his distinctive, gravelly voice he would interview anyone from politicians and celebrities to authors and sports figures to psychics and conspiracy theorists. Then, he would take call-ins identifying them by their hometown (“Hello Minneapolis!”). He was an excellent interviewer. His style, honed by decades of experience, was easy and non-confrontational. Frequently, he would ask open-ended questions that allowed his subjects to express their views freely. Concurrently, he wrote a newspaper column for USA Today from 1982 – 2001.
Curiously, King always said that he never liked to read an author’s book in advance, because he “didn’t want to know more [about the book] than his audience.” Perhaps, his best-known interviewee was Ross Perot. In 1992 Perot, an extremely successful businessman and a colorful character with what some would characterize as far “right” political views, announced his candidacy for the presidency as a third-party candidate on King’s show. Later King hosted a debate between Perot and Democrat nominee Al Gore.
Larry King Live was so successful that the Guinness Book of World Records recognized it as the “longest running television show hosted by the same person on the same network and in the same time slot.” By the time he retired from the show in 2010 he had taped some 6,000 episodes. King’s final show aired on December 16, 2010. At the end he thanked the audience for watching all those years. His final words : “instead of goodbye, how about so long.” King retired from the show but not from life. He continued to host specials on CNN.
As I said above, King was more than just a talk show host and interviewer. In addition to his sports commentary he appeared in various movies, such as Arthur, Ghostbusters and Shrek 2, and television shows such as Law and Order and In View with Larry King. Most of the time, he played himself. He also made tv infomercials, such as when he discussed products such as Omega-3, a fatty acid dietary supplement.
King led a very colorful personal life. He was married eight times to seven different women. His first marriage was to his high school sweet-heart at the age of 19. That one was later annulled by the couple’s parents. He had five children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was an avid Dodgers fan (Brooklyn and LA) (yes!!!), and often could be seen sitting behind home plate at the games.
King was the recipient of numerous awards, too many to enumerate them all here. Among them were ten Cable ACE Awards, two Peabodys, an Emmy, and the Scopus Award. In addition he was inducted into the National Radio and the Broadcasters’ Halls of Fame.
In a 2005 interview King described himself as a “Jewish agnostic,” (not sure what that means). However, in 2017 he told a reporter “I love being Jewish. I am proud of my Jewishness, and I love Israel.”
King was not in the best of health. In 1987 he suffered a major coronary, which necessitated a quintuple bypass. In 2009 he underwent an angioplasty operation and had various stents inserted. In 2017 he had a cancerous tumor removed from his lung. This past year he had a stroke. Finally on January 2, 2021 he was hospitalized after having tested positive for the coronavirus. He passed away on January 23.
As an aside, I met Larry King once, in Las Vegas at the pool of the hotel in which my wife and I were staying. What was odd was that I didn’t recognize him. I walked right by him. But, then I heard him speak. There was no mistaking that distinctive, gravelly voice.
Rest in peace, Larry. You entertained us for 60 plus years, and you will be sorely missed.