Larry King

Legendary TV talk-show “infotainer” famous for his softly-softly approach


LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 18: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Television personality Larry King at the Keep Memory Alive foundation's "Power of Love Gala" celebrating Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena February 18, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The event benefits the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Muhammad Ali Center. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Keep Memory Alive)

He had a face made for radio: slightly gaunt with slicked-back, receding hair and a sharp nose. His voice was raspy rather than smooth, the questions he asked his guests were often banal, yet Larry King, who has died aged 87, was for decades America’s most popular TV talk-show host.

Millions tuned in to see King in his trademark braces and shirt-sleeves, leaning forward towards his guests the better to catch what they were saying, never threatening or judgemental, always interested.

King never pretended to be a journalist, describing himself instead as an ‘infotainer’. He was genuinely curious and interested in what his guests had to say: “I care what people think, I listen to answers and leave my ego at the door,” he explained. “I don’t use the word ‘I’, which is irrelevant in an interview.”

It was his ability to put his guests at ease, to make them feel they were having an informal chat with a friend that made King so relatable. They felt able to relax knowing that he would never try to catch them out. The audience at home felt they were taking part in the interview — and in a way they were, as King would always end the programme taking calls from viewers.

King’s softly-softly approach hardly ever yielded scoops. One exception was his 1992 interview with Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who announced on air that he would run for the presidency as an independent candidate. From then on King’s studio became a necessary stop for the other candidates.

The Jewish kid from Brooklyn had finally made it.

Larry King was born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger, the son of Jewish immigrants who ran a bar and grill. His father Aaron came originally from Austria and his mother, Jennie Gitlitz from Belarus.

At the beginning of the Second World War Aaron sold his business and went to work in a defence factory in order to contribute to the war effort.

However, in 1944 Aaron died of a heart attack and the family found itself dependent on welfare. Jennie was forced to take a job as a seamstress and Larry, devastated by his father’s death, went off the rails and lost all interest in his studies.

After graduating — just about — in 1951 he seemed to have given up on his dream of working in radio and took a series of odd jobs. In 1957, after hearing that more radio opportunities were available in Miami, he moved there but at first all he could get was a job as a cleaner at the Huntsville, Alabama WAHR radio station. He didn’t have to wait long, though: after a couple of weeks one of the DJs left and Larry was given the opportunity to replace him. There was only one small detail: Ziegler, he was told, sounded “too German, too…Jewish” so Larry Ziegler became Larry King (the name, apparently picked from a beer advertisement).

He quickly made a name for himself and progressed to a bigger radio station. Soon after he started doing a radio show at a well-known Miami restaurant, Pumpernik’s. At first he just interviewed customers but, as his popularity grew, so did the profile of his interviewees who came to include Lenny Bruce and Ella Fitzgerald. Larry King had found his niche.

As his popularity as an interviewer increased, King moved to higher-profile radio stations and added other jobs to his portfolio: football commentator, newspaper columnist.

But as his earnings increased impressively, so did his spending – and his gambling. By 1960 King was heavily in debt and he declared bankruptcy. But things didn’t improve and in 1971 he was accused of fraud by a business associate. Although the charges were dropped, the scandal ruined his reputation.

For the next few years King scraped by doing PR work, the odd radio job and newspaper columns. By the late 1970s the scandal was largely forgotten but King was still heavily in debt and declared bankruptcy again in 1978.

However, that same year his fortunes changed when he got a job as a late-night talk-show host. The Larry King Show featured interviews and listeners calls – what King did best. The climb back up had begun.

The success of the show brought him to the attention of CNN’s Ted Turner and in 1985 Larry King Live was born. It would become the station’s biggest success story and longest-running show and make Larry King a household name not just in the US but also in 130 countries around the world.

The 50,000 or so people King interviewed in his 25 years on the show ranged from US presidents – all of them from Nixon onwards – to world leaders such as Gorbachev and religious icons including the Dali Lama, business leaders and sports people but also countless dubious experts and cranks.

To every one of his guests King gave his undivided and rapt attention, treating them as if they were the most important person in the world. He tended not to prepare for interviews — he didn’t read the book an author was promoting, for instance, refusing to bring his opinion to the table but instead asking his guest to talk about it.

Viewers loved King because, in the words of his first guest on the show, the then New York governor Mario Cuomo, “he had the ability to ask the questions you would ask in your living room.”

By the time Larry King Live ended its run in 2010, its popularity had declined, eclipsed by more opinionated, mouthy hosts. King, though, didn’t retire but instead moved to the internet with a show called Larry King Now.

Among the things King said he was looking forward to upon retiring was — don’t they all say it — spending more time with his wife and children. The wife in question, Shawn Southwick, was his seventh, although it was in fact King’s eighth marriage as he married wife number three twice.

King’s life —with its rags-to-riches narrative, gambling addiction, bankruptcies and multiple marriages was a tabloid dream. He would have made a great guest for his own show.

He is survived by Shawn, their sons Chance and Cannon, another son, Larry Jr, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A son and a daughter predeceased him last year.


Larry King: born 19 November 1933. Died 23 January 2021

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