Larry King, the radio and television personality whose breezy, conversational interviews with celebrities and newsmakers made him a broadcasting icon for nearly half a century, has died, his TV production company Ora Media said in a statement Saturday.
He was 87.
Over a nearly 60-year career that spanned radio, cable television and the internet, the Brooklyn native estimated that he conducted more than 50,000 interviews — not one of which he prepared for in advance. But that off-the-cuff style, along with his raspy baritone delivery and trademark suspenders, made “Larry King Live” a popular prime-time draw on CNN from 1985 through 2010.
It was a run that helped build the cable news network into a major presence in American living rooms.
“I’m not confrontational, I’m not there to hammer the guests … I ask good questions, I listen to the answers, I follow up,” King told The Young Turks in a 2014 interview.
“I would have been uncomfortable pointing my finger at the president of the United States.”
However, King would say in 2019 that after being personally familiar with President Donald Trump for years, “This Donald is not the Donald I knew.”
Even though he wouldn’t meticulously prepare for interviews like the famed television journalist Barbara Walters, the rich and famous clearly were comfortable answering his questions. The actor Marlon Brando, a legendary recluse, gave a rare interview to King in 1994 because he said the host was “unexploitative.”
“There was a sense that his interviews were like conversations that could be had over a plate of meatloaf,” Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told NBC News.
That type of approach occasionally became a recipe for disaster — such as the 2007 interview with Jerry Seinfeld, who took King to task for not knowing that he, not the network, ended his famous sitcom, “Seinfeld,” after a highly-rated nine-year run.
“I thought it was pretty well-documented,” Seinfeld answered. “Isn’t this CNN?”
King later admitted he should have known that a show which boasted a viewership of 75 million for its finale wouldn’t have been canceled.
It wasn’t all fluff, though: On Nov. 10, 1993, King used his show to host a debate between Vice President Al Gore and billionaire businessman Ross Perot on the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement that helped tip public support for the treaty.
Born to Jewish immigrant parents on Nov. 19, 1933, Lawrence Harvey Zeigler took his New York accent and delivery with him to Miami, where he started his on-air career as a disc jockey in 1957 after changing his last name to King.
Over the next decade, the fledgling journalist would hone his interviewing style in Florida, first with a live show broadcast from a restaurant and later as a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Then in December 1971, his promising career in Miami derailed with an arrest on a grand larceny charge over $5,000 he allegedly owed a financier. That led to a six-year exile during which time, King did publicity for a race track in Louisiana.
But King would eventually return to Miami and to a microphone. In 1978, “The Larry King Show” became a nationally syndicated staple in 28 cities. Within five years, it would be broadcast in 118 markets, according to CNN.
King also went national in his side gig as a newspaper columnist, debuting his USA Today column in 1982.
Three years later, on June 3, 1985, “Larry King Live” premiered on CNN, beginning the 25-year run that would make him an even bigger household name. At the time, the cable news network was still struggling to fill airtime, and it would be decades before competition from MSNBC and Fox News forced more dynamic programming choices.
In 1989, King was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.
By the time he ended his run on CNN, “Larry King Live” was entrenched in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running show with the same host in the same time slot.
That retirement proved short-lived. In 2012, King launched a new show — “Larry King Now” — with the web-based Ora TV. The next year, another King-hosted show, “Politicking,” debuted on the Russian TV network, RT.
“I thought I could leave,” King told the “TODAY” show in 2013. “I thought it would be easy, but the night Osama bin Laden was killed, I just wanted to jump up off the chair and run and do something.”
In 2017, Terry Richard, ex-wife to late entertainer Eddie Fisher, accused King of groping her on two separate occasions in the 2000s. He denied the allegations that were printed by the British Daily Mail.
Over the years, King survived multiple heart attacks. He had quintuple bypass surgery in 1987 that led him to quit smoking. The surgery also inspired him to establish a charity, the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, that helped fund medical treatment for vulnerable patients who didn’t have insurance.
He married his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick, at UCLA Medical Center just before undergoing cardiac surgery in 1997, according to CNN. In August 2019, however, he filed for divorce from her after 22 years of marriage.
That year, he told the “Extra” show that he had suffered a stroke that put him in a coma for “a couple weeks.” “It’s been a rough year,” he said.
In 2020, his 65-year-old son, Andy, died of a heart attack and his 51-year-old daughter, Chaia, died of lung cancer. He is survived by three other biological children.
“He lived long enough that he was a force to be recognized in the network era, the cable era and the internet era,” Syracuse University’s Thompson said, “and that’s pretty impressive.”