Iconic talk show host Larry King dead at 87

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Larry King (second left), his wife Shawn Southwick and their sons Chance and Cannon arrive for the premiere of ‘Rugrats Go Wild’ in Los Angeles on June 1, 2003. The iconic talk shouw host died on Saturday. AFP

The iconic talk show host Larry King, one of the most recognisable figures on US television as he interviewed everyone who was anyone over a career spanning 60 years, died on January 23 at the age of 87.

The company he co-founded, Ora Media, did not state a cause of death but media reports said King had been battling Covid-19 for weeks and had suffered several health problems in recent years.

King, with his trademark suspenders, black rim glasses and deep voice, was best known for a 25-year run as a talk show host on CNN’s Larry King Live.

“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,” Ora Media tweeted.

King’s long list of interviewees included every US president since 1974, world leaders Yasser Arafat and Vladimir Putin, and celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand.

In an emotional last Larry King Live show in 2010, tributes included one from former US president Barack Obama, who in a video message called King “one of the giants of broadcasting”.

Radio roots

Tributes from the media, politicians and Hollywood stars poured in, led by Putin, who hailed the interviewer’s “great professionalism and unquestioned journalistic authority”, according to the Kremlin.

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“The world has lost a true broadcasting legend,” CNN founder Ted Turner tweeted.

British TV hosts Piers Morgan and Craig Ferguson, both of whom have had shows in the US, paid tribute to King’s interviewing skills.

“Larry King was a hero of mine until we fell out after I replaced him at CNN and he said my show was ‘like watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new Bentley’. [He married eight times so a mother-in-law expert],” said Morgan.

“But he was a brilliant and masterful TV interviewer.”

Singer Celine Dion said King “made all of us feel as though we were speaking with a lifelong friend”, while basketball legend Magic Johnson tweeted, “Larry King Live changed CNN in the 80s blending entertainment with news . . . always made the interviews fun, serious and entertaining!”

Born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger on November 19, 1933, to poor Russian Jewish immigrants in working-class Brooklyn, New York, King said he never wanted to be anything but a radio broadcaster.

At the age of 23, he went to Florida to try and find a job.

He became a disc jockey for a Miami radio station in 1957, changing his name to King when the radio’s manager told him his was “too ethnic”.

For another Miami Beach radio station he recorded programmes in a restaurant, doing live audience interviews.

In 1978 he went to Washington where he anchored a national late-night radio call-in show, before being spotted by CNN, a channel founded in 1980, which hired him for its nighttime programmes in 1985.

One million viewers a night

Larry King Live, which ran from 1985 to 2010, broadcast six nights a week to more than 200 countries. CNN put his total number of interviews at 30,000.

At the height of its success the show attracted more than a million viewers every night, making King the star of cable television, on the back of which he negotiated an annual salary of more than $7 million.

Structured in two parts, the show opened with King, typically in his signature rolled-up shirtsleeves and multi-coloured ties, interviewing his guests in his relaxed style.

The second part of the show had the guest answering questions phoned in by viewers from around the world.

“I don’t have an agenda. I don’t assume the answer,” King told the Miami Herald in 2017.

“I never learned anything when I was talking. Listening is as important.”

While critics found his easygoing interviewing style too soft, others saw it as the key to King’s appeal, drawing so many star guests to his show and helping CNN establish itself with the scoops he won.

“I’m not interested in embarrassing [guests] nor am I interested in sucking up to them,” he said in 1995. “I’m just curious.”

The show goes on

After CNN, King continued to do interviews on his own website and then, in 2013, he hosted a new show, Larry King Now, on Russia Today, a government-funded Russian international television network.

His private life has been colourful too: After 22 years of marriage he divorced his seventh wife Shawn Southwick in 2019, having filed eight times for a divorce – he married one wife twice.

“Instead of goodbye, how about so long?” he said, voice breaking, as he signed off from his show that made him famous.