TV legend Larry King dies at 87

Mainstay of CNN talk show seen around the world had been treated for Covid

Larry King speaks with former US president Bill Clinton on CNN in New York on Sept 3, 2002. (Reuters File Photo)

Larry King, the amiable American broadcaster whose live global TV programme on CNN made him one of the most famous talk-show hosts in the world, has died in Los Angeles. He was 87.

King died on Saturday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to a statement on his official Twitter account. The cause of death wasn’t provided but he had spent time recently undergoing treatment for Covid-19. He had bypass surgery following a heart attack in 1987 and later was treated twice for cancer.

His passing was confirmed by Ora Media, the production company behind the programmes Larry King Now and Politicking with Larry King. He had been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 earlier this month.

King ended his long-running CNN programme in 2010 but returned to television again and again as a moderator, opinion shaper and, occasionally, pitchman.

During his 25 years presiding over Larry King Live, the first international live phone-in TV talk show, King was variously dubbed in the press as “America’s yak-master”, the “pope of talk” and the “top banana of talk-show hosts”, the Los Angeles Times wrote in an obituary.

The host of a popular nighttime radio call-in show in the 1970s and 1980s, King vaulted to prominence after CNN owner Ted Turner persuaded him to join his fledgling network in 1985. Larry King Live, became a popular TV interview programme whose guests came to include every US president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama.

After 25 years on cable TV, King announced in 2010 that he would retire, having slipped behind Sean Hannity at Fox News and Rachel Maddow at MSNBC in the US cable ratings. By the time he left, he estimated he’d done about 50,000 interviews during more than a half century on radio and television. He won an Emmy award for lifetime achievement in 2011.

“His brand of informality has become common in the age of podcasting,” Los Angeles Times TV critic Robert Lloyd said in 2018 after King’s new show, seen on Hulu, was nominated for two daytime Emmys. “No one has done this job better, or with more gusto.”

In his CNN programme, King got a ratings spike from Ross Perot, who announced on air in 1992 that he would run for the US presidency as an independent. In 1993, Vice President Al Gore and Perot debated the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) on King’s show, the highest-rated cable programme for more than a decade.

King interviewed world leaders. including Russian President Vladimir Putin, performers such as Lady Gaga, and an assortment of athletes, actors, national heroes and unknown individuals suddenly tossed into the limelight. Marlon Brando famously kissed King on the lips on air — as did his onetime girlfriend, the TV actress Angie Dickinson.

King said he left it to this producers to pick his guests and did not prepare much, preferring to ask simple questions and listen carefully to the answers.

King, who pitched a variety of products on radio and TV, used his show to raise funds for disaster relief after natural disasters hit New Orleans and Haiti.

His rise to prominence involved an epic comeback after he was charged in 1971 with grand larceny for taking $5,000 from financier Louis Wolfson and using it to pay back taxes rather than giving it to the intended recipient.

Though never prosecuted, he was fired from his various broadcast and newspaper-column jobs in Florida. By the late 1970s, the incident had blown over, and he was able to return to Miami broadcasting.

In 1978, he started a nightly coast-to-coast radio talk show on the Mutual Radio Network, called The Larry King Show. It featured guest interviews and call-ins from an audience listening to more than 500 affiliate stations.

After joining CNN, King published several best-selling books, including his autobiography, My Remarkable Journey in 2009. He also wrote a book on heart disease after suffering a heart attack.

He was inducted into the Radio, Cable and Broadcasters Halls of Fame and won 10 Cable ACE awards.

King and the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim started Ora.TV, a digital entertainment network and production company in 2012. Its programmes include Larry King Now, Off the Grid With Jesse Ventura and Brown Bag Wine Tasting With William Shatner.

Larry King was born Lawrence Zeiger on Nov 19, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrant Jewish parents. He got his start in broadcasting in the Florida market, where a friend had told him there was a shortage of on-air talent. He started at WAHR (now WMBM) in Miami Beach, initially as a cleaner. When an announcer suddenly quit, King was put on air.

He was married eight times — including twice to the same woman — and had five children, two of whom died in 2020.

King won a Peabody award for live election coverage in 1992 “for providing a unique insight into democracy for viewers everywhere CNN can be seen”.

The judges said that “while at one extreme the campaign was analysed ad infinitum by political pundits, and at the other trivialised by a seemingly endless array of national and local talk-show hosts, Larry King Live took an important middle ground.

“As an interviewer, Mr King let the candidates speak for themselves and let his national and international viewers ask the questions that reveal the character of the people who would lead our nation.”