Larry King, longtime journalist and CNN host, dies at 87

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EW Staff
·4 min read
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Larry King, the famed interviewer whose career spanned more than six decades, has died. He was 87.

King died early Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to a statement shared on his social media accounts. A cause of death was not given, but King was hospitalized earlier this month with COVID-19.

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"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," the statement said. "Additionally, while it was his name appearing in the shows' titles, Larry always viewed his interview subjects as the true stars of his programs, and himself as merely an unbiased conduit between the guest and audience. Whether he was interviewing a U.S. president, foreign leader, celebrity, scandal-ridden personage, or an everyman, Larry liked to ask short, direct, and uncomplicated questions. He believed considered questions usually provided the best answers and he was not wrong in that belief."

How many of us could listen as intently to Il Divo as we would to Bill Clinton, or develop as friendly a rapport with James Brown as we would with Marlon Brando (or develop any kind of rapport with either)? King operated on a perpetually fascinated level, fueling an interviewing style that probed without ruffling feathers. In his words: "I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening." It was his attentive ethic that made him the presumptive choice to chat up presidents, boldfaced names, and American idols as host of CNN's Larry King Live — a primetime perch he relinquished in December 2010 after 25 years.

King was born Lawrence Harvey Ziegler in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1933. When his father, Eddie, died in 1944, his mother Jennie was forced to go on welfare to support her son, who later recalled that he "wanted to be a broadcaster when I was 5 years old. I didn't want to do anything else." At 24, he got a job sweeping floors at tiny Miami radio station WIOD; two weeks later, a DJ quit and Larry Zeigler was allowed to fill in. Just before he went on, the station manager told him his surname was too ethnic. A newspaper happened to be open to an ad for King Liquors, and Larry King was born.

The owner of Pumpernik's, a local delicatessen, took a liking to the young DJ and hired him to do a morning coffee klatch show with no pre-arranged guests — King just interviewed whoever wandered by. That show's publicity (and an appearance by Bobby Darin) led to King's first TV gig: a late-night Sunday debate show called Miami Undercover. Jackie Gleason, who became a King mentor, gave the show a major boost by making an appearance and staying all night.

In 1971, an ascendant King was arrested after promising to use influence he had developed in the Nixon White House to help a disgraced financier. The scandal kicked him off the airwaves for three years. He eventually worked his way back into broadcasting, and in 1978 got a major break by signing on to helm The Larry King Show, a national phone-in radio program. Ted Turner hired him to do a CNN TV talk show, Larry King Live, in 1985, and thus began a remarkable run that would extend until Dec. 16, 2010. Over two decades, he interviewed seven presidents and six first ladies, won innumerable awards and was inducted into five broadcasting Halls of Fame. In 1993, the King-hosted NAFTA debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot (who had previously announced his presidential candidacy on the show) generated the network's highest-ever viewers — more than 16.3 million. He was comparably prolific in his love life; his seven marriages (including two to former Playboy bunny Alene Akins) were go-to fodder for late-night monologues. His last marriage, to Shawn Southwick King, began in 1997 — the filed for divorce once, in 2010, and then again in 2019.

In 2020, two of King's eldest children died less than a month apart: his son, Andy, died of a heart attack in July, and his daughter, Chaia, died of lung cancer in August.

Funeral arrangements and plans for a memorial service will be announced at a later time, in coordination with the King family.

Reporting contributed by Kirven Blount.

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