This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine
Before he could do the first of the 40,000-plus radio and TV interviews he has done since 1957, Brooklyn's Lawrence Harvey Zeiger had to change his name to something catchier, less "ethnic," in the words of his boss. Seconds before airtime at Miami's WAHR, the boss happened to glance at a newspaper ad for King's Wholesale Liquors -- and Zeiger became Larry King, named in 2002 by Talkers magazine as history's top TV talk show host.
King, who turns 80 on Nov. 19, made late-night cable respectable as the host of Larry King Live on CNN, which aired from 1985 to 2010. He currently hosts Larry King Now on the digital platform Ora.tv. The 30-minute interview program, similar in format to his former CNN show, also streams on Hulu and airs on RT America, a Russian-owned, 24-hour cable news channel.
"I'm 80 years old, and I don't know what I'm going to be when I grow up," says King. "I can't believe I'm 80. When I was a kid, nobody was 80. I remember when my uncle visited once, he was 60, and I asked my brother: 'Do you think he has sex? He's 60, he can't.' I can't believe I'm living in Beverly Hills with a young wife and two kids [and three grown kids]. I've got a nice car. I love my job. I've got a bagel store, and I have breakfast every morning with friends I grew up with. I've been in movies, I've written books -- I don't know how that all happened."
King still feels like the same kid he was in Brooklyn, interviewing pretty much anyone he met. "At Ebbets Field, other kids would get autographs from the players," he says. "I would ask the bus driver why he likes to drive a bus." Gently pestering people with questions was pretty much what he was good at. Devastated by his father's death in 1942 when King was 9 ½ and with his family on welfare, King had little appetite for school, or for work. Fortunately, he doesn't consider his present job work. "I haven't 'worked' since I was a delivery boy for UPS," he says. "I'd say, 'Why did you order this, ma'am? What's in this box?' "
But King lucked out as a curious kid at WAHR in Miami, where he moved in 1955 at age 22, nabbing a radio show in 1957 then a TV talk show in 1959. "I had no trouble going from radio to TV -- I just thought of TV as radio with pictures." Happily, Jackie Gleason had just forced CBS to let him do his show from Miami. "Jackie was kind of a mentor to me," says King. Besides rearranging King's set to be more telegenic, Gleason got him the ultimate "get" guest, Frank Sinatra.
"Sinatra owed Jackie a favor, so he got him for me. I interviewed Sinatra three or four times. I did his last interview, by the way," says King. The first interview was a launchpad to fame for King, and he cites it as the classic example of his interviewing style -- not based on deep research and aggressive questioning, like, say, Mike Wallace, but a deeply instinctive grasp of the art of conversation and a disarming way of getting celebrities to open up. "The PR guys said, 'Don't ask him about his son's kidnapping!' -- which was a big story then. I asked him, 'Has the press been fair to you or have you been bum-rapped?' He said, 'I've been fairly treated and also bum-rapped. Take my son's kidnapping …' I never mentioned it, he brought it up."
"Later," continues King, "I got a letter from Frank saying, 'You make the camera disappear.' I wasn't camera-aware. I just transmit. I was just interviewing the cast of Last Vegas -- I love that movie! -- and I had [Michael] Douglas and [Robert] De Niro and Kevin Kline, and at the end, Douglas said: 'Let me say something to the camera. You're still the master. You ask questions that nobody else asks us.'
"You gotta ask 'why' questions," adds King. " 'Why did you do this?' A why question you can't answer with one word." Soothed by King's spontaneity, Brooklyn regular-guy affability and comfortingly familiar suspenders, people sometimes say even more than they mean to.
King's is an art that conceals art, but he says his gift is instinctive. "I didn't go to school for it, and I take no credit for it. But I do take pride in the fact that my curiosity works for me. I've got a sense of pace, I understand the medium, and I know what the audience wants."
And that includes the digital audience on Ora.tv and Hulu. "I never thought I could be an Internet pioneer," says King. "But I was a pioneer on talk radio and on cable. When I'm 90, I'll be the first one to broadcast from the moon. I love the immediacy. But I'm still the same guy from Brooklyn."
King's lucky career might suggest that somebody up there likes him. "But I don't believe in a higher power," he says. The higher powers that smiled on his career were Gleason, Sinatra and Arthur Godfrey, whose show was the America's Got Talent of its day. "Godfrey said, 'Remember, in this business, there's no secret. The only secret is, be yourself. You can't grab the audience by the throat and make them like you. Don't be a phony. If you're good enough, it'll work.' As Sinatra said, 'If someone's been around for 50 years, they're doing something right.' " King has been doing his shows for 56 years.
King is a born communicator, but in romance he was a slower learner. Asked the secret of a happy marriage, he says, "I don't know. I've had too many of 'em, a lot of unhappy ones [eight marriages to seven wives]. But I have no regrets. When I was a kid, if you fell in love, you got married, and what I liked at 20 was not what I liked at 30." His current marriage, to Shawn King, has endured the longest (16 years). "The secret is to keep your individuality, give up as least as possible." His sole complaint about Shawn? "I'm never late, and she's always late. That drives me nuts because as a broadcaster, you can't be late. But when they're pretty, you get over it immediately, and my wife's really pretty."
King has no regrets in work, either, but he does have a career he wishes he could have pursued. "I think I would've become a stand-up if I hadn't gotten into broadcasting. I did a comedy tour last year, and I love the whole ball of wax of comedy. Mel Brooks was the funniest person I ever met, but Don Rickles, Richard Pryor and George Carlin were, too. I'd be a combination of Mel Brooks and [Jerry] Seinfeld -- a tummler and a storyteller." But don't expect him to retire from interviewing. "I'm doing what I've always done -- I'm the same. And I'm the same guy at five [minutes] to 6 as when I go on the air at 6. Though I do get a little jump when the light goes on."
When the house lights do fade someday, King has a plan for his exit line: "My farewell question would be a statement -- the first time ever. I've never made a statement before, just why questions," he says. "My question would be, 'Mr. Whatever Personality, did you ever think you'd be interviewed by a 118-year-old man?' "