Broadcasting legend Larry King knew it was a special honor to be welcomed into people’s homes and hearts. From his hours keeping people company overnight on the radio to his nightly appointment with CNN viewers to his final foray on the internet, he loved talking to people and he loved entertaining them even more. That was Larry’s greatest success: talking to people rather than talking at them. And listening.
I spent thirteen years working with Larry, first as his producer in the early eighties on the Larry King Show, his late night call-in radio show on Mutual Broadcasting that aired nationwide. Larry brought me to CNN to produce Larry King Live when media impresario Ted Turner convinced Larry to join his new venture, the Cable News Network. It was 1985, and since no one was paying that much attention to cable, we had a chance to create something from the ground up.
We acquired a leftover set and cobbled it together; a few eagle-eye viewers noticed the continents were not in the correct order but we figured it was part of the charm of the show. We even tracked down a rare radio microphone like the one he had used for years to help Larry feel more at home on the set (it was just a prop that we carried everywhere) Thanks to an idea from Sharon King, Larry’s wife at the time and a producer in her own right, we put Larry into suspenders for the illusion of authority and to look less hunched over.
Our first guest was Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York at the time who was widely expected to run for President. It was a big get for us, and set the bar high for what we wanted to accomplish with the show. For an hour each night, we challenged Larry to talk to everyone: from world leaders to Jack Hanna and his zoo animals, sometimes on the same show. He was always game.
His guests loved him because Larry always made them the star of the show and he gave them respect, no matter what their transgressions.
Larry wanted to know what made people tick, and we all benefited from his insatiable appetite to know more and more and more. He didn’t judge anyone, maybe because he didn’t want people to judge some of his choices. Larry was not a perfect man but he never stopped trying to be better than he was the day before.
Larry believed in the American dream because he was living it. The self-described scrappy kid from Brooklyn grew up loving radio and knew he wanted to be a part of that world. While he never went to college, that didn’t mean he stopped learning. The world was his classroom, every interview a lesson – some good, some bad – but he learned something from every encounter. Not that he was one to dwell; Larry wouldn’t spend much time reviewing his interview performances. He was always looking forward to what was next.
He was the great equalizer. He put the audience on the same level as himself by insisting his guests take calls from viewers. Can you imagine being the President of the United States or a one-named celebrity and opening yourself up to the complete unknown of a viewer call? On live television? Larry loved the thrill of live television, more than the additional millions of dollars he was offered to leave CNN for other TV opportunities.
Even during commercial breaks, Larry would just keep chatting with the guests. He would be so engaged with their conversation, that the rest of us would have to whisper so as not to disturb. The best commercial break story was when we finally got Ross Perot to announce his candidacy for President of the United States. Larry never got enough credit for pushing him to announce. Prior to the interview, Perot had been toying with the idea of running. Larry kept pushing him, asking what are you waiting for? And into the last segment, Perot finally just said it – if Americans registered him as an independent and got his name on the ballot in all 50 states, he would run. That interview changed the 1992 presidential election. In the last three days of the election, all three candidates Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, and President George H.W. Bush, finished their campaign push with an interview with Larry.
He realized his host dream when Frank Sinatra joined him on the CNN set in 1988 in New York City. He began by asking Sinatra, “Why did you ask me on the phone if you can say pimps and whores on the show?” Sinatra replied, “Because I have another name for people that write kiss and tell books, they are pimps and whores.”
He was also at the ready when news broke, like the time we had Attorney General Janet Reno on, a guest he knew from his local radio days when she was Florida’s first female State Attorney. Reno was already booked to be on the night of the Waco, Texas siege, when cult leader David Koresh and his followers died in a mass suicide. It was April 19, 1993 and to her credit, Reno did not cancel. Larry covered the tragedy live on the air, and Reno talked to callers saying, “We tried to do everything that we could, but it is my decision. The buck stops with me.”
One of my favorite stories is when we expanded the global footprint of CNN and took the show to Japan. We decided to interview the top sumo wrestlers in the world. They were very difficult to book for the show, and we had to build a special set to accommodate their size. They arrived hangry and threatened to leave to find food. We didn’t realize until that moment they did not speak English. Larry played it perfectly, and made it all about the visual so no one noticed they were not actually speaking. We laughed about that one for a long time.
On a personal note, we used to go to Atlantic City to hang out with Don Rickles in his room and watch his show at night. Those were some of Larry’s happiest times. Don would tell stories about Frank Sinatra and Miami in the old days when it was a showbiz hub that included Jackie Gleason, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and many other performers. They knew Larry’s radio show from a houseboat called Surfside 6.
Larry was not interested in the process of booking guests or producing the show, but he loved to win the bookings game. He was very competitive, which made us competitive. He was proud to hear when ABC’s Nightline producers started calling our control room to track down guests. We always tried to balance our guest line-up, moving between serious political and business leaders with entertainers and influencers. It was a big challenge to pull people out of their primetime network viewing habits.
Larry took tough issues and broke them down to what mattered to the people at home. He never shied away from admitting when he didn’t understand something. That endeared him not only to viewers but to his guests. He could be persistent but he also had a quality about him that just made people open up, telling him things they may never have said out loud before.
Larry King was exactly who you saw in every interview: curious, funny, smart, and right to the point. CBS News Sunday Morning correspondent Lee Cowan asked me what Larry would ask if he were interviewing God, I told him that was easy, “Why?” He changed the broadcasting industry and is leaving behind big suspenders to fill. What a remarkable legacy, and what an honor it has been to be a part of his journey. As Larry remarked when he signed off after 25 years at CNN, “I don’t know what to say except to you, my audience, thank you. And instead of goodbye, how about so long?”
So long, my friend.