The founding in 1980 of Cable News Network by the US businessman Ted Turner changed the face of television. The 24-hour news cycle pioneered by CNN has been credited with everything from helping bring down the iron curtain to changing the television menus in hotels all over the world.
Yet while CNN sold itself with news, for a quarter of a century its most-watched programme was not a news show at all, but Larry King Live. Primarily a celebrity interviewer, Larry King, who has died aged 87 after suffering from Covid-19, did host newsmakers and politicians, but treated them as celebrities rather than policy wonks.
He borrowed his signature outfit – braces over a dress shirt with sleeves rolled up – from Wall Street, or high-profile journalists like the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee. It was a branding device, signifying someone hard-working but incisive, part of the elite but still a man of the people.
And King’s success was based on his asking the kind of questions that might have come from the man or woman in the street, couched in a non-confrontational approach that allowed his subjects freedom to direct the discussion. This made him a popular first choice for those embattled in the public eye, which in turn gave the show its niche. King’s rise coincided with television’s conversion of the political process into a celebrity-driven public forum focused on the private lives of candidates.
In effect he was at the forefront of elections becoming a sort of reality television show; King not only benefited from that change of perspective, he drove it forward relentlessly. Its apotheosis was Donald Trump, who in 1999 used King’s show to announce his first, short-lived, exploration of the possibility of becoming a presidential candidate.
This was ironic in the sense that King’s own private life, like Trump’s, would hardly stand up to his own kind of scrutiny; it was more the stuff of the Jerry Springer Show. King was married eight times, to seven different women, and his eighth wife, Shawn Southwick, filed for divorce in 2010, accusing King of having an affair with her younger sister. King counter-filed, citing “irreconcilable differences” and yet the couple reconciled, staying together with their two children because they “loved being a family”.
Born Lawrence Zeiger in Brooklyn, New York, Larry was the son of Jewish immigrants, his father, Aaron Zieger, from Austria, and mother, Jennie (nee Gitlitz), from Belarus. His father died when Larry was a boy; the family were forced to go on welfare, and after finishing at Lafayette high school, he went to work to help support them. At 18 he married his sweetheart, Frada Miller, but the marriage was soon annulled, reportedly at the wish of her parents.
He had dreamed of going on radio, and on a tip from a New York announcer moved to Miami, where he got a job as a dogsbody at a small station, WHAR. In 1957 he got his break on air when the morning disc jockey did not turn up. He took over that show and soon was doing news and sports reports. The station general manager suggested he change his name, which was “too ethnic”, and he chose King.
He moved to WIOD, where he broadcast live in the mid-morning from Pumpernik’s Restaurant; on his third day on air the singer Bobby Darin walked in and became his first celebrity interview. The show turned King into a local star, and in 1960 he debuted on television, with a debate programme, Miami Undercover, which again benefited from celebrity help, this time from Jackie Gleason, star of The Honeymooners, a popular sitcom, who appeared on and helped format the show, and also got King an interview with Frank Sinatra.
King’s marriage to Annette Kaye in 1961 ended within months. After their divorce she gave birth to a son, Larry Jr, who did not meet his father until he was in his 30s. Later in 1961 King married Alene Atkins, a Playboy bunny; they divorced in 1963, and remarried in 1968. His son Andy was born during the first spell, and his daughter Chaia during the second. In between, King was married for three years from 1964 to Mickey Sutphin.
At his local peak, King was also doing a column for a Miami paper and sports broadcasting, including two seasons as a colour commentator for the Miami Dolphins American football team. But in 1971 he was charged with grand larceny in a complicated case involving the Miami media mogul Louis Wolfson, who was charged with perjury and fraud. King had allegedly been paid to exert influence with Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, which he wound up never doing. Helped by the statute of limitations, King eventually pleaded no contest to passing a bad cheque and the charges were dropped in 1972, the year of his second divorce from Atkins.
He rebuilt his career slowly, doing racetrack announcing, broadcasting football in Shreveport, Louisiana, working his way back to WIOD, via WGMA in Hollywood, Florida. Crucially, WGMA’s owner became head of the Mutual radio network, and when Long John Nebel retired from the late-night talk and phone-in slot in 1978, he offered it to King. He was an immediate success, building up a national following, and continued with it until 1994.
Along the way, in 1985 CNN offered him the chance to repeat his success with the formula on television. One of the keys to King’s man in the street authenticity was his relative lack of preparation – he could be counted on to follow whatever the predominant script was in the media mainstream, and when he asked “tough” questions, they were almost inevitably the ones that elicited prepared answers, though sometimes he might wrong-foot a guest with questions about their personal life, or very obvious inconsistencies.
His high profile on CNN made King a celebrity himself. For 20 years he wrote a column for USA Today, whose style of scattershot random notes from the top of his head would be parodied in The Simpsons. King appeared as himself in some 30 films, as well as providing a voiceover for a character in the Shrek movies.
He produced a number of autobiographies and memoirs, starting with Larry King by Larry King (1982), and including When You’re From Brooklyn Everything Else Is Tokyo (1992) and My Remarkable Journey (2009). Not even a massive heart attack in 1987, requiring quintuple bypass surgery, slowed him down. Indeed, he co-wrote two books about the experience, the second of which collected the stories of various other heart-attack victims.
Nor did it slow down his love life. After a relatively long-term marriage to Sharon Lepore, a teacher turned production assistant, from 1976 to 1983, in 1989 he entered into his sixth marriage, with Julia Alexander, a businesswoman. The couple led largely separate lives and divorced amicably in 1992. He then had two highly public engagements, the first, in 1992, to Rama Fox, a minister in the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, which ended in 1994 with King suing her for slander when she gave an interview saying she had dumped him. The second, to the actor Deanna Lund, lasted only a few months in 1995. In 1997 he married Southwick.
Under fierce competition from both Fox News and MSNBC, which saw King’s ratings slip below 675,000 viewers, in 2010 CNN announced that the 76-year-old host would step down from the show; it was already public knowledge that they had approached the talent-show judge and former newspaper editor Piers Morgan to be his replacement. The last Larry King Live aired that December. He had been promised a series of specials on CNN, but they never materialised.
King began a new show, Larry King Now, on an internet channel, Ora TV, started by the Mexican media mogul Carlos Slim, and it has since continued on Hulu and the Russian network RT. During the 2012 US presidential election King moderated a debate between the minor party candidates, but his Politicking With Larry King, a weekly political show, never moved from those same two outlets.
In 2019 he again filed for divorce from Southwick, citing their age difference and her Mormon faith clashing with his “agnostic atheism”. They separated, and she survives him, along with their sons, Chance and Cannon, and Larry Jr. Andy and Chaia predeceased King, dying within weeks of each other in 2020.
• Larry King (Lawrence Leibel Harvey Zeiger), broadcaster, born 19 November 1933; died 23 January 2021