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Larry King: Legend of the American Airwaves Passes at 87

Steve Palace
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 25: Larry King poses for portrait as the Friars Club and Crescent Hotel honor him for his 86th birthday at Crescent Hotel on November 25, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

Larry King, the man who liked to hear the world’s stories, passed away aged 87 on Saturday. He’d been admitted to Cedars-Sinai medical center in LA with Covid symptoms.

There was no mistaking the bespectacled King, known for his “trademark suspenders” and “gravelly New York accent”, as described by The Guardian. He was a big time interviewer and broadcaster with an average Joe style.

The Guardian mentions his “meandering interviews and personal digressions”. For King, these were essential tools in making the subject feel at ease and entertaining the audience. The New York Times writes he had “the folksy personality of a Bensonhurst schmoozer”.

Television host Larry King (C), his wife actress Shawn King and their son Cannon King attend the Friars Club Entertainment Icon Award ceremony at the Ziegfeld Ballroom on November 12, 2018, in New York City. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR / AFP) (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)

Television host Larry King (C), his wife actress Shawn King and their son Cannon King attend the Friars Club Entertainment Icon Award ceremony at the Ziegfeld Ballroom on November 12, 2018, in New York City. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR / AFP) (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)

He famously avoided preparing for on air encounters. “I think the guest should be the expert” he wrote in his 2009 memoir. This rule sustained him through a career that spanned over 6 decades and tens of thousands of interviews.

Former delivery boy King found himself face to face with American Presidents – every occupant of the White House from Nixon onwards was on his list.

That said, he’d talk to anyone. Conspiracy theorists were invited for a chat alongside the likes of A Listers and iconic figures. It wasn’t uncommon for King to say things like “Gee whiz!” during an interview, reinforcing his authentic credentials.

He was born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger in New York, 1933. Father Aaron, an Austrian, ran a restaurant and sadly died when Larry was 9. Mother Jennie, who hailed from Lithuania, was a garment worker.

The young Larry’s interest in broadcasting paid off when he went to work at a Florida radio station in the late 1950s. When a DJ quit the decks, King was asked to hit the decks.

Reportedly his debut was far from assured, but this future star of the airwaves soon settled into it. The name change from Zeiger to King came from the station manager and happened at the last minute. Why “King”? A liquor ad provided the inspiration!

Making his recently-acquired name as an interviewer and sports commentator, he partially followed in his father’s footsteps by broadcasting from a restaurant – Pumpernik’s at Miami Beach. There he chewed the fat with notables such as Jimmy Hoffa and Don Rickles, as reported by the Times.

The national scene beckoned in 1978, where King hosted a call in program for the Mutual Broadcasting System. It must have been a big deal for King, as this was where one of his favorite shows ‘The Lone Ranger’ was made.

King with his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick, and their children, Chance and Cannon. John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com – CC BY-SA 2.0

King with his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick, and their children, Chance and Cannon. John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com – CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1985 CNN hired him to front the legendary ‘Larry King Live’, where he remained behind the desk for a quarter of a century.

Though criticized by some for giving guests a supposedly easy time, he appears to have had his moments. “When you drive by the Watergate, do you feel weird?” he once asked former President Nixon, as recalled by the Times.

Time looks back on a 2009 interview with King. He specified 4 elements that went into the perfect slice of airtime – a guest needed to have passion, articulacy, a sense of humor “and a little bit of a chip on their shoulder… President, plumber, architect, singer—you got those four things, no one will click off.”

From 2012 he co-founded and worked for company Ora TV. They revealed news of his passing to the world.

According to the Times, King didn’t consider himself a journalist. Though he certainly got plaudits. He racked up multiple awards, including Peabodys and a Lifetime Achievement Emmy.

Away from dramas of the real world, he appeared in ‘Ghostbusters’ and the ‘Shrek’ franchise – the latter saw him play Doris the Ugly Stepsister.

He also wrote books and was behind The Larry King Cardiac Foundation following a heart attack in 1987. 3 decades later he battled lung cancer. 2 years after that he had an angioplasty and also a stroke.

King was married 8 times, twice to Alene Akins during the 1960s and early 70s. They had 2 children, Andy and Chaia. Both tragically died late last year, from a heart attack and lung cancer respectively.

He wed Shawn Southwick in 1997, though the couple were in the process of getting divorced. He leaves behind 3 children.

Cause of death has yet to be confirmed. In a family statement from Larry King Jr, Chance King and Cannon King, tribute is paid to “the man who lovingly obsessed over our daily schedules and our well-being, and who took such immense pride in our accomplishments”.

CNN President Jeff Zucker tweets that a “scrappy young man from Brooklyn” had enjoyed a “history-making career”. For Zucker King possessed great “generosity of spirit that drew the world to him.”

“It was always a treat to sit at your table” tweets Oprah Winfrey. “And hear your stories.”

“He helped put CNN on the map by making news through the art of dialogue” says Dan Rather.

Ryan Seacrest, who considered King a mentor, calls him “Truly an American treasure.”

“I was lucky enough to have been interviewed by this legend… twice” tweets Oscar winning actress Marlee Matlin.

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The last words are from the great man himself. “I don’t know what to say,” he remarked at the close of his final CNN show, “except to you, my audience, thank you. Instead of goodbye, how about so long?