Saturday, January 23, 2021 6:52 pm
By Nehru Odeh
He was the proverbial cat with nine lives. He cheated death many times but finally succumbed to it on Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles of Covid-19. He was 87. At the height of his broadcasting career, he was famous for programmes such as Larry King Live on CNN and Larry King Now.
This sums up the intriguing life of Larry King, American broadcaster and interviewers of celebrities and public figures, who not only brought broadcasting to people homes interviewing the high and mighty, but did so with panache, finesse and ingenuity, winning so many awards including the Emmy..
However, a more intriguing thing about King roller-coaster life is that he was married eight times to seven women, he survived a major heart attack in 1987, lung cancer in 2017, an angioplasty and stroke in 2019, and the death of two of his five children –– son Andy, 65, from a heart attack, and daughter Chaia, 51, from lung cancer –– within five weeks in August last year. .
“For 63 years,” CNN said, “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.”
“We mourn the passing of our colleague Larry King,” said CNN president Jeff Zucker in a statement posted on Twitter.
“The scrappy young man from Brooklyn had a history-making career spanning radio and television. His curiosity about the world propelled his award-winning career in broadcasting, but it was his generosity of spirit that drew the world to him.
“We are so proud of the 25 years he spent with CNN, where his newsmaker interviews truly put the network on the international stage. From our CNN family to Larry’s, we send our thoughts and prayers, and a promise to carry on his curiosity for the world in our work.”
King was an enigma on air. Though born in Brooklyn, New York, he lost faith in education after the death of his father and took to broadcasting in order to make ends meet and support his mother. He later relocated to Florida in his 20s in pursuit of his dreams, which he found and made a success out of it.
“With his trademark suspenders, gravelly New York accent and under-prepared questioning – he often said he preferred entering an interview knowing no more than his audience, so he could ask the questions they would – over the course of six decades King became one of America’s most recognizable media figures.
“While it was his name appearing in the show’s titles,” the statement announcing his death said, “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 US president, foreign leader, celebrity, scandal-ridden personage or an everyman, Larry liked to ask short direct and uncomplicated questions.”
Known for his soft interview style – “If you approach [an interview] combatively you get defensiveness and you don’t learn much,” he told the Guardian in 2015 – he conducted more than 30,000 interviews during his career, according to CNN, including such public figures as Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela and Vladimir Putin, every president from Richard Nixon to his friend Donald Trump, and celebrities from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga.
However, having realised he wanted to work in broadcasting, King moved to Florida in his early 20s to work on a radio station. It is said that minutes before going on air for the first time, he was told by the station boss to change his last name to something “less ethnic”, and chose King after glancing at a newspaper advert for King’s Wholesale Liquor.
During the 1950s and 1960s, he rose through the ranks of local broadcasting and by 1978 gained nationwide prominence as host of an all-night call-in radio programme called The Larry King Show, before moving to CNN.
According to CNN, King carried out more than 50,000 interviews during his 50-year career. They included exclusive sit-down interviews with every US president since Gerald Ford. His other high-profile guests are too numerous to mention but have included Dr Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, LeBron James, Paris Hilton and Margaret Thatcher.
He won countless awards, including the Peabody Award for Excellence in broadcasting for both his radio and television shows. Some criticized King for going too easy on his interviewees, with his non-confrontational approach and open-ended questions.
He rejected this, telling the BBC’s Evan Davis in 2015 he had learned that “the more I drew back, asked good questions, listened to the answers, cared about the guests… you make the camera disappear”.
He also addressed the spat he had with the British journalist and broadcaster Piers Morgan, who replaced him at CNN. King had criticised his successor as being “oversold” to US television audiences and said his programme was “too much about him”. Morgan, whose show was cancelled after three years, hit back at the time saying his programme had been “all about gun control & saving lives. You made yours about blowing smoke up celebrity backsides”.
“If you ask good questions and you elicit thoughtful answers, you learn more about the person, ” he said.