(Courtesy of The Telegraph)
When Larry King’s CNN show ended last year, his friends did wonder how he would cope with semi-retirement. For 25 years, he was the face of the news station, sitting down five nights a week with presidents, beauty queens and kidnap victims, invariably greeting them with his old-school brand of gently discursive, non-judgmental chat. “When you drive by the Watergate,” he asked Richard Nixon, “do you feel weird?”
Before CNN, King had spent 30 years working behind a microphone one way or the other – as a disc jockey, sports announcer, phone-in host, domestic appliance salesman.
“I always wanted to be a broadcaster,” he declares in his signature emphatic baritone. “Ever since I was six, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.” King is sitting on his vast sofa, watching baseball on television while his wife gets changed upstairs for the photo shoot. It’s the middle of the day in the middle of the week and he’s 77 years old.
“Semi-retirement,” he muses, “is more difficult than I thought.” The Kings’ house, in the flat section of Beverly Hills, is opulent in the faux-Tuscan mega-mansion style favoured by reality television stars such as the Kardashians. There is a double staircase and grand piano, and vacuuming maids in the background. Aesthetically promiscuous art on the walls along with a treasure trove of career mementoes. King’s trophy room is one of the finest I’ve seen in Hollywood. A floor-to-ceiling array of awards, citations, and star-studded photos spanning more than 50 years. There are snaps with Marlon Brando, Christmas cards from the Clintons, thank-you notes from various Kennedys.
It’s a mighty collage and testament to his Zelig-like ability to be present for so many key moments of American history. King narrated OJ Simpson’s epic car chase live. He had his own car pranged by JFK years before he ran for president. He was with Bill Clinton in the White House on the night Clinton’s aide Vince Foster killed himself. It was on King’s show that Ross Perot announced his presidential candidacy. And he became part of the story himself when he lost almost $3million in the Bernie Madoff swindle.
He’s been walked out on by guests ranging from Art Garfunkel to the arch-conservative beauty queen Carrie Prejean. “I think that you are being extremely inappropriate right now,” she told King after he dared to put through a gay male caller who “loved pageants”.
King’s successor at CNN, Piers Morgan, emailed me to say: “My respect for Larry grows daily when I realise how demanding, and relentless, a nightly cable show really is. The guy had incredible stamina, never mind a unique talent for conversing with the great and the good and the not-so-good.” (King had previously likened watching Morgan’s show to ‘“watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new Bentley”, but the two clearly like each other.)
“There are days I miss the show a great deal,” says King, checking his watch and wondering where his wife has got to. “Especially when there’s a big event, like when they killed Osama bin Laden. I don’t care about tabloid shows. All you can do in those circumstances is try not to be inane. But the fast-breaking news – I used to love going from guest to guest to guest. It seems like you’re not in control, but you are. I realised very early on that the host is always in control.” He goes over to the phone and calls upstairs to the bedroom. “How long does it take to put on an outfit?”
King’s solution to the retirement problem has been to get back behind a microphone and let loose his self-mocking side on stage. All signs of grumpiness evaporate when we get on to the subject of his new live show, Larry King: Standing Up. His act is a crowd-pleasing mix of childhood anecdotes, showbiz tales and unapologetically old-fashioned jokes involving funerals, rabbis and mothers-in-law. The critics have been a little sniffy, but the show has proved so popular, King is bringing it to Britain in the new year.
“When you’re telling a funny story or joke for an audience, and it’s right at the moment before the punchline – that’s the ultimate control. I get a bigger high making people laugh than interviewing the President.”
King, whose real name is Larry Zeiger, grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a blue-collar area that prides itself on its irreverent ethnic swagger. As he recounts in his 2009 memoirs, My Remarkable Journey, King was the street-corner wag getting up to no good.
“I was always comfortable around comedy. I liked telling funny stories. I liked making people laugh.” King and his neighbourhood pals still meet once a week at nearby Nate and Al’s deli in a scene that resembles an out-take from Broadway Danny Rose. “My mother was the classic overprotective Jewish mother,” he quips. “If she ever wrote a book it would be called ‘Dress Warm’.”
Tammy Haddad, his producer for 12 years at CNN, remembers: “Larry was a riot to work with. He knew how to have a good time. We used to tell him he should join the bar mitzvah circuit and make even more money.” These days, King is derided for his softball approach, but back in the Sixties, he was billed as “Radio’s answer to Mort Sahl [a satirist in the Lenny Bruce mould] – Fast, witty, biting”.
“Jewish humour has a very specific attitude,” says King. “For example: There’s this funeral and the rabbi finishes the eulogy and says, ‘Does anyone else have anything to say?’ Nothing. ‘Does anyone have anything nice to say about the deceased?’ Nothing. ‘Can ANYONE say anything nice?’ One guy raises his arm: ‘His brother was worse’.” He laughs his deep rumbly laugh. “It’s funny in any language. But it’s culturally Jewish. It’s much funnier if it’s a rabbi. It’s like what Al Capp [the cartoonist] said: The Italians came to this country and said, ‘Let us fix your shoes’. The Irish came and said, ‘Let us police the streets’. The Jews came and just said, ‘We’re gonna laugh at it all’.” The pain underpinning King’s humour is the sudden death of his father from a heart attack when King was just nine. With almost perfect Freudian symmetry, King Snr, a bar owner and raconteur who fought in the Russian Revolution, died mid-joke.
“He was my hero,” says King. “I’ve never resolved it to this day.” The family struggled through hard times and King floundered at school, partly because of his restlessness. “If there had been Ritalin back then,” said his brother Marty Zeiger, “maybe he wouldn’t have become Larry King.” King got his break into broadcasting when he was steered down to Florida by an uncle, who’d spotted correctly that Miami was expanding into a Las Vegas-style mecca. King’s unpretentious affability was well suited to local radio. He made listeners feel part of his club.
The likes of Don Rickles and Jackie Gleason took a shine to him and Gleason secured King his first scoop, an interview with Frank Sinatra, where Sinatra opened up for the first time in public about his son’s kidnapping.
“My first big intimidation was Sinatra,” admits King, straightening the Sinatra coffee table book in front of him. “The second one was walking into the White House for the first time.” And that’s all? I wonder. No other times? “You get the hang of it immediately.”
Shawn Southwick-King, Larry’s wife of 14 years, duly emerges and the photo shoot is concluded. She is tall, blonde and stunning. She looks like a Barbie doll. In fact, she is a Barbie doll. A 12in toy version of her stands in a Perspex case in the hall.
The real version is disarmingly warm and down-to-earth with undercurrents of vulnerability, quite distinct from Larry’s uninsultable crocodile-at-rest majesty. She was a television reporter for Hollywood Insider in the Nineties and ran her own company promoting hairclips from China, but has since returned to her first love, singing. “My father worked for Capitol records, so I grew up with the Beach Boys playing the piano in the house,” she says. “The first concert I went to was Glen Campbell.” She is a Mormon from Utah and grew up performing with the Osmonds, but Larry warns me off discussing it further.
“Oh, don’t even say the word Osmonds. She and Marie had a bad break-up. She’s very devout.” He looks reflective for a moment. “I’m not devout. I’m agnostic bordering on [he makes a squirting noise] beyond agnosticism.” “He’s really going in the other direction,” she says. Shawn opens for Larry’s show in Las Vegas and it’s been a healing joint venture after a rocky year. The pair filed for divorce last year amid a flurry of tabloid headlines. Larry was reported to have had an affair with Shawn’s lookalike sister; Shawn was alleged to have retaliated with a fling with their children’s Little League coach. They cancelled the divorce and reunited after Shawn took an overdose. They feel like a couple still figuring things out, but at the same time are clearly ready to show the world they are back on track.
“On Saturday nights at the Mirage,” says Shawn, “we get a younger crowd but it’s still standing ovations. He’s like a cult figure to the young people. They come up and grab him. ‘Man, we miss you, man, you gotta come back’.” “All types,” nods King sagely. “Latinos, students.” When King attended a recent college football game at Notre Dame, the crowd chanted his name: “Lar-ry. Lar-ry.” In August, Chicago hosted a Larry King Day in his honour.
He wears the adulation pretty lightly. “Every time you get a lifetime achievement, you need to be brought down again. I go in the trophy room and it’s gratifying, but at the same time, it’s like I’m looking at someone else.” He tells the story of broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite, when he was in Kansas to receive an award and couldn’t sleep. “He was thirsty and nothing was open in the motel, so he went to a 7-Eleven to get some milk, and the carton breaks and the milk is all over him. All the people look up. There’s Walter Cronkite, the most famous face in America, at one in the morning in Kansas with milk all over himself. [King shrugs.] Just another guy.” I offer up the theory that a huge part of King’s cult appeal to the younger generation is that he appears so serenely untroubled by what anyone else thinks of him. Which is just as well. Over the years, he has been lampooned mercilessly for his blithely disconnected style.
King’s interview with kidnap victim Katie Hall is the stuff of television folklore. Hall was midway through an emotional account of her abduction and King only wanted to know about the groceries carried by her would-be rapist.
HALL: “I just turned around the corner and pulled over, and he slammed my head into the steering wheel and pulled out handcuffs. He took my keys out, threw them on the floor, handcuffed me and said, ‘I just want a piece of a–. If you be good, you won’t get hurt’.”
KING: “What did he do with the food?”
Certainly, King must be the only interviewer in history to get the name of a Beatle wrong, when he called Ringo “George”. Then he rapped Paul McCartney on the knee with his list of questions after McCartney dared to complain.
King offers up the familiarity of television as the main reason for all his adulation. “When you see a movie star in a restaurant, you lean backward. When you see a TV person you lean forward. Pretty good theory. TV makes you a member of the family.” The other part of King’s appeal, I think, is that he is a good sport who can genuinely take a good ribbing. Again, this is just as well.
He’s the current default punchline for any gag about old age, or having an inappropriately younger wife.
King calls in one of his two sons with Shawn, 10-year-old Cannon, who’s been roaring around in a basketball outfit, and gets him to do his Larry King impersonation. Cannon narrows his eyes and assumes a curmudgeonly frown.
“Shawn, Shawn. Get in the car!”
“Do another one,” says Larry, chuckling away.
“Oh my gosh, Shawn. See the time? Tick-tock, tick-tock, Shawn.”
“I am a noodge with the clock,” he concedes. Shawn gives me a look as if to say that’s putting it mildly.
The couple met outside Tiffany’s in New York in 1997, when Larry noticed her and couldn’t resist making a move. His opening line was: “You better get out of here right now or it’s gonna be all over the tabloids.”
“Who else says that?” she says. “That’s how he got me was with his humour.”
“It certainly wasn’t the looks or the age.” She gives him a look. “Honey.” He assumes the face of a chastised schoolboy. “I had just gotten out of a relationship,” she continues, “and I think you said you were getting out of a relationship. Or was that just a line?”
Before meeting Shawn, King had a freewheeling approach to matrimony. He burned through six wives in 40 years, one of whom he married twice, not to mention a string of glamorous girlfriends, including the actress Angie Dickinson. “You’d never think it to look at him,” marvelled one agent who hung out with King in the 80s, “but this guy had more action than Ryan O’Neal.” And almost as many bust-ups. Stories about King’s rows with his wives are legion. His one visit to Britain 20 years ago ended with him hiding in the cockpit on the return flight to avoid sitting next to his then wife, Sharon. “You think, we’ve had fights,” he tells Shawn. “We look like Hansel and Gretel compared to me and her.” He turns back to me and I can’t help feeling like a marriage counsellor.
“Before she and I met, I used to do five hours of radio a day and one hour of television, so there was only half my day I didn’t control. And here I don’t have no control. Let’s be honest, I have no say.”
“Now we’re in fiction.”
“We’re not in fiction.”
“We’re in fiction. You decide. You take care of the big stuff and I decide where we go to dinner. That’s the deal.”
“Humour saves me,” he says. “Living with her. If I didn’t have humour, I’d be dead.”
“And I’m the source of all humour in your life?”
“I didn’t say all. I would say quite a bit.” He chortles to himself. Shawn, meanwhile, shakes her head in wonderment. “You get so much amusement from your own jokes,” she says.