Big Daddy Larry King

By Nicholas Kralev
The Financial Times Magazine
July 29, 2000

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It took Larry King 66 years, seven marriages and five children to discover the greatest “thrill” in life: parenthood.

Sitting in the children’s room of his Mediterranean-style mansion in Beverly Hills, with five-week-old Cannon in his arms and 15-month-old Chance playing on the floor beside him, King says that he pinches himself every day — “I can’t believe everything that’s happened to me”.

Having interviewed nearly 10,000 people, among them six US presidents, being recognised around the world by the millions watching “Larry King Live” on CNN every day, and paid “handsomely for something I’d do for free” — it all pales beside the joy of new fatherhood.

“Before, I was so goal-oriented that the (professional) goals were ahead of everything. I loved my children and tried to be a good father, but work always came first. Ten years ago, if you had asked me whether I’d rather have a little baby or moderate a presidential debate, I’d have chosen the debate. Now the babies and the family come first.”

Although he rarely uses the word “I” and avoids sharing personal experiences on his show, off-camera King is surprisingly open about his private life. He’s had enough time over the years to learn how to handle the endless questions and jokes about his marriages (he was married twice to the same woman, a former Playboy bunny called Alene Akins) and the age difference between him and his current wife, Shawn Southwick-King, 26 years his junior.

“I just like diversity,” he says. “The girl I liked at 20 was not the girl I liked at 30. And in the culture I grew up in, if you fell in love, you got married. I fell in love when I was 20 and 30, and I got married. It didn’t work out, and I paid what I had to pay.” He says the “diversity” has probably made him a better person, and he prefers it to being married to the same person for 50 years, having to make endless compromises. But he’d rather not be judged by the number of his marriages: “I don’t make a judgement about people who’ve been single all their life.”

He says he used to feel uncomfortable about relationships with much younger women, but Shawn changed his perception (King is as old as Shawn’s mother, and four years younger than her father). “She happens to be terrific and things just fit in,” he says, even though “she is a devout Mormon and I’m an agnostic”. She also gets along very well with friends from his own generation. The only thing he worries about is that he “won’t be around” when Chance and Cannon grow up to be in high school and college. “My wife will be in her early 50s and still beautiful, with two young kids. I’ll miss that.”

In spite of his age and the heart surgery he had in 1987, King tries to play with his children as much as any father would. As he joins Chance and his toy train on the floor, he says that the whole family will spend a weekend in San Francisco in August with actress Sharon Stone and her husband, newspaper editor Phil Bronstein. The Bronsteins have just adopted a baby, Roan, born on the same day as Cannon (May 22). “They are very happy over this,” says King, who has had a “thing” with Stone for years: “She and I have always been flirtatious. Her husband understands it, and so does my wife.”

The flirtations never led to anything serious. ABC’s Barbara Walters once asked King: if he were in Nebraska and Stone knocked on his door at 3am, offering to “fool around” for an hour, would he do it? “I couldn’t,” he says. “Not that I wouldn’t want to. I couldn’t face my wife because I love and respect her, and I know she would never do this to me. Now that’s a sign of love — or craziness…”

King can’t complain of lack of “craziness” in his life. When he was 23, he boarded a bus to Miami with a few dollars in his pocket, just because someone had told him it was easy to make it in radio there; and, as well as his failed marriages, he’s had two bankruptcies.

He was born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish immigrants from Minsk, Belarus. He was 11 when his father, a defence-plant worker, died at the age of 44. His mother, a garment worker, never remarried, and, though she did her best to provide for Larry and his brother Marty, the boys had no idea what wealth was.

Today, he makes a reported $7m. His house and garden occupy more than half an acre in one of the most expensive areas in the US, and he and his family flew on a private plane to Utah, Shawn’s home state, earlier this month for a week-long holiday.

King says that he feels “a great connection to the Russian people, and an affinity for Russia, but I’m an American, a cultural American Jew”. He was planning a visit to Moscow several years ago, but his doctor didn’t let him fly because of his heart condition. He’s now much healthier, and hopes to make the trip soon.

He will certainly have no trouble being recognised wherever he goes. His show reaches more than 170m households in 210 countries, according to CNN figures, and his famous guests (some not nearly as famous as he) fascinate viewers everywhere, regardless of age, sex and nationality. Washington power brokers and world leaders often communicate through “Larry King Live”, and the programme is a mandatory stop for Hollywood stars promoting a project or coping with a personal crisis. In 1992, Ross Perot announced his presidential candidacy in King’s studio. In 1994, Marlon Brando gave his first interview in 20 years to King, and ended it by planting a kiss on the host’s mouth. A day after he was acquitted of murder, O. J. Simpson phoned “Larry King Live”.

But success didn’t come overnight. He was sweeping floors at WAHR radio Miami in 1957 when the disc jockey quit one day, and Larry, asked by the producer to change his surname to King, took the microphone. By the mid-1960s, with no college degree but plenty of self-confidence, he was writing a column in the Miami Herald for $70,000 a year and driving about town in a Cadillac. But years of horse-betting and living beyond his means led to bankruptcy and the loss of his job.

Then in 1978, his life dramatically improved after an offer from the Mutual Broadcasting System to host a midnight-till-dawn talk show on national radio. His call-in programme was broadcast on 365 stations from coast to coast and attracted 10m listeners. Larry King was now a household name. Then, five years after CNN was launched, in 1985, its founder, Ted Turner, invited his old friend King to do an hour-long, prime-time TV show. “Larry King Live” soon became CNN’s highest-rated programme, its signature show.

King pondered the secret of his success at a posh Beverly Hills hotel, the day before my visit to his mansion. “It’s a combination of good interviews, good guests and good coverage of subjects,” he explained. “The show is a happening — you learn a lot and you’re entertained as well; it moves along, has a good pace. The emphasis is on America, but America makes news everywhere. I think people sense that I love what I’m doing. There’s nothing I’d rather do than interview people. I love asking questions.”

He says he doesn’t consider the show “work” and calls it “the easiest part of my day because it’s in my control — I can’t control the traffic jam or flight delays. I read my newspapers this morning. I have the Dalai Lama on the show tonight. We had the breaking story on the human genome today, so I’ll ask him about that. Then my staff will give me a bunch of notes on the current situation between Tibet and China and what he’s doing in the US, and the rest is up to me to ask curious questions. What’s it like to be the Dalai Lama — that fascinates me as much as the political situation. What’s it like to be the head of a state in exile? The State Department greets you when you come here, you get all the secret service attention, but you can’t go to your own country.”

But things didn’t go quite the way they had been planned. As the show started at 6pm local time, the Dalai Lama, speaking live from his room at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, said he hadn’t heard about the genome. King tried to explain: “Well, they announced today that the discovery… that they could put together a book of life on every person… the book of everyone’s genes in life.” But his guest remained clueless. “I had a tough time with him,” King confessed at his house the next day.

His concept of an interview is simple: “When you watch an interview, or you read it, you should know more about the subject than you knew before it started, and you should be entertained at the same time.” He says he likes to interview different people — politicians, show business stars, athletes and others — “because the fabric of life brings all these things into our lives”. He admits he’s not an “intellectual” interviewer, and asks the questions that “the guy in the street” would ask. “My problem with certain interviewers is that they have an agenda: they either want to make news or to ‘get’ their interviewees. I’m never there to embarrass.”

Known for being chummy with his guests and for his affable, non-combative style, King has been called “the journalistic darling of the political elite” and “our great national suck-up” by the US media. A famous New York Times columnist once wrote: “He is the resort area of American journalism, the media’s Palm Springs, where politicians and other figures of controversy or celebrity can go to unwind, kick back and reflect on what a wacky and wonderful trip it has been.”

King says he never understood those comments and the accusations that he asks “softball” questions. “I’ve asked those people to present an interview to me and say what was ‘softball’.” He recalls an interview with then vice-president Dan Quayle during the 1992 presidential campaign, when he asked the Republican whether he would support his daughter if she wanted to have an abortion, and received a positive response.

“I’ve also been criticised for calling elected officials by their first names. I’ve known Al Gore for 25 years. He always says, ‘Call me Al’. I’ve gone to baseball games with George W Bush — he knows more about baseball than any politician I’ve ever met. So it’s very hard to say ‘Mr vice-president’ or ‘governor’. But that’s envy; it has nothing to do with learning the answer to a question.”

King has also been mocked for taking great pleasure in celebrity and for “palling around” with stars. But it seems that few of the people he knows are not famous. That’s why many of his references in conversation sound like name-dropping: “Al Pacino told me once…”, or “Oprah Winfrey said to me…”, or “When we went to the White House for a picture with Clinton and Chance…”.

That picture, taken on the last day of the Kosovo war a year ago, can now be seen on the wall by the entrance to King’s house. It’s separate from about two dozen other photographs, on a table just across from the door, with celebrities no less notable: Nancy Reagan, George and Barbara Bush, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Jim Carrey. In the kitchen, by the sink, stands an autographed picture of “Friends” star Matthew Perry, which “Bruce Willis delivered when Perry was out of town”.

Acting is something King has been seriously contemplating of late. Always playing himself, he has appeared in nearly 20 films and 10 TV shows, including “Enemy of the State”, “Bulworth”, “Primary Colors”, “The Jackal” and “Murphy Brown”. His latest part is in “The Kid”, with Willis.

Now he’d like to star in a play on Broadway, “for a week or two, and be someone else”, rather than in a movie taking months to shoot. Al Pacino (here we go with the name-dropping) told him that if he were to play in a film, “it’ll have to be a long part, all through the movie, because the people wouldn’t accept me as someone else at the beginning”.

But King already has his commemorative star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, awarded in 1997, and has won numerous awards for “Larry King Live”. He’s also now a respected member of CNN’s high-powered Campaign 2000 team — the group of top anchors, such as Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff, CNN has assembled to cover the US presidential campaigns and election. He says he has no more professional goals (except to interview the Pope). His CNN contract expires in January 2002 — and “I’ll be 68, with probably one big contract left.”

His new family is his main concern. He still travels to the east coast, and occasionally broadcasts from New York and Washington, where he was based before he married Shawn in 1997, but he spends most of his time in Los Angeles so that his young children can see him at home rather than on TV. (Shawn once asked Chance to say “goodbye” to Daddy, and the toddler waved to the TV. Still, King’s children from his previous marriages could only listen to him while he was at work.)

“I’ve got three grown-up children: a 43-year-old son, a 38-year-old son and a 32-year-old daughter,” he says. “But now I have a new appreciation for children and family. When my little boy comes into bed in the morning and looks at me — ‘Dada!’ — that tops hosting a worldwide debate.”