Talk show host Larry King, 87, known for his suspenders and his matter-of-fact style during interviews with everyone from surprise caller O.J. Simpson to every sitting president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama — and Donald Trump many times before he took office — plus scores of celebrities, died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Ora Media, the production company King founded, announced his death on Twitter, praising the television legend for viewing his subjects as “the true stars of his programs and himself as merely an unbiased conduit between the guests and audience.” King’s death occurs weeks after he was hospitalized with COVID-19.
King, born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger in Brooklyn, New York, began his career in radio with his showbiz name at WAHR-AM in Miami. By 1958, he began doing an interview show in front of a live audience, the kind of work for which he would become a household name. He landed another gig, replacing famous columnist Walter Winchell at the Miami Herald newspaper, in 1965.
On Dec. 20, 1971, King, who had by that time moved on to other media jobs in Miami, was arrested on charges of grand larceny for allegedly spending $5,000 his employer had given him to give to Jim Garrison, the former New Orleans District Attorney investigating the Kennedy assassination, to pay his back taxes. Charges against King were dismissed in March 1972, because the statute of limitations had expired, but he still lost his job at radio station WIOD, according to King’s longtime employer, CNN.
After that, King made an unexpected turn and went to work in media and public relations in Louisiana. However, he returned to Miami airwaves, newsstands and TVs later that decade and then expanded to the rest of the country.
The Larry King Show, a nationally syndicated late-night radio talk show, debuted on Jan. 30, 1978. Larry King Live debuted on CNN in 1985 and by the end of the decade, King had been inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, one of the many honors he racked up during his tenure behind the mic.
King once explained that he’d wanted to be in radio since he was 5.
“I just wanted to be an announcer. I wanted to be anything. I wanted to talk into a microphone,” he told Columbia Journalism Review in July 2017. “I don’t know why, I must have had a good voice pre-puberty. Because people kept telling me, ‘You gotta be on the radio.’ So I would imitate radio shows. I would listen to [radio show] The Shadow, and then I would go into my bathroom — we were very poor in Brooklyn — and I would go, ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows. A tale well calculated to keep you in…suspense!’ I was driven by the sounds. Still am.”
King explained in that same interview that he hadn’t gone to college, and that he worked a number of odd jobs before landing that first radio job at a small station in Miami.
He left his high-profile job at CNN after 25 years in 2010, but he continued to ask questions and entertain audiences. King performed a one-man comedy show and hosted online series Larry King Now for the network RT America, on which he made headlines in 2016 for a controversial interview with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. He also asked the questions on PoliticKING with Larry King from 2012 to 2019. The veteran broadcaster even announced plans for a podcast featuring celebrity interviews in May 2020.
Still, King managed to fit more than work into his life. He was married eight times to seven women (he married and divorced the same woman twice). In 1997, he married his last wife, Shawn Southwick, in his hospital room at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, as he was preparing to undergo heart surgery. They filed for divorce for the second and final time in 2019.
King had five children, including two sons with Southwick that he famously welcomed in his 60s. Sadly, two of his older children died over the course of three weeks in July and August 2019.
He had his first heart attack in 1987, which prompted him to found the non-profit Larry King Cardiac Foundation the following year, in order to help people without insurance or the money to pay for the medical care they need.
King himself struggled with additional heart problems, cancer and other health issues over the years. In November 2019, he said he had suffered a stroke eight months earlier. Then, on Jan. 2, CNN and others reported that King had been hospitalized for more than a week, after testing positive for COVID-19.