Larry King, the famously suspender-clad and bespectacled media personality who became a fixture on television screens and an enduring part of American popular culture, has died at the age of 87.
According to a statement issued by his family, King passed away Saturday morning (January 23rd) at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Earlier this month, King was hospitalized after contracting COVID-19.
A two-time Peabody and Emmy Award winner, King’s career spanned across six decades and multiple mediums. He’s perhaps best remembered as the host of CNN’s Larry King Live, the interview-based program that he moderated for 25 years. Following his exit from CNN in the early 2010s, King launched a new program called Larry King Now on Hulu. All told, King was said to have conducted over 30,000 interviews over the course of his career.
Born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger on November 19th, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish immigrants, King’s mother, Jennie, went on welfare to support him and his younger brother, Marty, after his father, Edward, passed away from a heart attack at age 44. While King had a lifelong desire to work in radio, his father’s death caused him to lose interest in his studies. Following his high school graduation, he stayed in Brooklyn, supporting his mother by working as a mail clerk.
However, he was eventually guided toward the broadcasting path after a CBS TV announcer encouraged him to relocate to Florida. It was there that he found work in Miami at a radio station, WAHR (now gospel station WMBM). At first, he was tasked with general housekeeping duties. Then, in 1957, he got his first shot at appearing on the air. He received a 9 a.m. to noon DJing shift. Additionally, he gave two afternoon news reports and a sports report each day.
WAHR’s general manager insisted Zeiger go by a different surname. He chose King after seeing an ad for King’s Wholesale Liquor. His popularity as a radio host soon led to a local television gig, as well as writing entertainment columns for the Miami Herald and Miami News. Another media legend mentored King: Jackie Gleason. In his memoir, My Remarkable Journey, King described how he and Gleason were kindred spirits.
“Though he was 15 years older, we had similar backgrounds and a chemistry that makes for good friends. We were both ethnic kids from Brooklyn. His father ran away. My father died. He didn’t have a phone. I didn’t have a phone until I was a teenager. We both liked attention.”
In 1971, King faced criminal charges for grand larceny, allegedly for receiving stolen money. These charges didn’t stick, but his media career suffered some setbacks. He spent the first half of the decade doing public relations and sports commentary. However, he eventually made a comeback, one that restarted his career in Miami and would soon lead to national prominence.
January 30th, 1978, brought the launch of The Larry King Show, a radio program airing in 28 cities via the Mutual Broadcasting System. A call-in interview show, King’s program grew in popularity over the years, drawing between three and five million viewers per week in the 1980s.
This decade also saw the dawn of arguably King’s most famous program: Larry King Live, premiering on CNN in 1985. King’s straightforward interview style with simple questions proved very successful with viewers and guests. When Marlon Brando’s contract with Random House forced him to do at least one interview to promote his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, he requested King’s show, calling him “forthright, sincere, and direct and unexploitative.” The interview concluded with an unforgettable moment of Brando and King exchanging a kiss.
Other major Larry King Live moments included a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) debate between then-Vice President Al Gore and billionaire and Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot. Support for the act grew considerably after the episode’s airing, growing from 34 to 57 percent. King’s program and hosting style found a place for both world leaders, such as Vladimir Putin, and entertainers, like Frank Sinatra.
King collected plenty of accolades during the show’s run, including 10 Cable ACE Awards, two Peabody awards, as well as a News & Documentary Emmy Award, GLAAD Media Award, and Golden Mike Award. He also received a News & Documentary Lifetime Achievement Emmy and was also a four-time nominee at the Daytime Emmys.
2010 marked the end of Larry King Live, and CNN said goodbye to their star with plenty of fanfare. Among the guests who showed up on his final broadcast were then-President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Regis Philbin, Tony Bennett, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Katie Couric. Fred Armisen also appeared, impersonating King.
The end of Larry King Live did not mean the end of his broadcasting career. A new series, Larry King Now, premiered in 2012, airing on multiple platforms, including Hulu. On Larry King Now in particular, King welcomed several notable music personalities, including Joanna Newsom, Tyler the Creator, and Morrissey.
Outside of his own programs, King had a very active life. He was married eight times, including twice to former Playboy bunny Alene Akins. He had also fathered five children, including two with Alene: Andy and Chaia. Sadly, both Andy and Chaia passed away in August 2020, weeks apart.
King also dealt with some major medical problems during his life and career. He underwent a quintuple bypass surgery following a heart attack in 1987. King’s experience with heart troubles led to him founding the Larry King Cardiac Foundation and writing two books on the subject. He also suffered a stroke in March 2019. This put King in a coma “for a couple weeks,” and he told TV network KTLA that he felt suicidal in the aftermath.
In a 2017 interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, King said his greatest fear was death and that he didn’t believe in the afterlife, identifying as a mix of atheist and agnostic. However, after his stroke, King told PEOPLE he had “less of a fear of dying.”
One didn’t have to tune into CNN to know about Larry King, who was very willing to poke fun at himself, He appeared on comedy programs like The Simpsons, Frasier, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. He could also be seen on the big screen, appearing as himself in films such as Ghostbusters, Contact, Enemy of the State, and Bee Movie (as “Bee Larry King”). One exception was in the three Shrek sequels, where he voiced Doris, an ugly stepsister.
— Larry King (@kingsthings) January 23, 2021