PASADENA, Calif.—Forget the pressure for ratings, the encroachment of the Internet, the parasitic culture of celebrity that’s slowly strangling journalism. The biggest threat to television news—this is a lesson Larry King learned on his first night on the air in Miami and took to heart—is the swivel chair.
“My first night on the air on television, I’d never been on television before, a show called “Miami Uncovered,” different topics each week, I’d be the moderator of debates,” King recalls of that fateful and nearly fatal night in 1960. “The first topic was: Should China be admitted to the U.N.? Should Red China be admitted to the U.N.?
“I had one panelist on one side, one on the other, me in the middle on a swivel chair. I smoked then. I smoked on the air. I smoked all through the `60s. I lit up, I go on, I wasn’t nervous.
`I said, `Good evening,’ I asked the first question and turned to the guest—and just kept swiveling. I couldn’t stop the swivel. So it was just smoke and swivel. And your paper wrote: `They have a smoking, swiveling host.’
“Needless to say, they corrected it the next week. But I couldn’t stop the swiveling.”
Larry King didn’t invent radio or television, or even the talk show (or even the swivel chair, for that matter). But sometimes it seems that way. He’ll celebrate his 50th year in broadcasting this spring on CNN, his home for the past quarter-century, as the network’s top-rated host. He’s done 40,000 interviews, been inducted into five broadcasting halls of fame, played himself in 21 movies.
With all that, he still misses Miami, the place where it all started one morning in 1957 when a DJ at the long-vanished radio station WAHR didn’t show up for work and Larry Zeiger, janitor, was instantly promoted to Larry King, disc jockey.
That was just the start of an endless rags-to-riches-to-rags cycle that marked King’s two decades in South Florida. He was a one-man media conglomerate with shows on radio and TV and a column in The Miami Herald, and also a one-man Great Depression, with a cloud of bad debts and bounced checks constantly hovering over his head.
He was the toast of the town, emceeing every theater opening and civic club and sporting event, but his marriages—three of `em—were just toast. He was sought after by all the stars who came to bask in the spotlight at the Fontainebleau, and by all the cops serving warrants for frauds and scams. (In his autobiography, King wrote that his ambition in those days “was to get through the week without hearing from the IRS.”)
“I had a lot of ups and downs there,” King acknowledges. “But it was great for me. I have a lot of affinity for Miami. ... I knew it like the back of my hand. I opened every theater. I did a lot of speaking, a lot of emceeing. I was in a lot of groups. I was in television-and-radio newspaper columns. I was all over the board. It was quite an experience.”
One experience would lead, nearly by itself, to King’s unique interviewing style, which is to not so much question his guests as schmooze them. It happened soon after King left the playing of records behind to host a breakfast show—literally—on WKAT radio. He sat in a booth at Pumpernik’s, the old Miami Beach deli, and chatted with customers, waitresses, tourists, basically anybody willing to sit still for five minutes. Then one morning, singer Bobby Darin walked in to have breakfast.
“All I knew about Bobby Darin was Mack the Knife,” King recalls. “So I asked him, where did Bobby Darin come from?” The simple question—no prepping from publicists, no studying critics’ reviews, no finely honed trick clauses—worked so well that King has never done it any other way. He actually prefers not to have read the book or seen the movie his guest is talking about, so his questions ring with curiosity rather than rehearsal.
It’s a popular style with his audiences, less so with his critics, who accuse King of lobbing softballs to all his guests. That, he concedes, bugs him a little.
“I’ve never understood that,” King says, shaking his head in perplexity. “All I’ve tried to do is ask the best questions I could think of, listen to the answers, and then follow up. I’ve never not followed up. I don’t attack anybody—that’s not my style—but I follow up.
`I’ve asked people who say this, `What’s a softball question?’ They’ll say, `You say to some movie star, what’s your next project?’ To me, that’s not a softball. To me, that’s interesting—what are you doing next?”
King is no fan of the current generation of talk-show hosts, who use their guests as props or punching bags. He calls them “I” hosts, because they are more interested in lecturing their guests than listening to them.
“I hope I never do that,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s bad. If you watch Bill O’Reilly, that is Bill O’Reilly. It’s not my cup of tea, I don’t care for it, but I can understand why a lot of viewers do. ...
`Nancy Grace, I don’t think she has an `interviewing style.’ She’s a prosecutor. It’s a prosecutorial style. Very accusatory, harpoonish. I don’t think it’s fair to the judicial system. I believe in the presumption of innocence. When I do a show, I make sure both sides are represented.”
Only once can King recall really rumbling with a guest, and of course it was in Miami. In 1968, he was interviewing Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace, an independent candidate for president, on WTVJ.
`He walked in very pompously to our television station and he said, `I don’t see any blacks working here,’ ” King remembers. `And I said, `They own the station. They’re out to lunch.’ And it started from that. ... It was bickering and arguing.”
King so detested Wallace that he abandoned his lifelong allegiance to the Democratic Party to write a Miami Herald column urging readers to vote for Richard Nixon under the headline “A liberal looks at Nixon.” He looks mildly pained that a reporter remembers it.
“I had been given all this information that if people didn’t vote for Nixon—this was the worst mistake of my life—Wallace was going to win. (Democratic candidate Hubert) Humphrey had no chance in Florida. So if you didn’t vote for Nixon, you were throwing your vote away. You were electing Wallace. And this would be a travesty for Florida.
“Well, as it turned out, Nixon beat Humphrey by a scant margin, Humphrey killed him in Dade County, and Wallace was a distant third. So I was wrong. That was some election.”
If that particular piece is one of King’s less pleasant memories of Miami, getting a regular column in The Miami Herald is one of the better ones—not because it was The Miami Herald, but because of whom he replaced: Walter Winchell, to whom King had listened in awe during his boyhood.
“I was writing a column at the Miami Beach Sun,” King says. “The Herald carried Walter Winchell. And Walter Winchell’s column ebbed out, ebbed out, ebbed out and dropped out. John Knight, who was a great friend to me—the publisher, I used to go to the race track with him, he came on my show—he said, you want to move over to The Herald? I said sure, and I got over to The Herald, six days a week, replacing Winchell.
`I loved Winchell. ... He was so sad. You know what Winchell was doing at the end? Typing out mimeographed sheets with his column, handing them out on the corner. That’s how sad he got. When he died, only one person came to his funeral. But in his day, Winchell was dominant: `Let’s go to all the ships at sea! Let’s go to press!’ The most powerful columnist ever in America, was Winchell; no one, ever, in his league. He could make your career, or break you. And when he went down, he went down like a spiral.”
King, too, went down like a spiral in 1972, when his financial tap-dancing finally caught up with him. Arrested for defrauding his one-time pal and boss Louis Wolfson, King lost everything—radio, TV, the column. The charges were eventually dropped because of the statute of limitations, and three years later, when tempers had cooled, he went back on the air. His late-night WIOD program morphed into a national call-in show on the Mutual radio network, which in turn gave way to the CNN program.
Although King is 73, he has no plans to call it quits. His CNN deal runs until 2009, and CNN President Jim Walton announced last week that the network will renew it. “Larry can sit in his chair as long as he continues to perform,” Walton said.
`I love the line `as long as he is able to perform,’” King says with a sardonic laugh. “The question would be, in whose opinion? Whitey Herzog, the manager of the Cardinals, was offered a contract by August Busch, the owner. August Busch said to him, `Whitey, I’m giving you a lifetime contract.’
“And Whitey said, `Your life, or mine?’”