Interview – Larry King

Larry King, CNN

Award-winning broadcaster Larry King marks his 50th anniversary in broadcasting this month. Starting in 1957 at a small radio station in Miami, his career has spanned five decades and more than 40,000 interviews.

King is credited with altering the face of broadcasting with his everyman touch, having interviewed everyone from presidents and kings, celebrities and newsmakers and ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

In a rare interview, he put himself in the hot seat.

You started off in radio. Was it easy to make the switch to TV?

I’ve really been on radio and TV all my life. I started in radio in 57; started television in 59. But the switch to CNN in 1985 was something different. Ted Turner was a kind of frequent guest on my radio show, so he called me and asked me if I would like to do CNN. My problem with it was it would be at 9 o’clock every night. I was on at midnight. That would be two shows to do. I was trying to lead a kind of life. I wasn’t married. I liked to go to sporting events, but I said I would go give it a try. Mario Cuomo was the first guest and it was a little makeshift studio in Georgetown, Washington. I had never seen CNN because CNN wasn’t in Washington. We didn’t have cable, but I knew I loved it right away.

Out of all the 40,000 interviews you have done, which is the most memorable?

Frank Sinatra. At the time, he was a difficult interview to get. And I was such a fan and still am a fan. So when it finally came through, and he walked in the door, it was one of the most memorable moments of my career. He had everything you want in a guest: he was smart, funny, engaging and had a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

Does it bother you that sometimes people say, This guy is over 60 years old – who does he appeal to?

Well, it bothers me because I’m 73. What we are really saying here is that maybe I don’t appeal to myself.

On a more serious note, over the years culture has become much more concerned with celebrities as opposed to people who actually have some substance. Do you find that your show has had to shift itself more to the latest movie star or pop star?

The answer is yes. It’s a delicate balance for the producers – it’s a dilemma for anyone in the business. What are people interested in as opposed to what is current and important?

Now, I can certainly make a case that the terrible situation in the Sudan is worth a lot more than the tragic murder case – but what will be watched more? So you have to deal with them both – the celebrity culture as well as the culture of news – and you try to balance both. But I accept that the weight would probably come down on the side of what is a celebrity. And this boggles my mind because celebrities are made and gone so quick; stories appear one day and they’re history the next. I think CNN deals with that all the time. At Larry King Live, we have to deal with it all the time. I think LKL is unusual at CNN because we’re not a news show, per se.

There were times when you really ruled the roost and now there’s a lot more competition out there.

You know something, it’s really funny. I never thought I sort of ruled the roost. I never looked at numbers much. I never said who’s on opposite – I really just tried to do my best since my first days on radio in Miami. If it’s good enough, it’s good enough. You can’t make someone like you. You can’t force someone to watch you. So when CNN was the only news network and we were the number-one-rated, I didn’t go around saying, “Hey, I’m the number-one-rated. I’m the only news network.”

And now there are 14 networks. I don’t go around saying I’m now seventh or whatever it is. All I’m interested in is doing a good job.

How often have you lost your cool with a guest?

Not very often. I don’t give my own opinions. I don’t get into arguments on the air. How often have I lost my cool? I’m trying to think of the last time I really lost my cool. Boy, I’d have to go back a long way. I’d have to go back to George Wallace, who was governor of Alabama – and this was while I was working in Miami – and he walked in very pompously to our television station, Channel 4, and he said, “I don’t see any blacks working here.” And I said, “They own the station. They’re out to lunch.”

And it started from that, and then we started bickering and arguing and … but I don’t think I’ve ever lost my cool on CNN.

Well, how often do you interview somebody you just really don’t like?

Often. Well, I’m human. But my duty, as I see it, is I’m a conduit: I ask the best questions I can. I listen to the answers. I try to follow up. And hopefully the audience makes a conclusion. I’m not there to make a conclusion. I’m not a soapbox talk show host; never have been. What I think of someone may not be what you think of someone. So what I try to do is present someone in the best light and we go from there.

A few months ago, when Saddam Hussein was about to be executed, it seemed like a crazy night for you. What’s it like to be on air when that type of thing is happening?

Well, whenever you’re living a part of history – and I’ve had the good fortune or misfortune or whatever in the years of CNN to often be a part of that – you have to kind of go with the flow. I was on the air at the minute O.J. Simpson took off in the car. I was in Washington – there was no backup behind me. So I had to sit there for three hours describing a car chase in a city I didn’t know. They brought me a map, and I’m following the route on the 405 as he’s going down the 405 at six miles an hour with the entire police force, three miles an hour, following him … that’s called a fill. It was exciting but, at the same time, exacerbating.

The night of Saddam’s execution we knew it was going to happen. They tell you it’s going to be in the next 20 minutes, the next 10. And then you’re at one minute to go. It’s tough because while you’re asking all the questions, you’re heading towards an event that you know is going to happen. It’s not a surprise event. Simpson was a surprise event. Or an attack or a bombing or a fire. But this was something you knew was going to happen; we just didn’t know what time. It was tough.

What is it with all those movie roles? Is it something you actively seek out?

I never sought one out. I’ve done 21, and I always play myself. And I’ve done Shrek 2, as a woman – Doris, the ugly stepsister. And I’ll be in Shrek 3. We just finished that. And I’ll be in the bee movie, the Jerry Seinfeld story about bees, in which I play a bee. It’s Larry B. King. He’s a bee with a bee show.

They’re fun to do. Often we shoot it at CNN. Sometimes we go to other studios to shoot them. I’ve also done a lot of television shows, like Boston Legal, among many others. They’re all for the kick – you know, you’re acting. You’re playing yourself. I’d like to do one where I play someone else – not a woman and not a cartoon.

And then the biggest extracurricular thing I do is the Larry King Cardiac Foundation. After I had my heart surgery, we helped people who can’t afford to get hearts. CNN is a major contributor for us. That gives me the greatest joy. But doing films is a hoot.

Is there part of you that would like to spend time with your young family?

I get to spend a lot of time with them because we only have the one hour a day, and we all live here in Beverly Hills. My boys are eight and seven. We spend an awful lot of time together. I take them to school every morning and pick them up every day.

My contract is up in 2009. That will mean I would have been at the network for 24 years. If they want me, I will stay. I want to.

What is it that you watch when you go home?

I’m a sports nut, and watch sports events in the main. I watch CNN a lot. I watch Boston Legal, which is my favorite show on television other than what we do on CNN and other than sporting events. I watch a lot of baseball. Of course, I watch the football playoffs.

The 30 second interview:

a) Favorite Color – Royal Purple

b) Favorite Drink – Iced Coffee

c) Favorite Car – Lincoln Town Car

d) Favorite Movie – The Godfather

e) Favorite Restaurant – The Palm

f) Favorite Film Star (dead or Alive) – Al Pacino

g) Favorite Food – Swordfish (It was lamb before my heart health days.)

h) Favorite Season – Fall

i) Favorite Place to Love – Los Angeles

j) Favorite Piece of Music – The Way You Look Tonight

The King-Sized Week runs on CNN from April 17–21, from 6pm-7pm (Bali time).

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The Big Questions

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