In living rooms across America, Larry King was as comfortable a guest as a favorite uncle dropping by to schmooze with the family.
Never too pushy, never going directly for the jugular, King — with his trademark suspenders, horn-rimmed glasses and rolled-up sleeves — would chat it up with presidents, authors, actors, psychics, villains, heroes or anyone with a product to push, a political race to win or an image in need of a makeover.
In a career that spanned half a century, King became one of the most famous talk show hosts and opinion shapers in the world with his breezy, rarely confrontational style of banter, leading his guests this way and that, wherever his curiosity took him.
Seldom out of the spotlight for long, the 87-year-old King died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said Ora Media, the company behind the programs “Larry King Now” and “Politicking With Larry King,” in a statement. King was hospitalized with COVID-19 earlier this month.
King ended his long-running CNN program in 2010 but returned to television again and again as a moderator and, occasionally, pitchman. During his 25 years presiding over “Larry King Live,” the first international live phone-in TV talk show, King was variously dubbed in the press “America’s yak-master,” the “pope of talk” and the “top banana of talk-show hosts.”
With his swept-back dark hair, the jacketless King would sit at his desk with its prop antique microphone and — leaning forward, shoulders hunched — do what he felt he did best: “draw people out in an interview.”
“Tonight!” he’d boom in his familiar baritone at the start of each show, launching into a brief introduction of the evening’s guest — or guests — seated opposite him or in another studio via satellite.
For King, that could mean Frank Sinatra or Henry Kissinger, Don Rickles or the Dalai Lama.
Over the decades, a seemingly endless succession of celebrities, politicians and assorted newsmakers and experts dutifully answered King’s questions.
It was a simple formula: King and his guest would talk at length, then King would take phone calls from viewers.
“Bethesda, Maryland, hello!” he’d say after punching one of the blinking lines on his desktop phone.
Launched on CNN in June 1985 with then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo as the first guest, “Larry King Live” became CNN’s highest-rated show, and King became a household name.
But it was the 1992 presidential campaign that elevated King and his show to a new level.
It began with an appearance in February by Ross Perot in which the Texas billionaire, after prodding from King, said that if “everyday folks” put his name on all 50 state ballots he would agree to run as an independent candidate for president.
The headline-generating appearance by Perot made King a major force in the political world and turned “Larry King Live” into a mandatory pit stop for politicians.
That year, more than a dozen presidential candidates faced King’s cameras.
For King, the 1992 presidential campaign, in the words of the Los Angeles Times’ then-television critic Howard Rosenberg, “gold-plated him as an American institution.”
In 1993, King moderated a 90-minute debate on the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement between Vice President Al Gore and Perot that, according to CNN, drew the highest rating in its history at the time, with more than 16.3 million viewers.
Washingtonian magazine dubbed King the country’s most influential media personality.
But along with his success came criticism — for fawning over celebrities, for asking “softball questions” and, when interviewing politicians, for not asking tough follow-up questions, thus letting them get away with evasive answers.
“King couldn’t find his way to the jugular even with a compass, track dogs and body map,” Rosenberg, one of King’s harshest critics, wrote in 1995.
For his part, King readily acknowledged that he was not a journalist. As a talk show host, he preferred the term “infotainer” — offering up a hybrid of information and entertainment.
Asked to explain his success as a talk show host, King told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1996 it was “because I’m sincere. I’m really curious. I care what people think. I listen to answers and leave my ego at the door. I don’t use the word ‘I,’ which is irrelevant in an interview. It has no place other than showing off.”
As Cuomo once said of King: “He has the ability to ask the questions you would ask in your living room.”
And, in taking that approach, King’s questions often elicited revealing, sometimes surprising responses.
He once asked violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, “Jascha, why the violin?”