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Larry King, legendary talk show host, dies at 87

Jan 23, 2021, 7:19 AM
Larry King, legendary talk show host, dies at 87...
CNN's Larry King interviews former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010 in Houston, TX. John Nowak/CNN

   (CNN) — Larry King, the longtime CNN host who became an icon through his interviews with countless newsmakers and his sartorial sensibilities, has died. He was 87.

His son, Chance, confirmed King’s death Saturday morning.

King hosted “Larry King Live” on CNN for over 25 years, interviewing presidential candidates, celebrities, athletes, movie stars and everyday people. He retired in 2010 after taping more than 6,000 episodes of the show.

A statement was posted on his verified Facebook announcing his passing.

“With profound sadness, Ora Media announces the death of our co-founder, host and friend Larry King, who passed away this morning at age 87 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles,” the statement said. “For 63 years and across the platforms of radio, television and digital media, Larry’s many thousands of interviews, awards, and global acclaim stand as a testament to his unique and lasting talent as a broadcaster.”

The statement did not give the cause of death.

King had been hospitalized with Covid-19 in early January at Cedars-Sinai, a source close to the family said at the time.

“We mourn the passing of our colleague Larry King,” CNN President Jeff Zucker said in a statement.

“The scrappy young man from Brooklyn had a history-making career spanning radio and television. His curiosity about the world propelled his award-winning career in broadcasting, but it was his generosity of spirit that drew the world to him. We are so proud of the 25 years he spent with CNN, where his newsmaker interviews truly put the network on the international stage. From our CNN family to Larry’s, we send our thoughts and prayers, and a promise to carry on his curiosity for the world in our work.”

King battled a number of health problems, suffering several heart attacks. In 1987, he underwent quintuple bypass surgery, inspiring him to establish the Larry King Cardiac Foundation to provide assistance to those without insurance.

More recently, King revealed in 2017 that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and successfully underwent surgery to treat it. He also underwent a procedure in 2019 to address angina.

King also suffered personal loss last year when two of his adult children died within weeks of each other: Andy King, 65, suffered a heart attack and daughter Chaia King, 52, died after being diagnosed with lung cancer. King is survived by three sons.

In an era filled with star newsmen, King was a giant — among the most prominent questioners on television and a host to presidents, movie stars and world class athletes.

With an affable, easygoing demeanor that distinguished him from more intense TV interviewers, King perfected a casual approach to the Q&A format, always leaning forward and listening intently to his guests, rarely interrupting.

“I’ve never learned anything,” King was fond of saying, “while I was talking.”

For 25 years, he hosted “Larry King Live” on CNN, a span that was highlighted by more than 30,000 interviews, including every sitting president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama, and thousands of phone calls from viewers.

The show made King one of the faces of the network, and one of the most famous television journalists in the country. His column in USA Today, which ran for nearly 20 years until 2001, showcased King’s distinct style in print, inviting readers down a trail of non-sequiturs that served as a window into his mind.

“The most underutilized player in the NFL this year was Washington’s Desmond Howard…Despite what you think of Lawrence Walsh, we will always have the need for a special prosecutor because a government cannot investigate itself,” King wrote in a 1992 column.

Those musings, combined with his unmistakable appearance — oversized glasses, ever-present suspenders — made King ripe for caricature. In the 1990s, he was portrayed on “Saturday Night Live” by Norm MacDonald, who channeled the USA Today column with a spot-on impersonation.

Jokes aside, King’s influence is evident today in the generation of podcasters who have mimicked — whether deliberate or not — his conversational approach to interviews.

“A good interview — you know more than you do before you start. You should come away with maybe some of your opinions changed,” King told the Los Angeles Times in 2018. “You should certainly come away entertained — an interviewer is also an entertainer.”

Born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger on November 19, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, King was raised by two Jewish immigrants. His mother, Jennie (Gitlitz) Zeiger, was from Lithuania, while his father, Edward Zeiger, hailed from Ukraine. Edward died of a heart attack when King was 10, a memory King said he mostly “blocked out.”

Left to raise King and his younger brother Marty alone, Jennie Zeiger was forced to go on welfare to support her children. The death had a profound effect on King, and his mother.

“Prior to his death, I’d been a good student but afterwards, I just stopped being interested,” King told The Guardian in a 2015 interview. “It was a real blow to me. But eventually I channeled that anger because I wanted to make him and my mother proud.”

King said his father had enormous influence on him, instilling in his son a sense of humor and a love of sports. And no sport drew more of King’s affection than baseball.

He grew up a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and continued to support the team after its move to Los Angeles. He was a fixture at the team’s home games in Dodger Stadium, often spotted in the high-priced seats behind home plate. In 2004, King wrote a book aptly titled, “Why I Love Baseball.”

King’s career in media began in earnest in 1957, when he took a job as a disc jockey at WAHR-AM in Miami. It was then when he made the decision to drop his surname.

“You can’t use Larry Zeiger,” he recalled his boss at the station saying. “It’s too ethnic. People won’t be able to spell it or remember it. You need a better name.”

“There was no time to think about whether this was good or bad or what my mother would say. I was going on the air in five minutes,” King wrote in his 2009 autobiography.

“The Miami Herald was spread out on his desk. Face-up was a full-page ad for King’s Wholesale Liquors. The general manager looked down and said, ‘King! How about Larry King?'”

It was around this time that King entered what would become a string of failed marriages. His union with Frada Miller was annulled, and the dates of his second marriage with Annette Kaye are publicly unavailable.

From 1961-63, King was married to Alene Akins, whom he married again from 1967-71; before they re-married, King tied the knot with Mickey Sutphin in 1964 before they divorced in 1966.

He had two more divorces — with Sharon Lepore, with whom he was married from 1976-82, and Julie Alexander, with whom he was married from 1989-92 — before marrying his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick in 1997 at UCLA Medical Center, as he was about to undergo cardiac surgery. King filed for divorce from Southwick in 2019, citing irreconcilable differences.

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Larry King, legendary talk show host, dies at 87