His curiosity made him king of the hill
On the 15th anniversary of his arrival at CNN, the man whose suspenders and curious nature are known the world round, says of his first spot on what was then a five-year-old upstart cable network: "I'll never forget that night. Mario Cuomo was the guest. I was wearing a jacket."
Since then King has become famous for eschewing a jacket. To make his point, he swings it off as the interview starts, laughing and saying, "I'll prove it's me."
Larry King, n Larry Zeiger, was born in Brooklyn during the Depression, and dropped the family name when he went into radio at age 23. His radio roots still inform nearly every aspect of his show. Despite 15 years of talking to the top names in every field, from politics to art, he says that his radio days with live call-ins were his favorite.
"There are times I miss radio. I miss open-phone America. I miss people calling in on all sorts of topics and getting the chance to talk about sports and kid around a lot. I like kidding around," adds the man who has taken critical hits for what some observers dub his "softball questions." Yet his show is enormously popular. (CNN president Richard Kaplan only half-jokingly says, "He is a major reason I can continue to send my children to college.")
The conversational style of "Larry King Live" is deceptive, says the host of the nightly show that reaches 77 million homes. "We're a very well-prepared show. We do a lot of research," King says. The casual, almost friendly banter that characterizes many of his interviews comes out of his own curiosity, which he has learned to stoke in just the right way.
"I don't like being overly researched, because I don't want to know the answers. I like being on live." He uses his interview with the actor Denzel Washington, who had just completed the film about boxer "Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter," as an example.
"If I go in tonight, and you tell me, 'Denzel is going to tell you that he didn't want to take this part of the fighter, he was just looking at another script and that didn't come,' I don't want to know that. I want to learn it from him."
Whatever his detractors may say (New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called "Larry King Live" the "resort area of American journalism, the media's Palm Springs, where politicians and other figures of controversy or celebrity go to unwind"), King says this approach has served him well, particularly with authors.
"If you've written a book, and I've read your book and you're on my show, the one thing I am not curious about is your book because I've read it. If I don't read it, the one thing I am curious about is your book. And to me," says King, "I have to be curious."
King has access to virtually any public figure today, but he has had to earn his stripes. The period that turned him into the moderator of presidential debates was the presidential campaign of 1992, when he scored several coups, including Ross Perot announcing his candidacy on the show.
Even with all his access, King says there are several public figures he either regrets having missed during their lifetimes or still aspires to question. Jackie Kennedy and Princess Di fit easily in the first category.
The second category includes "the pope, this pope," he says. King is intrigued by the divergence between the social and political agendas of this Polish pope and the day-to-day details of such a unique office.
"What was it like to be shot? Why did you kiss the guy who shot you? Has it been difficult being Polish in an Italian environment? Do you miss home? Do you watch plays? Do you watch television?"
He laughs and adds with what looks to be an endless energy for questions, "What does a pope do? Do you know? I don't, so I would ask him."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society