I went into the vault for a 1995 interview I did with King, when he was marking his 10th anniversary on CNN. I think it sums up a lot of his philosophy -- and his overly laid-back approach. When it came time to put together a list of his 10 favorite CNN telecasts, he had someone else do it. But it is also a reminder of the clout he had.
Presidential candidates begin their campaigns on his show, and President Clinton himself will appear this week. He's been one of many interviewing players in the O.J. Simpson case, and one of the few to snag Marlon Brando.
His guests are on the front pages of newspapers but he still thinks of himself as more like a style section, "a feature interviewer, not a journalist per se."
Ten years after his CNN show added to his already considerable radio fame, Larry King is still Lawrence Harvey Zeiger, "a star-struck kid from Brooklyn," someone whose gray hairs do nothing to reduce the awe in his voice when he found himself driving around with Brando.
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Blunt though he can be -- on one show a couple of weeks ago, he made tough-talking lawyer Gloria Allred squirm -- he is still a guy who's just glad folks come to his party.
And not one to offend the guests. I talked to Larry King awhile back for the weeklong celebration of the tenth anniversary of Larry King Live. After thousands of interviews, it seemed a good time for King to offer up his top 10, and CNN duly produced a list that proclaimed the contents as his favorite shows. Except when King himself was asked about the list, he attributed it to the editors of the new book The Best of Larry King Live.
For King, almost every show is a favorite, until another comes along. "Every night it's a different show," he said.
Still, the top-10 list -- and even that was identified as "in no particular order" -- is as good a place as any to look back at Larry King Live and the live Larry King.
We talked about the 10 and his memories on camera and off. And in the talk you could hear the same things that have made King so durable in TV and radio -- the fascination with the famous, the love of a good story, most of all the peek at all those people.
May 4, 1994: jailed heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson. "He didn't believe he had done what he was convicted of," said King. "The way he acted, the whole approach, it was like a Fellini movie. I think he's going to come back and fight, and I would worry for George Foreman. But I don't think he's the greatest heavyweight. I think Ali would have beaten Tyson. ... There are two sides to Tyson. There's that kind of gangster, hood, beat-'em-up style, and there's a gentle side. He has a soft voice, like Marciano."
Sept. 13, 1993: PLO leader Yasser Arafat. "I remember walking into the lobby and the first guys to question me were Mossad," said King, referring to the Israeli security organization. "I asked, 'What are you doing here?' They said, 'Protecting Arafat. They don't know the Israeli wackos like we do.' ... It was a good interview, but as I was talking to Arafat I thought, 'If my mother were alive, she'd die.' "
May 13, 1988: Frank Sinatra, one of King's idols. "It was just so special," he said. "He was singing Irving Berlin's Remember to me in the green room. When I talk to him, I return to my Brooklynese. I used to stand in line with people at the Paramount to see him. When I got my first phone call from him, it sent a chill through me because this is such a legend."
Legends get old, too, though, and Sinatra is 79. "I saw him at a dinner about a year ago and he's starting to act his age," King said.
Feb. 6, 1992: Barbra Streisand. "She's the most -- and I mean this as a compliment -- finicky professional. It was at the Eden Roc in Miami and she brought her own lighting crew. She was there an hour before I was. I don't know if the show has ever looked better."
Oct. 7, 1992: then-President Bush. "The more I was with him, the more I liked him," King said. "I've gotten to know him since then because he and I speak at a lot of the same conventions." But Bush never realized the trouble he was in, King said. "He took Clinton lightly."
Oct. 7, 1994: Brando. "I know he didn't want to talk," King said of Brando's now notorious, hammy turn on TV. "But what you saw is the man as he is." He most remembers Brando's distaste for the emotional ardors of acting, declaring "I don't want to do that anymore." "What I do is B.S.," Brando told King. "What you do changes the world." Yet the star-struck King still cannot turn his back on Brando the actor. Where many viewers thought Brando was detached from his role in Don Juan DeMarco, King said, "I didn't. I felt that in every moment, he was that psychiatrist."
Feb. 20, 1992 -- Ross Perot announces his willingness to run for president -- and Nov. 9, 1993 -- the debate between vice president Al Gore and Perot over the North American Free Trade Agreement -- are bookends of sorts, as well as two of the most important shows King has done.
Although the Perot announcement is now historic, King said its importance has grown. "When I left that night, I thought nothing of it," he said. The story snowballed, thanks to an article by David Gergen and a story by CBS about a week after the telecast.
With the NAFTA debate, King said, "I knew the impact. I don't think anyone had contradicted Perot before. It was a major event. I still get letters from people in Mexico about it."
Nov. 1, 1993: basketball star Michael Jordan. "Class," King said simply. "Everything about him is classy. He carries himself beautifully." We talked before the Bulls were eliminated in the playoffs, and King said, "I never count anyone out. ... He's easily the most attractive athlete out there -- he's Ali without being controversial."
The list ends with an Oct. 5, 1992, visit with Clinton and Gore during their successful campaign. "A wonderful night," King said. "They were in jeans and their campaign was really starting to touch America. Clinton was almost late getting there, stopping to talk to people. And I loved it when his mother called in."
As you can see, King has loved it a lot. Asked about bad nights, he brushed the question aside. "I don't have a lot of nights like that," he said.
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