We usually don’t know as much about famous people as we think. That’s what makes this piece from baby boomer Pat Piper so interesting. Pat, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, produced Larry King’s award-winning late night radio show for a decade, and ghosted four books with him. Pat writes that King was a guy we all knew… but only partly.
When I heard the news about Larry’s death, my first thoughts weren’t original. Boomers around the world have probably used the same words when a parent or an older friend dies: “I saw this coming, but when it arrived, I was in absolute shock.” Larry was 87. Census statistics show that more than five-and-a-half million people in the U.S. are older than 85.
When I visited Larry on his 86th birthday in 2019, he was living alone on the third floor of a condo in Beverly Hills and confined to a wheelchair while recovering from a stroke. When I got there, the Washington Football Team was in a game on TV (this was before they dropped the old “Redskins”), which he muted as we talked about Now and Then. The Redskins were losing to the New York Jets at Fed Ex Field.
“I was invited to sit in the owner’s box there,” he said. “Fed Ex Field was tough to get to, but they really made me comfortable.” Then he became reflective.
“I always pinch myself every day because I can’t believe this poor Jewish boy from Brooklyn got to do so many things. Let me tell ya, anyone who is successful who doesn’t think luck is involved doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” He told the story about a welfare check buying his first pair of glasses.
We spoke about the success of the radio show. I played about 12 minutes of Larry’s Greatest Hits that I had edited from those ten years we worked together. He smiled as he watched the Washington Football Team fumble on the 30-yard line (it was still muted, and I felt honored).
When the Greatest Hits was over, Larry had tears in his eyes.
“It was radio that got me on CNN,” he said. “Everyone talks to me about Larry King Live, but they don’t realize the all-night radio work we did started it.” He noted how he appeared in the first Ghostbusters film a year before Ted Turner had hired him for TV. “Radio got me there,” he said with a smile.
We all heard Larry on air and knew pretty quickly that he conducted a different kind of talk show. His questions were brief, and he more than once said, “I don’t learn when I’m talking.” In a behind-the-scenes note, I learned very quickly that he needed no preparation before interviewing a guest for three hours. It was my second day on the job and an author with a best-selling book was going to appear the next day. It was 400-plus pages and I handed him the book, suggesting he might want to read it prior to the interview.
He handed the book back. He said, “I don’t need to read the book.”
Yeah, I started thinking— (1) What have I gotten myself into, and (2) This guy is either lazy or knows something I don’t.
“The audience hasn’t read the book so there’s no reason for me to read the book.” He sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
After the interview, it was clear that Larry knew something I didn’t. And knowing the business, I can tell you, 99% of on-air hosts couldn’t operate that way. They are driven by a point of view, rather than allowing a guest to explain how and why they see the world the way they do.
“They have no defense,” he said, pointing at the game still being played on TV. “It’s not an interview with a guest, it’s a conversation. If you are on an airplane, you don’t want me sitting next to you. I’m always curious. I’m always asking questions. You won’t be able to take a nap.”
For the the dozen-plus promos he had to record before each show, all I gave him was the name of the guest, the title of a book or the movie or the job, and he would get it done flawlessly, timing each promo— 28 seconds, no more no less— perfectly. Then with five minutes before air, and just before I brought the guest/s into the studio, I would hand him the rundown for the evening. It was simple: just the name, their job title, and the topic. That was all the preparation Larry needed for each show.
When my visit was over, I left Larry’s apartment after about 30 minutes with a promise to send the Great Hits audio package to his assistant and thanked his caretaker for her work in making sure he was fed and took the necessary medicine when needed. We hugged each other and I could feel his bones. I said, “I’ll see you for Number 87.” By the way, the Redskins lost the game 34-17.
I wasn’t able to see him for Number 87 because of Covid-19 and because he was hospitalized. We spoke on the phone a few times and his memory was sharp, though his voice was obviously weak. He was hopeful the Dodgers would win the World Series in October (they did) and wished he could return to his reserved seat behind home plate for the home games. He also didn’t think the Washington Football Team was going to be a contender (he was right).
The spark and spirit were still alive in my last conversation with Larry King. And as many boomers will tell you about their own friends and parents, they are still there for me in death.