What makes Larry King run? The 51-year-old certified sports nut from Brooklyn, who has been arrested on grand larceny charges, declared bankruptcy and become radio's most popular talk-show host, is now becoming a multimedia conglomerate.
Evidently King's midnight to 5 a.m. talk show, The Larry King Show, which reaches three to five million people each weeknight on the Mutual Radio Network, and is the only radio talk show ever to win a Peabody Award, is too small a plate. Armed with a sizable ego, an insatiable curiosity and a warehouse full of information about sports, not to mention 999 other subjects, King is on the move. Last month he began a prime-time week-night TV talk show, Larry King Live, on the Cable News Network. It showcases sports figures 20% of the time, compared to 10% on Mutual. This isn't King's first foray into television. In 1983 he made his national TV debut on a syndicated program called The Larry King Show. The show was ill-conceived and ill-fated. It lasted only 18 weeks.
King also does color commentary on some 35 Baltimore Oriole and Washington Capital games for Home Team Sports, a D.C.-area pay-TV service. Until a few weeks ago, he was a regular columnist for The Sporting News. And, just to keep from vegetating, he writes a weekly personality column for USA Today and conducts a once-a-month worldwide call-in show, Talk to America, on the Voice of America radio network.
Among other things, the answer has to do with $$$$$. After the 1971 grand larceny charges against him were dropped because the Miami statute of limitations had run out (he allegedly had stolen $5,000 from financier Lou Wolfson), King declared bankruptcy in 1978, unable to pay $352,000 in IOUs that included $14,000 in gambling debts. He now lives on a $150-a-week stipend administered by his agent, Bob Woolf. But the value of King's contracts at Mutual ($ 1.85 million over a guaranteed five years) and CNN ($250,000 a year through 1988) is, King admits, reassuring.
In addition to the money, King runs because he loves the sense of control his shows provide him. "I decide where the conversation is going, how long someone will speak, when to pursue something or change the subject," he said in his 1982 autobiography, Larry King by Larry King. "That's why I've gotten such pleasure out of my career; it's offered a respite from what has too often been the chaos of my personal life."
Divorced three times and with few outside interests, King regards his shows as his wife and his life. "Except for my daughter [Chaia, 17], what I do is more important to me than anything else," he says. "That's sad in a way, but I don't need to open the door and have someone say, 'Hi, honey.' I've learned that it can be terrific being alone. If I were married and came home and there were three messages—'Your daughter called, urgent,' 'The network called, urgent,' 'Your wife called, urgent'—the wife would be the third call."
Then there's the fact that King's greatest joy in life is asking questions. It doesn't matter if his guest is porn-star Marilyn Chambers, the Rev. Jerry Falwell or Tommy Lasorda. He's been interested in other people's business ever since he grew up as Larry Zeiger, the son of Jewish Russian immigrants who owned a neighborhood bar and grill. Nobody in sports broadcasting, the Great Cosell included, asks better questions. King's secret? He never works from a checklist. He listens to responses. And he asks direct, incisive questions of universal appeal that his guests are unlikely to have heard before.
To Oriole manager Earl Weaver: "Would you make a good ump?" Answer: "Why, yes."
"Would you throw yourself out?" Answer: "Absolutely!"
To baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, on the prospective strike: "Are you powerless?" Answer: "That's not an adjective I've had thrown at me much before."
King admits that after years of interviews with Bill Cosby, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Piersall and the like, there still beats within him the heart of a frustrated sportscaster. He may try to negotiate a sabbatical one of these years in order to become one. This is a boffo idea, because King figures to be a far cry from the typical locker-room drone who doesn't know how to ask the right questions. Say the Tigers have won the Series again. Most sportscasters would lead with. "Well, Sparky, you really took it to 'em out there today!" King would say, "How were the scouting reports?" or, "Is it easier in this league?"
For that reason alone, let's hope Larry King keeps on running.
Asking searching questions is King's forte.