One morning before taping an interview with Dolly Parton, Larry King is at his table at the Regency on Park Avenue, eating his usual, Cheerios and a burnt corn muffin. Former police commissioner Bill Bratton stops by to say hello, as does former Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan and the former head of the William Morris agency, once King’s agent, plus a guy trying to raise money for a knish business. (King can relate: He’s got a bagel store opening in Los Angeles.) King’s in his element. He loves being an insider. But if you look around the Regency, it’s hard not to notice that this room is full of last acts, people whose biggest achievements may well be behind them. And December 16 is the final edition of Larry King Live on CNN.
At 77, King is thinner than he once was, almost gaunt, but he looks like Larry King: all glasses and suspenders and that gravelly bass voice. He relishes his success; it seems like a lot of fun to be Larry King. “When people want to take pictures, I stop. What’s the big fucking deal? I never felt bugged. I never forgot where I came from,” says King, who grew up on welfare in Brooklyn. He’s still upbeat but measured. I ask what he would do with CNN if he were in charge. King demurs, saying he’s not a programmer, but he has suggestions, among them: “I would have induced me to stay.” He says he has nothing against his replacement, Piers Morgan, but is nonetheless gently dismissive. “I’ve seen him on America’s Got Talent. He’s a classy judge.” Still, he knows that where once he was the network’s franchise player, for some he now represents everything that’s wrong with CNN.
As Fox and MSNBC have pumped up their ratings with angry, emotional, politically charged commentary, CNN has stayed a mostly down-the-middle news channel. King approves of this. He dismisses the numbers race as “ego.” “I’ve never met anyone, a regular person, who cares about ratings,” he says. (Except that they do measure the interest of regular people.) For King, there’s a higher calling—informing, not haranguing, the viewer. “I grew up with balanced. I grew up with a fairness doctrine. The public had to be served.”
King has for decades posed short, blunt questions premised on the thought What the fuck do I know? One of his favorites: “What happened?” At his best, King draws guests out, and they confide in him. But there’s more competition today. “Oprah gets Barbra Streisand,” he laments.
Earlier this year, then–president of CNN Jonathan Klein offered King a mere one-year contract extension. “I just thought I’d get two years, maybe,” King says. Insulted, he quit. But he was already on his way out. “What hurt me was not being used on the last election,” he says. “They used to have me with Ann Richards and Bob Dole. They’d go to us every half-hour. Good stuff.”
King’s been a celebrity broadcaster for five decades. “I was famous in Miami when I was 26,” he says—he had his own radio show. CNN founder Ted Turner hired him personally. But he knows the times have left him behind; even his references are mired in the past—“I’m talking about Sinatra, and they’re talking about Lady Gaga,” he says. In October, he interviewed Jon Stewart, who, as usual, ranted against the quality of news reporting. King interjected: “Is this better or worse than the Edward R. Murrow days?” Stewart seemed nonplussed: “I don’t know how old you think I am.” (“He should know who he is,” King says.)
A cavalcade of past notables, Larry’s people, have filed in for his last shows: Colin Powell, Al Pacino, Joe Biden. King wanted Mario Cuomo to be his final guest—Cuomo had been his first, in 1985—but, furious at CNN’s new host, Eliot Spitzer, for attacking his son Andrew, he canceled. He won’t even return King’s calls.
King will now do four specials a year for CNN. And he’ll spend more time with his 10- and 11-year-old boys. King’s days as the most frequently married guy in television are behind him—he’s had seven wives (one he married twice), five kids. And he’s sifting through professional offers. “I’ve got a lot of people talking to me,” he says. “I might do Internet stuff.” One definite project is a comedy tour. “I’m funny,” says King. “I’m going to do stand-up. That’s what I love.” Someone has proposed that he host a show called Bright People. “Both sides would be heard. With dignity. Respect. Truth,” he says, and asks, “Do you think that would work?”
He needs to stay busy. “I’m worried it’s 4:30 in the afternoon and I don’t have anywhere to go,” he says. “I’ve got to go someplace.” And then he’s off to get his hair combed before taping a show.