Larry King turns off his mike

 

Larry King's show survived bankruptcy, jail -- but not the Nielsens. The CNN staple ends its run at 9 p.m. Thursday.

BY GLENN GARVIN | ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

Five decades and 50,000 interviews after he first jabbed a microphone into a surprised pop singer's face at a Miami Beach diner, Larry King is hanging up his suspenders. His Thursday night show on CNN will be the last of a broadcast career that eternally careened between pinnacles of wild success and pits of utter catastrophe.

King and his producers are being uncharacteristically tight-lipped about who will appear on the final edition of Larry King Live, which airs at 9 p.m. Comedian Bill Maher and American Idol host Ryan Seacrest will be at King's Hollywood studio -- but 14 mystery guests will also beam in from around the world via satellite.

Could President Barack Obama be among them? He's already shared a microphone with King, as has every American president since Richard Nixon. O.J. Simpson? King's mile-by-mile coverage of Simpson's 1994 slow-motion car chase by Los Angeles police inaugurated the age of crime as entertainment. LeBron James? Bill Gates? Lady Gaga? They've all been chatted up on the nightly show.

Or could the legendary allure of appearing on King's program -- which has survived the nose-dive of his Nielsen ratings even if the show itself hasn't -- even draw guests from the other end of this mortal coil?

Then we might see Marlon Brando, who unexpectedly and indelibly ended a 1994 interview by kissing King full on the lips. (``I still can't stop thinking about it,'' King said 15 years later.) Or segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who opened an appearance on a King show by ostentatiously glancing around the TV studio, then sneering: ``I don't see any blacks working here.'' (Retorted King: ``They own the station. They're out to lunch.'')

In fact, it's hard to find anyone of any significance in the past half-century, living or dead, who hasn't sat across the table from King in his various radio and TV incarnations.

His all-night call-in show that ran on 500-plus Mutual Radio Network affiliates from 1978 to 1994 was the first radio talk show with a national following, and had a long line of politicians and Hollywood celebrities anxious to make the guest list despite its midnight start time.

And when King joined CNN in 1985, his show was cable television's first real hit, dominating the cable-news ratings well into the next century.

It was a fractured fairy tale for a Brooklyn high-school dropout who came to Miami in 1957 in search of beach bunnies but got a radio show when a disc jockey didn't show up for work one day at the station where King was working as a janitor.

But King didn't really make his mark until another station, WKAT, sent him to do a live broadcast from a Miami Beach deli. Desperately staving off dead air with interviews of waitresses and customer evaluations of the coffee, King pounced when somebody told him that teen idol Bobby Darin had just sat down for breakfast.

``All I knew about Bobby Darin was Mack the Knife,'' King recalled during a 2007 interview with The Miami Herald. ``So I asked him, where did Bobby Darin come from?'' Darin replied so loquaciously that a style was born: For the rest of his career, King rarely prepared for interviews. Simple questions like ``What's your book about?'' or ``What's your next project?'' he believed, were just the ones his audience would have asked.

Though critics carped about it, King's conversational style worked well for a long time. Hollywood celebrities loved the chance to talk nonstop on the one subject on which they were unquestionably experts -- themselves. And while jealous reporters regarded King's political interviews as interminable games of softball, King (and his very large audience) saw them as chances to get to know politicians as human beings rather than policy wonks.

Either way, King's chats were the antithesis of the attack-dog interviews that make up so much of the rest of the daily cable-news menu. The only way a guest on King's show could get in a fight was to pick it himself, as Howard Stern did in a 1987 interview.

First he taunted King -- who had just returned to the air after a heart attack -- with a pack of cigarettes: ``Come on, let's smoke. You know you want one.'' When the startled King tried to portray Stern's contempt as schtick -- ``Tell 'em we're friends!'' Stern's reply was icy: ``We're not friends . . . You say you're friends with everybody.'' The dazed King could only giggle nervously as Stern ran off onto bizarre tangents, accusing Fox TV executives of murdering comedian Joan River's husband and plugging his new video in which a man set his own genitals on fire.

But for every show that went off the tracks, King did a hundred that kept the audience rapt and sometimes even broke news.

Maverick millionaire H. Ross Perot announced his surprise 1992 presidential campaign on King's show. A year later, Perot would debate the proposed North American Free Trade Alliance treaty with Vice President Al Gore on King's show in an intense spectacle that pulled in 16 million viewers.

In recent years, King's chatty approach has come undone: partly because everybody from Jay Leno to Oprah Winfrey is doing the same thing, and partly because at 77, his softballs had turned to mushballs. In an interview with the two surviving Beatles, King confused his guest Ringo Starr with the late George Harrison. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was enraged that King thought his top-rated TV sitcom had been canceled: ``I was the No. 1 show in television, Larry,'' Seinfeld acidly replied. ``Do you know who I am?'' At times the show became downright surreal, with King having heirhead hotel princess Paris Hilton reading aloud from the prison diaries of her three weeks in jail on a DUI conviction.

King's popularity, which had survived a chaotic personal life that included an arrest, a bankruptcy and more scandalous divorces than anyone could count, could not withstand his growing confusion and irrelevance. His ratings tanked. His audience dropped 50 percent from 2009 to 2010, and CNN executives -- who just three years ago said he could keep the show ``as long as he is able to perform'' -- gently suggested it was time to turn off the microphone. It was a possibility King had foreseen.

``I love the line `as long as he is able to perform.' '' he told The Herald three years ago.

``The question would be, in whose opinion? Whitey Herzog, the manager of the Cardinals, was offered a contract by August Busch, the owner. August Busch said to him, `Whitey, I'm giving you a lifetime contract.'

``And Whitey said, `Your life, or mine?' ''

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