Larry King is afraid of death.
The 81-year-old does not want to die. He relishes his 58-year career interviewing people. He doesn’t even want to think about not existing because he firmly believes this is it. There won’t be a “Larry King Afterlife.”
When I walk into King’s plush hotel room at The Ritz in downtown Washington Wednesday afternoon, he’s fussing over a rack of clothing. His attire is spectacularly lax – he’s wearing his signature black suspenders over a bubble gum pink button-down paired with blue jeans and soft, cream-colored sneakers.
“This is Greg, his man servant,” says King’s longtime producer David Theall, who’s playing handler today, gesturing to a skinny, smiling dark-haired guy in dark jeans.
Greg is helping King decide what to wear over the next few days. A black leatherish Members Only jacket is held up. “It’s really dated,” says Greg, clearly discouraging King from ever wearing it again.
Theall helps solidify that call. “This is from when you were gay,” he says.
King feigns confusion. “Hmmm…when I was gay,” he says, rumpling his brows. “I was with – who was the congressman that quit?”
I tell him it was Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.). King continues, “I was with Aaron Shock.”
The room explodes into laughter.
For an 81-year-old, King is pretty hip and up on all the gossip and news. He knows every celebrity imaginable. He once got high with Snoop Dogg – but it wasn’t intentional, it was a contact high, he explains.
He was in town this week to talk about his legendary career at the Newseum Wednesday night and promote his current gigs: “Larry King Now” and “PoliticKING” on Ora.tv. (Watch a clip of a recent interview with former U.S. Sec. of Labor Robert Reich here.)
Before we settle in to talk, he graciously orders us a pot of coffee from room service.
“A small pot. Two percent milk,” he says into the phone.
First things first: He asks about my boss, Tucker Carlson, his former colleague at CNN.
“How many bow ties does he have?” King asks.
None, I reply. He stopped wearing them six or seven years ago.
King looks thoroughly annoyed. “Would I give up suspenders?” he asks rhetorically. And then his answer: “No.”
He orders me to text Carlson the following message, which he dictates:
“I’m going to do this interview even though you don’t wear bow ties anymore. Ever notice people on the street walk right by you? Never take away a symbol.”
The pot of coffee arrives. He makes sure both our cups are filled and pours a little milk into mine. He thanks the waiter profusely and loudly at least four times.
So what’s King up to?
“I’m doing what I’ve always done,” he says. “I’m interviewing people. It’s just a different means of transmission. I started on the radio, did local television in Miami. Then I did network radio, which was all over the country. Then I did CNN and now I do the internet. I do a podcast once a week with my wife. I do a sports interview with the Dodgers once a month. What I’m doing is what I’ve done since 1958. I’m just transmitted differently.”
“Still love it,” he declares.
His interviewing preferences have never wavered. “I never use the word ‘I,’” he says. “My motto is I never learned anything while I was talking. That would be a good interview motto for other hosts. If the interviewer is talking too much, what’s the point of the guest?”
What happens when an interview fails? What then?
“You do the best you can,” he says. “It ain’t the end of the world. It ain’t brain science. All you do is all you can do. I have a knack for making people comfortable. I know how to set a scene. I know how to be funny. I’ve been doing it for 58 years. As Sinatra said, there’s a lot to be said for longevity. I understand what works and what doesn’t. I have a sense of the broadcast.”
And what doesn’t work?
“I don’t fall into habit, questions that run too long,” he explains. “For me, attacking people doesn’t work. I go at it another way. My purpose is to be entertaining and informative.”
Things get deep fast.
Apropos of absolutely nothing, I ask, “Are you superstitious at all?”
“Not really,” he says. “I fly on Friday the 13th, walk under ladders, haven’t seen a black cat in ages. I guess I’m not.”
How about ISIS?
“I think they are very dangerous,” he says gravely. “I think the Iraq war was a major mistake, and that mistake compounded into other mistakes led to ISIS. I think Joe Biden had the best idea years ago, which is to break up Iraq into three sections. But we are not better off.”
I ask what he fears at this point in his life.
“Death,” he says. “I fear it because I don’t believe there is anything after this. So the thought of not existing. Not existing is fearful to me. And that is probably because of my curiosity. I want to know so much. But I know it’s coming, so I fear it. It is the great unknown.”
King has no real belief in God.
“I was Bar Mitzvahed,” he says. “I started interviewing religious leaders. Do I think someone is looking down on me? Never seen proof of it. Faith requires a leap. I can’t do that leap.”
“My brain,” he says. “I’m intelligent. That’s not to say those who believe are not. I guess it makes them feel better. If there’s a lord, he’s doing a crappy job. So why did he give us cancer and leukemia? Why do babies die?”
King doesn’t suggest things. Like his majestic surname, he declares them.
“What God did is he gave us caves and mountains and lakes. And then he gave us disease. I don’t buy any of it.”
And then, a childhood admission: “I lost my father when was 9 and a half. I didn’t understand death at all. They told me I was now head of the family, which was a ridiculous thing to say to a 9-year-old.”
Maybe to momentarily lighten the mood, King offered, “I guess you die every night when you go to sleep.”
Asked if anything has ever inexplicably helped him during a rough time, he returns to his father’s death: “Nothing comforted me. I tried to comfort my mother.”
Speaking of the dead, how is he feeling about Joan Rivers, who died last year? The two were close.
“I loved her,” he says, looking deeply nostalgic. “I’ve been at her house for dinner. I don’t think she’s anywhere, but I miss her. She’s gone. She was funny.”
Nothing can brighten a death talk quite like Snoop Dogg. I ask if Snoop was high when King interviewed him a few years ago.
“When is he not high?” King asks. “I got high just being around him. I got high driving home. If a cop had stopped me, I would’ve failed the test. I like Snoop a great deal. I had a lot of fun with him. I enjoy his company.”
I ask him to reel off his favorite interviews. “Sinatra can be fun. All the comics. Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Lewis Black, Chris Rock. I love comics. I love laughing. Mel Brooks. Carl Reiner. The whole group. I enjoyed Bill Clinton.”
King said he’s interviewed Bill Cosby “many times.”
Asked about the comedian’s messy scandal, he says, “I can’t make heads or tails of it. He has a severe weakness. This many people can’t be wrong. [But] he’s still working, still drawing people in.”
He’s not too optimistic about Brian Willams, but he has career advice.
“I like Brian a lot,” he says. “I’m really sad about it, but I don’t think he can return to network television. If he came back, there would be too much attention. How’s he going to handle it if he covers someone who lied? I think he’ll turn to the work of comedy. He can poke fun at himself and other things. Comedy Central or something like that.”
What about all those mundane things he writes on Twitter – what’s that about?
“I have a lot of fun with that,” he says. “Extemporaneous thought. I started doing it with my old USA Today column. I send them out every Sunday night. Whatever pops into my mind. I should keep notes. I think about things during the week and then I forget about them.”
When it comes to food, King is old school. When in Washington, he likes The Palm, the Italian restaurant across from The Palm and Morton’s.
At this point, I ask if we can play a game. I’ll name people and he’ll say the first things that pop into his mind. He agrees to it. I could play this game with Larry King all day long — it’s a ride through history. His stories are endless and keep his listeners in stitches.
“She’s got a hell of a shot. Been around a long time. Can’t dismiss her. It’ll be a rough race. If it’s Hillary or Jeb Bush – I don’t know if he can get it with the tea party. I think a Bush-Clinton race would be healthy.”
King won’t say who he prefers. “I never announce who I vote for,” he says defiantly.
For some dumb reason, I interrupt the game to ask King if he’s ever had to deal with a celeb’s handlers telling him he must steer clear of a certain topic. How does he handle it? (Full disclosure: I don’t tell him that one of his publicists emailed me before our interview to say that I am not to ask him about his CNN successor Piers Morgan. Of course I’m going to ask. It’s just a matter of when.)
King says if an actor doesn’t like to discuss his personal life, he accepts it. “I would honor that unless their personal life was in the headlines,” he says.
He recalled a psychic who once walked off his show in Miami. Former Miss California Carrie Prejean also walked off. A photographer had taken topless pictures of the beauty. She had said she didn’t want to talk about it and King wasn’t aware of her rule. When a question came up, she took off her mic and bolted.
As for the psychic, he says, “We were in Miami and she was telling me what Jacqueline Kennedy was thinking about in Massachusetts. I said there’s millions of women between here and Massachusetts. How do you tune into her without bumping into all the others? She said, ‘You’re making fun of me.’ She left.”
King’s producer, David, who is mostly serving as a hilarious live human laugh track throughout the interview, chimes in, “As a psychic, she should’ve seen that coming.”
I suddenly notice King’s socks. They’re green and blue and in a swirling goofball design. I snap a picture with my iPhone without him noticing.
Asked what strangers ask him most, King replies, “Hi Larry, can I take your picture with my cell phone?”
With that, King whips out his phone, snaps it open and begins a short monologue: “I have a flip phone. I’ll tell you something, baby, it’s a phone. You can’t send texts. I don’t send texts. It provides one service for me: Calls in and out. I don’t like texting. We were in the office once at CNN. I said, ‘Who are you texting?’ He says, ‘Phil.’ I said, ‘Phil is right over there.’”
Asked how he copes with others texting, he says, “I try to say something like ‘I’m over here.’”
And how does that go over? “Well, they get a little angry,” he says. “I say, it’s important. It’s rude. My wife is always late. Late is rude. There is no excuse for it.” (Much more on his wife, Shawn King, being late later.)
For now, more on King’s extreme irritation with texting: “I get annoyed when I’m having dinner and someone is looking at their phone,” he says. “I was a smoker for 30 years. I think people are addicted to their phones. My sons are addicted. One just turned 16, the other is 15.” (He explains he has three other grown children.)
We return to our name game.
“I like Ann very much and I feel bad about what happened to her.”
“Great legs. Cute. Took her out on a date once. Peppy.”
“I’ve always found him engaging and a good subject of an interview. I thought what he did was weird. [Gargantuan pause.] And he was very appropriately named.”
“He was very nice to me. We did an event together. I found him deeply interesting and somewhat sad.”
Anna Nicole Smith.
“Always felt a little sorry for Anna Nicole. She was very nice to me. She was not nice when she drank. She was a caring mother. I liked her.”
Here we go: “I hope you’re not going to kill me. But Piers Morgan,” I say.
King looks fine, unaffected. “His kind of interviewing style was not my kind. He referred to himself a lot. Nice man. Been a few times with him in a social situation. Not my type of broadcaster.”
“I adore Bill Clinton. Engaging. Brilliant. The great politician of our times.”
House Speaker John Boehner.
“I feel that he’s always trapped between the right wing, the other wing and the left wing. He’s got a tough job.”
“Smart, great family man, professorial.” Wait…..WHAT? It seems King thinks I said “Obama.”
King doesn’t miss a beat. “Madonna is a lot like Obama.” (David, his human laugh track, laughs loudly. King never laughs at his own jokes. King smiles slightly and continues, “Ok, so you’ve got Obama.”)
Madonna (really this time).
“She’s a great marketer. She has a lot of talent and I’ve always enjoyed interviewing her.”
“She was on with me, she wore suspenders. She is a terrific talent.”
“Good friend. I’ve known her a long time.”
We end the interview much like we began, by talking about death.
He’s talking about his wife again and explains that if she called right now, her mood could be anything from “hi” (he says quietly and meekly) to “HELLO” (he says loudly and with great emotion.). “So there’s a thrill to that, “ he surmises, adding, “All women are weird.”
He returns to the subject of his wife’s lateness, which is a real sticking point for him. So much so that he’s stipulated something about it in his will.
“When I die,” he announces, “the funeral will commence at 1 p.m. No one will be let in after. She’ll have to stand outside to listen if she were ever to arrive.”
Asked if she’s been informed, King says, “She knows it.”
He’s so fearful of death that he once gave his wife a blistering hypothetical:
“If it would guarantee me two and a half extra years of life, would you have your teeth removed and wear false teeth? She said, ‘goodbye.’” King remains totally flabbergasted by her response. “Women are crazy,” he grumbled.
David, the laugh track, pipes up, “She does have beautiful teeth.”
No arguments from King.
Time for his nap before the evening festivities.