Former talk show host Larry King, Part 2

In Part 2 of his conversation with Tavis, the legendary talk show host compares LeBron James’ exit from Cleveland to his own exit from CNN and shares what he wants his legacy to be.

With more than 50 years in broadcasting, Larry King has logged more than 40,000 interviews, including with every U.S. president since Gerald Ford. Last year, after a 25-year run, he signed off on his signature CNN program—TV's first worldwide live phone-in talk show—and is taking his career in a new direction. The Emmy winner has been inducted into five leading broadcasting halls of fame. He's also made cameos in more than 20 films. After bypass heart surgery, he founded a cardiac foundation, which provides life-saving procedures for children and adults.


Tavis: Larry King, good to see you again.

Larry King: Good to be back.

Tavis: (Laughter) When we last saw each other you had given us a wonderful assessment, your own assessment, of what LeBron James did right and what he did wrong, with all the talk about LeBron. It’s been funny to me – not ha-ha funny but interesting funny. LeBron James has gotten more exposure on ESPN than the Mavs have.

He lost, but they talk about LeBron more on ESPN than they’re talking about the Mavs, and they won.

King: And sports talk shows everywhere.

Tavis: Everybody’s talking about LeBron, not the Mavs, they’re talking about LeBron. It speaks to how out of what sports are right now about what they ought to be covering and the pile-on of LeBron James.

King: It’s a good representation of society. What are we talking about more, anybody in America today on television, is the young girl who was murdered in Florida and the mother on trial. That’s more important than Afghanistan? We’re out of whack.

That criticism of LeBron has gone beyond out of whack. But you were going to ask me about my leaving.

Tavis: Yeah, so what do you take from the way he did it with regard to how you arranged your exit from CNN?

King: Well, I really had mixed emotions, as I said. I loved that show, but we were doing a lot of tabloid stuff that I didn’t like, and also I had a year to go on my contract, and normally, whenever I’ve renewed over the 25 years I got a four-year contract, three years, five years – the least was three.

The last time they came to me they sat down, we met, they flew out to Los Angeles, and they were very nice, I had wonderful – I liked the people at CNN. Still with them, I’m doing – and they offered me kind of like a sort of one-year, tenuous. I read the writing in a sense, and I said, “Why don’t we just I’ll do as long as you want.” They have to pay me through the year anyway, the contract.

So he said, “Okay, well, how about doing four specials? Then I said, “Okay,” and then I said, “How about the announcement?” and the agents got together and arranged on the finances. Then I thought I should go on and just sort of tell it the way it happened, that this was the end of this line, not every line, and it was time to hang it up.

Then on the last night of the show we had Clinton, Obama, Tony Bennett live from a concert, Bill Maher and Ryan Seacrest co-hosting, my whole family at the end, my son was hysterical, imitating me. It was just – and I thought we did it in a classy way, and then they threw a party for me at Spago’s. I thought it was a nice way of ending. It was bittersweet.

Tavis: I’m curious to get some advice from you, and this is advice for all of us.

King: Are you leaving?

Tavis: No, not at the moment, at least. You never know in this business. You might be leaving and you don’t know you’re leaving.

King: That’s right. They didn’t tell you.

Tavis: Yeah, sometimes you don’t know. But what advice do you have for persons who are trying to figure out when is the appropriate time to leave, whatever job they may be doing?

King: It’s a hard decision. Because, in fact, someone said about this book, a lot of this book is about loss, because you’re giving up something, it’s the end of something that’s been part of your – I’ve been in the business 54 years, and half of it at CNN. The way to – and of course, Jon Stewart said, “You jumped off a sinking ship.” (Laughter) Very crude.

And he said, “And they got an English guy to replace you. When Anderson goes, they got a guy from Turkey.” (Laughter) I thought that was good. He’s hysterical.

Tavis: He’s funny.

King: Yeah, he is really funny, and bright as a whip. I don’t think there is a rule. I think you know it when you know it. Colin Powell, one of my favorite people on the planet, said to me, “You know when you’re on a subway train in New York and it gets to the last stop and then turns around and goes back to its route again? When you get to that stop, get off. If you go back, you’re just trailing old territory.

You’ve got to know when to get off the train, and I think most people watching who are thinking of this know it. You know it when it’s time. The only thing is, as I said, there may be times when you regret it. And the time I almost left CNN, I had a window in my contract and almost left two years after I’d started, and I was going to leave.

I had offers from ABC and King World was going to set me up like in an Oprah situation. I was going to follow “Nightline” on ABC, and we had to give Ted a decision. I had a window. And so Bob Wolf, the late Bob Wolf was going to go down to Atlanta and tell Ted we were leaving, and Angie Dickenson, dear friend, I came out to Los Angeles and she said to me, “Oh, I’m leaving,” and all my friends, “You’re leaving?” “I’m leaving, I’m leaving.”

She said to me a simple question – “Are you unhappy?” I go, “Oh, no.” “So why are you leaving?” I said, “It’s more money.” “You’re just leaving for money? If you leave something just for money, the first bad day you have, you’re going to regret it. You’ve got to have more than one reason.”

Then Ted called me up and kept me, and that was the best non-move I ever made.

Tavis: Twenty-five years later, we’re celebrating you.

King: But I think you know. If you’re ready to leave here, Tavis – by the way, see, this is the best gig in television. Your gig. I would trade places with your gig. No commercials, got your own gig, they treat you like a king here, right? They worship you. You’re somewhere out on Sunset Boulevard, no one’s going to follow you here. (Laughter) I don’t know what the name of this neighborhood is. You’re not even near Dodger Stadium.

We’re somewhere, and they give you this great gig and you decide in the middle of a show, “Well, I’m going to hold you over for a show.”

Tavis: Yeah. You may have just cost me my job. You know why?

King: Why?

Tavis: Because the folk who run PBS just heard you say that if Tavis were to leave, Larry King would take his spot in a heartbeat. I may get a notice tomorrow that I’m out.

King: Oh, I didn’t mean that. (Laughter) Hey, wait a minute, let’s – we now know television.

Tavis: That’s funny. Speaking of sitting in chairs like these, you gave an interview to the BBC some time back. You talk about it in the book, as a matter of fact. Gave a conversation to the BBC. They asked you at the end of the conversation a question about your replacement, Piers Morgan. Not your replacement; you can’t replace Larry King.

The guy that took that time slot, Piers Morgan, you had some comments about him that got a lot of pick-up in the media.

King: I went on his show after to try to explain it. What I said was they overpromoted and no one could be the equal of that promotion. So Piers’s promotion was “I’m dangerous, I’m the water cooler, I’m going to change your life.” You can’t do that. When you do that, no one can equal that. So it wasn’t Piers, it was me.

If I’m doing a special next week and I say to you, “Watch this special. This is the greatest special ever made,” it ain’t. It ain’t the greatest special, and no one is dangerous. Can’t be dangerous hosting a talk show, because they would turn you off.

I said that to him on his show, and he understood it. It came out that I was criticizing him. I was criticizing the method of promotion they were using, he and CNN – they had agreed to it – to go on. Maybe it was the right – I don’t know. I like Piers a lot, by the way. I think he’s very good.

Tavis: This question is not connected to anything. It’s just one of my favorite stories in the book, and because I’m a fan of his and a fan of yours and I was just in New York interviewing him at the Tribeca Film Festival for the opening of his new documentary, Harry Belafonte, has a new documentary out called “Sing Your Song.”

King: The best.

Tavis: There’s a great Belafonte story in the book. I’ll let you tell it. I just love the story.

King: Hesch, about breaking the color line. Miami Beach booked a lot of Black acts – Sammy Davis Jr. and others. However, they could not stay on Miami Beach. They had this Sir John Hotel in Miami, a very nice hotel in the Black community, at which Black performers stayed.

There’s a new hotel opening. Jackie Gleason owned a piece of it, the Hilton – I think the Hilton Plaza – and Harry Belafonte and his gang are the opening act. I loved Harry and I used to interview Harry, and so I met him when he was checking in like two days before to open on let’s say a Friday night, and it’s like Wednesday.

And he goes up to the register, I’m standing with him, and he’s, “I’m Harry Belafonte.” “Oh, Mr. Belafonte, welcome,” and the guy’s there to greet him, the hotel manager. “Yes, we’re looking forward, when are your rehearsal times, and your car is outside, we’ll be taking you to the Sir John Hotel, where you’re staying.” (Laughter)

And Harry goes, “Where I’m what? Where I’m staying?” He says, “I work, I stay where I work.” Oh, there’s a panic. Now there’s back room and talking and shoving. They actually call Gleason. “What do we do?” “What do you do? You check him in, what do you do?” They said, “All right, okay, Mr. Belafonte, we’ll be welcome to have you.” And like (unintelligible) said, “You’re the first Black guy,” that’s supposed to be a treasure to him, right? (Laughter)

Then he says, “I need, of course, 14 other rooms for my entire Black troupe, who will be singing.” They had to check everybody in. But that was Belafonte. Another thing I didn’t put in the book was when the civil rights law passed they had a reception at the White House, and Lyndon Johnson was shaking hands with everyone.

Belafonte said to a partner as they were about to shake hands, “I’ll shake hands with you, Mr. President, but I have to thank you for my birthright?” No one liked Harry.

Tavis: Yeah. I love Harry.

King: Harry and Sidney, short-order cooks together in New York. Ugly guys, though. (Laughter)

Tavis: Here’s an unfair question, because you’ve still got so much more to do, and I don’t know what it must feel like. I would love to have this feeling one day, to have done the kind of iconic work that you’ve done and still have life and years and energy in front of you, still. When it’s all said and done, which I hope is no time soon, what do you want your legacy to be? What do you think that legacy is, and what do you want it to be?

King: Well, someone said, “What would you like your obituary lead to be?” “Oldest man in the universe passed away today.” (Laughter) Because I don’t want to go. I’m going to go kicking. I think the legacy should be that he never betrayed the business he chose. In other words, he gave his best to entertain and inform, and hopefully made the business he chose a little bit better than when he went into it, because I love this business.

This is a gift. See this? This camera is a gift, and we don’t own this camera. Other people own this. I always knew that. I never owned the camera. I respected it, I love my industry. Didn’t like all the people in it, you can’t like everything, but the last time I worked I was 22 years old and I was a helper on the United Parcel Service truck. I ain’t worked in 54 years.

Tavis: I love Larry King.

King: You’re the best.

Tavis: Oh, you’re the best. The new book from Larry King is called, again, “Truth Be Told: Off the Record About Favorite Guests, Memorable Moments, Funniest Jokes and a Half-Century of Asking Questions,” and I might add, asking great questions. Larry, always an honor to have you on this program.

King: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Take care, my friend.

King: He’s leaving, folks? (Laughter)

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Last modified: June 17, 2011 at 3:08 pm