Former talk show host Larry King, Part 1

In part 1 of a two-part conversation, the former talk show host—who sheds his trademark suspenders just for Tavis—discusses his new book, Truth Be Told, talks about losing money to Bernie Madoff and shares whether he misses working on his CNN show.

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: Always pleased to welcome the king of talk, Larry King, to this program, and thankfully, unlike the last time he was here, I’m the one who gets to ask the questions tonight, and there is plenty to ask, thanks to the release of his terrific new text, “Truth Be Told: Off the Record About Favorite Guests, Memorable Moments, Funniest Jokes and a Half-Century of Asking Questions.” You couldn’t make that subtitle any longer? (Laughter)

Larry King: Subtitles are big now. That’s the new thing, subtitles are big. By the way, I want to make an historic announcement.

Tavis: Uh-oh, drum roll – an historic announcement.

King: This is my first television appearance in 25 years in which I am not wearing bracers. I have decided just for tonight – I’m going back to bracers the next appearance – I just thought that this is such a special show, I got to host it, that people can see that I do wear other things, like a jacket.

Tavis: Prove it, prove it. Prove it.

King: Oh, oh, I have no –

Tavis: No suspenders – I want to see this. Larry King, this is – oh, my.

King: No suspenders.

Tavis: Larry King with no suspenders.

King: The changing image.

Tavis: How did the suspenders start, Larry?

King: My ex-wife, Sharon, a lovely lady who has remarried, I had just gotten heart surgery and we were going out to dinner. We were divorced, we were going out to dinner, and she said, “You lost so much weight, you look good, you ever try -” I used to wear half-sweaters. “You ever try bracers?” I’d been on CNN for about two and a half years and I said, “No.” She goes, “Try it.”

So I bought a pair, hooked the buttons up and three or four people called in and said, “You look good.” That’s all I had to hear. (Laughter) “You look good.” I’ve been wearing them ever since.

Tavis: What’s amazing about that is that because you were on CNN so long most people don’t ever recall you on being on CNN without them. What you’re telling me, though, is after a couple of years, you didn’t wear them.

King: I wore a half-sweater. If you look at the first night with Mario Cuomo, which was June 1st, 1985, I’m wearing a jacket. Then I wore half-sweaters. But this was such an interesting look, and then it established it as a look, and looks count. Like your tie tonight is perfect.

Tavis: Thank you.

King: And you also made a perfect knot. I’m amazed. I could never get (laughter) – see that little niche in the knot?

Tavis: Yeah.

King: How do you do that?

Tavis: I’ve got to tell you a funny story. When I would sit in for you on CNN, and I was honored that you asked me from time to time –

King: My favorite guest host.

Tavis: I appreciate it. I was honored to do that. I would always go back in the back room to record the lead-in promo.

King: The open.

Tavis: The open. I’d record the open – “Tonight,” (laughter) “On ‘Larry King.'”

King: You got it.

Tavis: I loved recording the open, and as you know, you have a whole wall back there of suspenders, and I wanted to steal a pair.

King: You should have.

Tavis: I could see my mother looking at me, “You can’t steal Larry King’s -”

King: Well, I want you –

Tavis: I wanted a piece a history. I wanted one of those suspenders.

King: I’ll send you a pair, and wear it one night.

Tavis: Okay, I will do that – I’ll do it.

King: Do.

Tavis: I almost stole one every time I was back there, but I never did.

King: You should have.

Tavis: I’ve been anxious to do this, so I’m going to get to the book in a second, but let me just jump right into this. So much news has been made that I want to get your take on, and your take on by way of what you would be saying to them if they were across the desk from you right now on CNN.

You lost money thanks to Bernie Madoff.

King: I got it back.

Tavis: You got it back, all right. If you were interviewing Bernie Madoff, what are you asking him? What are you saying to him?

King: Well, of course, logical people think that you would ask Bernie Madoff, “How did you feel about hurting all these people?” I like to go a little different route, which would probably have been, “When this started, you were a famous person to begin with, you were chairman of NASDAQ. When you started the investment company, how did this kick in, this idea to if I get from Peter and he gives me 20 and you sign up and I give you 10 of his 20 while I hold back 10 there, this can’t miss.”

Do you know that if nobody claims money, if nobody takes a big hit, Ponzis could go on forever? There are probably successful smaller Ponzis that have been going on for 30, 40 years. So I would try to click in – what made this guy from queens, New York, average guy, friend of a lot of nice people, Freddie Wilpon’s one of my best friends, the owner of the Mets.

Then, of course, you get into conscience. What bothered you? I think sociopaths find an excuse. It’s your greed. It’s not them, it’s your greed. You were greedy, and that’s how I played to you. I tell you, being a client of Bernie Madoff was a riot.

When you look back, it was funny. There was a day once when my wife said, “Why don’t we just give him all the money? He never loses. Why are we wasting with 20 percent? Let’s give him everything.” Because you’d get these – I never spoke to Bernie Madoff, never met him, but –

Tavis: Wait, wait, wait, wait – you never met Bernie Madoff?

King: No, never met him or spoke to him. He turned down my brother. He turned down a lot of people. Part of his scheme, too – make you want more. There’s a lady in Palm Beach who chased him for 10 years, he always turned her down. A millionairess. See, that’s very smart.

If you make something harder to get, you want it more. I never spoke, but he would send – I never even saw – but my accountants in Boston would deal with him. I’d call up, we need money, we put in money.

He would send little letters. Every month you got a statement – you own 40 shares of Sears, we sold 11 shares and the balance, here’s what you made. One month he’d send a letter, “Stocks are not doing well this month. We’re just buying Treasuries.” He never bought a Treasury. He never bought a stock.

So over the years we put in $4.8 million, took out $4.1, so we were down $700,000 when it ended. But I’m sure we made money during the progression. I can’t deny that we didn’t make money. But we got $200,000 back from the guy who’s handling his account and $500,000 from the United States government because we paid taxes on stock we didn’t have – we paid capital gains (unintelligible). Never had a stock.

Tavis: You mentioned one of your –

King: Madoff would fascinate me, though. Wouldn’t you love to do him?

Tavis: I would love to talk to him.

King: I would do – we do four specials a year. I would run down to that prison to get into the mind of Bernie Madoff. And also, one thing that – why didn’t he just get a private plane and fly off to Brazil? Call the family together, offer anybody wanted to go with him. Why do you think? You’re a good judge of people.

Why would a man say, “Okay, I can go to Brazil or I’ll spend the rest of my life in a penitentiary.”

Tavis: I think the short answer to that is that his crime against humanity was so egregious and he offended so many power players in this country – and let’s not be naïve about this; there is a divide in this country between the rich and the poor, the have-gots and the have-nots, and you can’t rip off that many powerful people. The government will find you. These powerful people who help run this government –

King: But there’s no extradition.

Tavis: I know there’s no extradition. They would get him anyway. (Laughter) Bernie Madoff –

King: Or somebody else would get him.

Tavis: Bernie Madoff is the one guy they would get and drag him back to this country. We’d cut off every bit of aid to Brazil we give. We’d ruin our relationship with them. We’d end it if they did not return that guy, Bernie Madoff.

King: But he’s a fascinating guy to talk about.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

King: I write about him in the book.

Tavis: I know you did, that’s why I asked you about it. You mentioned your friend, one of your best friends, Fred Wilpon –

King: He’s a great guy.

Tavis: – owner of the Mets. He’s gotten a lot of public pushback about what he knew – it sounds like Watergate – what did you know and when did you know it about his relationship with Bernie Madoff.

King: That’s the reason for the suit that –

Tavis: Exactly. What do you make of what’s happening to the Mets?

King: Well, I’m a Dodger fan (unintelligible). (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s another problem, yeah, with ownership.

King: But Freddie I hold blameless, and even Madoff made a statement in a brilliant piece in “The New Yorker” by Jeffrey Toobin.

Tavis: I read the piece, yeah.

King: That Freddie wouldn’t have known anything. Freddie’s not an investor. He’s a brilliant real estate guy and a baseball freak and he loves his team, but he’s not an investor and he’s not a sophisticated investor, and he has this guy, he’s his friend, “Come with me,” and he gets statements every month. I can understand that completely.

I have great accountants in Boston. Not one month did they ever say to me other than, “This guy really is good.” Then my guy at my regular investment firm, Morgan Stanley, all they would say to me is, “I tell you, he’s a great stock analyst.”

Tavis: I want to cover more ground here, but let me ask you right quick, since you are doing these four specials every year for CNN, why not ask Bernie Madoff for a conversation?

King: We’re trying. Oh, my God.

Tavis: So you do want to talk to him.

King: Oh, I had lunch with his lawyer. His lawyer said, “Bernie, if you want to do it.” I understand so far we’ve gotten permission from the prison – it’s okay. If he says it’s okay, we can bring a camera.

Tavis: Got it. So the other question, the other person – there are a number, but in the time I have – that I’ve been dying to know what you would say to him were you sitting across from him, and you’d be the guy to get the interview.

So what do you ask Anthony Weiner?

King: Boy. See, I never thought about an interview when I went in to do it, and I would always – people don’t believe this, but I would turn to the guest and say, “My guest is Tavis Smiley,” whack, and I don’t know what I’m going to say what I look at you or something.

So, but I – there are now – so I would go on the premise that I now know there are high school pictures printed of him. He was doing this in high school, in college. To me, I’d like to get to the background of things. I’d ask you what you’d ask – I would ask when you’re leading a kind of double life – let’s say you’re not having a physical affair, but you’re leading a kind of double life, what is that like every day?

You were on my show, Congressman, and you were talking about relief for the victims of 9/11, the families of 9/11. He led the fight to get them financial aid when a lot of people didn’t give them financial aid. So at the same time you’re doing this you have gone into the green room and are calling an 18-year-old college student.

What was going through your mind? Did you ever think it was wrong? What would you ask him? Did you ever think, “Why am I doing this?”

Tavis: One of the questions I want to ask is, or would ask – and I’m not into these kinds of conversations, as you know – but if I were to talk to him, I’d ask how is it that he thought that he wasn’t crossing the line?

I grant you your own little freakish behavior, if that’s the way you want to live your life. I ain’t mad at you. But I don’t know why he didn’t think that he was crossing the line when he was taking pictures from the House gym.

This is the People’s house, and you can’t even control yourself enough to not go beyond this line. What you do on your own private phone, on your own private time, in your own private life, I grant you that. But there is a line at which I think you say, “Okay, I can’t cross this line.” The other thing is if you’re not smart enough to decipher where that line is, then why should we have you running the country?

King: Another thing that fascinates me, I am told by psychologists that this is not uncommon among powerfully driven people who either make a lot of money or who have positions of power to influence money that they need constant reaffirmation. It’ll come sexually or otherwise. But this is not uncommon.

My question would be, “Do you think there’s a bus driver in Des Moines who is Twittering out his nude picture to women around the country?” Do you think so? I don’t think so.

Tavis: You don’t think so?

King: But a lot of people say they probably are. I don’t think so. I think it is a proclivity of powerful.

Tavis: All this leads me to ask whether or not you are missing being in that chair every night.

King: Oh, what I miss is big stories. The night that Osama bin Laden was killed, I just wanted to run in. But I don’t miss the Paris Hiltons. So it’s like a joke I do, which is, it’s like on the one hand you really want to do something, but on the other hand it’s mixed emotions. It’s like watching your mother-in-law go over the cliff in your new car. (Laughter)

Tavis: When I last saw you, in fact, speaking of jokes, you were headed out of this studio on your way to start your tour. How’s it going?

King: Well into it, man. We’ve done Boston, Atlantic City, Indianapolis, Vegas, Phoenix, we’ve got coming cities throughout Florida, New York, Australia, Hong Kong.

Tavis: You enjoying it?

King: Yeah. I don’t like travel, because in between I travel to Korea and to Portugal to be the keynote speaker at some major digital conferences. Wonderful countries, by the way. Portugal, I’d never been to Portugal, and certainly never been to Korea.

I went to the DMZ. Whoa, what an interesting, surreal experience that was. But I’m enjoying it because I love standing on a stage and I love making people laugh. In fact, that’s the biggest high, when you come to that moment. I don’t like traveling there, but once you get out there and that audience is in your grasp and you know you’re coming to a line that’s funny and you have that moment before you deliver it, if you deliver it well, wow, that’s a high.

Tavis: You’re good at that, awfully good at it.

King: But the DMZ was – I didn’t get a chance to write about that because the book was done already. I went right to the 38th parallel, Panmunjom. Stories, the cities I’d heard about growing up. I’m in the window, I’m in the room where they have conferences – it’s still an armistice. That war is still on. It’s just under a truce.

So standing on this line are South Koreans, North Koreans, and in the middle of this room where they negotiate every three or four years something, standing right behind the window is a North Vietnamese staring at me like this while I’m in a room that’s really both sides. You can move around the room. Weird.

Tavis: You mentioned Vegas. I happen to know that your wife, Shawn, opened for you.

King: She’s a great singer.

Tavis: Great singer, opened up for you when you did Vegas. You’ve been in the media for so many years, television and radio and print for that matter, obviously writing all kinds of best-selling books. What did you make of the media’s treatment of you and Shawn when you were going through your marital issues?

King: I understand it; it’s the name of the game today. But one thing was despicable – I write about that, too – was paparazzi. I know they’ve got a job, but we were only apart really two weeks, and (unintelligible) the family now in our house.

But Chance, the one next to me there, was playing in a big game in Little League. He was busy, and Cannon, his little brother, who’s a great athlete too, was there watching him, and Shawn was there and her mother and father were there and I was there and friends of mine were there.

This was a night game in Beverly Hills, and there must have been 30 paparazzi there. They had their lights on because it was at night, so the lights were on the cameras, and they were blinding the players, blinding. The players were going like this, and the umpire and the park managers came around and asked them if they would leave.

They can’t literally throw them out. Can’t do anything. You could stand in a park and take pictures. None of them would shut their lights off.

Tavis: Do you know who was sitting in for you on “Larry King” that night when you were away for that game?

King: You?

Tavis: Yes. I remember it well.

King: Boy, I tell you. (Laughter) And they knocked – my mother-in-law fell, the little boy, Cannon, was crying, and they were – and then I talked to one in New York subsequently, up in New York City, and I was talking to this paparazzi outside, a guy (unintelligible).

I said, “What was this?” They pay more for pictures of children, and if you can get a child crying, they pay triple. Do you know in Britain you can’t take a picture of a child? You’re fined or you can lose your license as a newspaper if you have a picture of a child in a study of distress. They pay triple. That is the lowest of the low.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me switch gears dramatically here. Back to your talk show. I suspect the interview that you get asked the most about is the Brando interview, yeah?

King: Yeah, well –

Tavis: One of them, at least.

King: – of course, the whole thing leading up to it, I get it – they told me first, “Marlon Brando’s agreed to do one interview, and he likes you, he’s going to do.” “Well, thank you.” “He’s going to call you.” The interview is set for Friday. This was, like, Monday or Tuesday. I was at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

I get a call with that voice that I’ve known through my life. “This is Marlon,” and I actually said, “Marlon who?” (Laughter) And he said, “Brando,” and I said – quizzically, I said, “Well, there’s Fitzwater,” the presidential press secretary. So he says, “I’m going to send a car around and we’ll have lunch. You come up to my house. I want to talk about what we’re going to talk about.”

I said, “Okay.” I go downstairs and a car pulls up and it’s him. He’s driving a Chevy. The doorman says, “I’m seeing this, but I don’t believe it.” We get in the car and we’re driving around Beverly Hills singing songs. He would sing the first line; I would sing the second line. He’s really into music.

He came to New York as a dancer from Omaha. Very light on his feet, no matter all the weight. Anyway, we went to his house. Nothing in the house that he was an actor. There were books on architecture, no Academy Award, nothing. Two big dogs. It was an incredible, surreal lunch.

Now he goes on the show and I had a wonderful interview with him. He didn’t want to talk about acting. During the drive in the car I said, “I want to talk about acting.” He said, “Acting’s easy. It’s easy. All you got to do is pretend. Pretend.” He made a lot of other actors angry in that interview, because he said the same thing in the interview. In fact, he taught a class once called Lying for a Living. (Laughter) Then all actors said they’re not lying.

Tavis: They hated that, yeah, yeah, yeah.

King: So he pulls the car over to the side and he said, “I’ll show you you can act.” He picks up a fake phone, he goes, “What? Your brother died.” I said, “What?” He said, “Hold that ‘what’ – that’s an Academy Award supporting actor. A great ‘what.’ That was a great ‘what.'” (Laughter) So anyway, we finish the interview and he kisses me on the lips.

Tavis: We all saw it, yeah.

King: I was a little taken aback. We were singing a song, in fact, when he kissed me, and, “Good night, my love, my friend,” and then he came back on later, went on another show. But I was so taken aback, so in my act – I’m ruining this now – first thing I say is, “What I’m asked most is what was it like to be kissed by Marlon Brando, and I’ve got to tell you the truth – I can’t stop thinking about it.” (Laughter)

But he was a wonderful guy. The second time he came on is when he said, “The Jews run Hollywood,” and they were unforgiving of that, and he had to meet with the rabbi and he didn’t mean that, because so many of his friends were Jewish. He loves Jewish food, he –

Tavis: He’s talking to a Jewish host.

King: Yeah, talking to a Jewish host. He lived with – actor’s studios were his favorite people. So he said it because he really felt that the Jews were in a position of power and he never saw Native Americans get good parts and Latinos get good parts.

So that’s the way he took the blame. Instead of saying “studio heads,” he singled out Jews. Lou Wasserman, who was a big fan of his, I don’t think spoke to him again before Lou died and before Marlon died.

Tavis: You cover so much ground in that 25-year period, I want to ask before my time runs out here how you assess the way that it ended. I’m asking that because LeBron James is catching hell right now, and he’s catching hell not just because they lost. This goes back, as we all know, to the way he left Cleveland.

King: I spent a day at his house. We did a wonderful interview. He thrilled me because I liked meeting him and he said to me, we were walking along, it’s a beautiful house in Akron – what a house – and he said he can’t believe that Larry King came to see him. He had some friends he grew up with, pals from the Boy’s Club that he endorses there.

He was so part of Cleveland and Ohio, it’s all he knew all his life, and he was a great interview, not a good interview. You know about interviews, who’s good, who’s bad. He was a great interview. He responded well, he took me through his dilemma well.

Where does he go? He wants to win, he loves Cleveland, he’s making the decision. Then he makes the stupidest decision of all time, to by the hour – all right, he’s given it to charity, but people hear that all the time – and then Jim Gray, who should not have done – I’m a friend of Jim’s – Jim should not have agreed to do that, not have agreed, or once he agreed, the first question should have been, “Where are you going?”

Tavis: They stretched this thing out for an hour, it seems.

King: Oh, what did you do last summer, what do you eat for breakfast – come on. Go right to it, because that’s why we’re all watching, and then you trace the background of it.

But the first thing he should have done was called the owner of the Cavaliers and tell him, “I’ve made my decision, I’m going to leave.” He made, in a sense, a gracious, not a monetary decision, because Cleveland could have paid him more than anybody offered him, because then the salary cap, your team can go any route.

They could have paid him $80 million. Didn’t matter. They can go above any offer. So it ain’t money. So he wanted to win. Then he expresses it and he says, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.” Most people watching don’t have talents in that regard. He’s taking his – and he’s not taking them to South Beach, he’s taking them to Miami. The team plays in Miami.

South Beach is the equivalent of bathing suits, women, nightlife, music, fun, frolic, single beach – everything we don’t have. He’s going, that’s why he’s going – to South Beach. Terrible. So the public didn’t forgive him, and Ohio was unforgiving – unforgiving.

They were rooting for – you know that the people in Ohio were calling the Cavaliers the Mavaliers? They were rooting for the Mavericks so bad. I think he can put it away, but not quickly, and I’m sorry, because I like him. So he made a mistake, but he’s only 25.

Tavis: He’s only 25, hold that thought, though. I’m going to ask this question now and give you Larry’s answer tomorrow night. I’m going to spend half of this show tomorrow night talking to Larry King and I want to know now that he’s given us assessment, which I really appreciate and agree with, his assessment of what LeBron did wrong that’s led to all the hate, and I think over the top hate, quite frankly, that he’s now receiving.

But I want to know, because he talks about it in the book, I want to know what Larry King learned from the way LeBron exited Cleveland relative to his exit from CNN. We’ll do all that tomorrow night as we continue our conversation with Larry King.

The new book is called “Larry King: Truth Be Told. Off the Record About Favorite Guests, Memorable Moments, Funniest Jokes and a Half-Century of Asking Questions.” Larry King, I will see you here with no suspenders on tomorrow night.

King: I will return.

Tavis: Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.

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Last modified: June 17, 2011 at 4:33 pm