Larry King's 25 years at the helm of his own show are about to end. Known for his gravelly voice, Brooklyn man-of-the-people nasal twang, trademark suspenders and wagging index finger, as well as his non-confrontational style, King attracted a guest list that made the likes of British chat show pretenders Terry Wogan and Michael Parkinson look small league.
King straddled the divide between chat show interviewing and not too invasive news journalism. In fact, many other interviewers would do well to learn from him. He was neither self-absorbed (like the omnipresent bore Jonathan Ross), nor bumptious and rude (Jeremy Paxman and Robin Day), neither did he appear to have a big ego (Terry Wogan). In an era where chat show hosts appear more interested in themselves than their guests, he genuinely appeared curious about his interviewees.
Here are my top guests on his show.
1. Marlon Brando
All-time favourite. The massively overweight and over-talented superstar appeared twice. The first time he was in a jovial mood, sitting with his feet propped up on a chair while he sang songs. Brando was a great actor, not just because of his on-screen performances but also because of his off-screen ones. He toyed gently with King, skillfully ducking controversial questions, feigning a complete lack of interest in show-business that only made King sweat and poke his finger more often. The second time he appeared, a year later, he had re-invented himself. Sober-suited and altogether more serious, looking more like a retired banker or diplomat than an actor, Brando suddenly launched into a diatribe against Jews who "controlled Hollywood". King, who had been kissed on the lips by Brando at the end of their first encounter, looked nonplussed. Still, it was great TV!
2. Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher always looked far more relaxed on American TV than on British TV, particularly after she was ousted as British prime minister in 1990. On British TV, her slow speech, burning blue eyes and emphatic manner made her look slightly obsessional (I'm alluding to one particular interview she gave after the Falklands War as she gazed at a replica model of a British soldier). King, however, managed to coax a surprisingly normal interview out of her, including pithy comments about American politicians in the news at the time.
3. Ross Perot
The grotesquely unattractive Perot – imagine staring at his face for four years – appeared on the Larry King show several times. You always had the feeling that Perot and King didn't really like each other. Still, Perot announced his candidacy for the 1992 presidency on the Larry King show and memorably debated with Al Gore about NAFTA in 1993.
4. Mike Tyson
A recent interview with the boxing legend revealed the inimitable style that has characterised King's interviews. Put guests at ease with a few compliments, field a few softball questions and then – when the guest is nice and relaxed – press them (not too hard) on controversial incidents in the past, in this case the boxer's relationship with Robin Givens, his tough childhood, the Buster Douglas knockout. But – and you sense it was a close call – he never mentioned the bit bite with Evander Holyfield or the rape case. King, you see, always sensed where to draw the line.
5. Frank Sinatra
What can I say? So few chat show hosts succeeded in getting Sinatra to expose himself. But King succeeded where countless others have failed. Still, King never mentioned the "M" word – and just as well.
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