Born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger on Nov. 19, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, Larry King didn’t have the easiest childhood.
After his father — a Russian immigrant — died of heart problems in 1944, “I was 11, my younger brother Martin was only 6, and my mother couldn’t work,” he told PEOPLE in 1980. “I remember the inspectors from the Welfare Department coming to our house. They opened the refrigerator and asked my mother how she could afford the meat. She could afford it because she didn’t eat it. She gave it to my brother and me.”
An avid fan of radio, King broke into the business in the late ’50s in Miami, after he took a janitor job at a local station and was asked to go on air after an announcer abruptly quit.
“I was petrified,” he recalled to PEOPLE. “The theme music was supposed to fade, and I was supposed to do a voice-over. But every time the music faded I’d turn it back up again. Finally the station manager stuck his head into the studio and said, ‘Remember, this is a communicating business.’ I let the music go down and told the audience what had just happened. Those were my first words on radio.”
King continued on the radio and even had a television show, Miami Undercover, as well as radio work covering the Miami Dolphins football team.
But he lost all of his gigs in 1971 when he was arrested and charged with grand larceny, unable to pay back a financier. The charges were eventually dropped — and King was hired back on the radio — but continued to have financial struggles throughout his early career, due in part to a predilection for gambling.
“I was in a lot of financial trouble,” he told PEOPLE, “but I never let it affect my job. Work was my opiate.”
In 1978, King went national with The Larry King Show on Mutual Broadcasting System. The five-hour show aired live beginning at midnight and would feature a guest interview followed by several hours of call-in Q&A.
According to a 1980 PEOPLE profile, the show was a “stunning success,” with 6 million listeners. It ended in 1994, after winning King a Peabody Award in 1982.
As his star was on the rise, so was his profile: King famously married eight times, to seven women. Sharon Lepore, pictured, was his fourth wife (and fifth marriage); the two were together from 1976 to 1983.
Prior to her, he was married to high school sweetheart Freda Miller from 1952 to 1953 (their parents allegedly annulled the marriage because they disapproved); Annette Kaye in 1961 (with whom he had his first child, Larry Jr.); Playboy bunny Alene Akins from 1961-63 and again from 1968 to 1971 (he adopted her son Andy and had daughter Chaia with her); and Mickey Sutphin from 1964-67 (with whom he had daughter Kelly).
In 1985, King began his CNN series, Larry King Live, spending an hour every night on air before heading to his radio job. According to his bio, he conducted more than 40,000 interviews over the span of his career. Here, he talks to O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro in 1995.
He famously never prepared for his guests, telling PEOPLE, “This way the audience and I can learn together. I never ask a question when I know the answer.”
”I couldn’t get well-known being namby-pamby,” he added. ”I ask the questions people on the street would ask. In my heart, I’m still the kid from Brooklyn.”
His success came at a price, however; in 1985, he told PEOPLE, “Somebody has to suffer — I guess it’s my children and my wife. We workaholics make life decisions that make marriage very difficult.”
Julie Alexander, a businesswoman, met King in 1989. She would become his sixth wife later that year when the two married in Washington. They separated in 1990, two years before they officially divorced.
Before meeting her, King suffered a major heart attack in 1987, leading to hospitalizations in the years following. His health issues led him to found the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, giving financial assistance to people with heart conditions in need of medical treatment.
Thanks to his notoriety, King had cameos in numerous TV shows and movies, including Muppets Tonight (pictured), 30 Rock, Ghostbusters, Sesame Street and The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
In 1997, King was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Previously, he was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame and the Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame.
Though many of his guests were celebrities and authors, King’s show was also known for its political spin. In 2000, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush and his wife Laura visited the show, before the former Texas governor won the controversial presidential election against Democratic nominee Al Gore.
In 1997, King married Shawn Southwick, with whom he has two sons, Chance and Cannon (here they attend an event with Larry King Jr. in 2009). In 2010, they filed for divorce, but reconciled three months after the original filing. In 2016, there were rumors Southwick was having an affair, though the couple weathered the storm.
In 2010, after 25 years, King ended his CNN series, and parted ways with the network in 2012.
King received a Lifetime Achievement Award Emmy — his only Emmy, despite six nominations — at the 32nd Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards in 2011.
King (with Dionne Warwick) returned to the airwaves with Larry King Now, a new interview show, on Ora TV in 2012 and later, on Hulu. He kicked off PoliticKING with Larry King weekly on RT America, as well.
In his later years, his health issues prevailed: in 2017 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, though treated successfully with cancer, and in April 2019, he was hospitalized for chest pains, undergoing an angioplasty and stent insertion. Following his hospitalization, he never returned to the air.
In early January 2021, he was hospitalized with COVID-19, and on Jan. 23, Ora Media announced the journalist’s death at the age of 87.
Working until age 85, King never felt put upon. Instead, he told PEOPLE in 2003, “While it seems like I’m doing a lot, I don’t think of it as work. I love what I do.”
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