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King of the blurbs

WHILE most people know him as the man who’s interviewed everyone from Bill Clinton to Anna Nicole Smith, in my neck of the woods Larry King is famous for liking movies. In fact, if you’re a habitual reader of movie ads, you might say that CNN’s indefatigable talkmeister is famous for liking movies too much.

Even though he’s quick to disassociate himself from the reviewing rabble -- one of the first things he told me at lunch was “I’m not a critic!” -- you don’t have to look very far these days to find a glowing King blurb somewhere near the top of a movie ad, kicking you in the pants right toward the nearest movie theater.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 15, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
‘Screamers’: The Big Picture column in Tuesday’s Calendar section described the film “Screamers” as being about Turkish genocide. It is about the Armenian genocide in Turkey.

If you look at the ads for “The Good Shepherd,” you can find King shouting from the rooftops: “The Best Spy Movie Ever!” The only problem is that King often heaps a towering inferno of accolades on unworthy films. Or as critic Richard Roeper put it in his roundup of 2006 Hollywood trends: “Al Gore was bigger box office than Lindsay Lohan. Borat lapped Jack Black. And Larry King liked everything.”

“You, Me and Dupree” was widely panned last summer, but King proclaimed it “Fun and Very Funny!” In 2005, King touted the forgettable “Two for the Money” as “The Best Movie About Gambling Ever Made!” The Cole Porter biopic “De-Lovely” was “Far and Away the Best Musical Biography Ever Made!”

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King sees movies every week, often catching a noon flick before heading over to CNN to do his show. It must keep him young. At 73, he’s slim and trim, almost boyishly petite. His hair, once gray, is now a dry brown, like the trunk of a palm tree, with gray at the temples. He seems to see everything, describing the movies in blurb-like bursts, from “Letters From Iwo Jima” (“Loved every minute of it!”) to a film about Turkish genocide called “Screamers” (“Very well done!”).

“I know they’re only looking for a catchphrase,” he explained the other day, ensconced at his favorite table at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, where he orders a spartan salad for lunch (“Don’t give me any eggs!”). “If I like the movie, I give ‘em a quote. If I don’t like something, I’m not gonna rap it. Sometimes they don’t even use it. I gave Clint a big rave for his movie and they didn’t even need it.”

However, it turns out that King sometimes will even blurb a movie he didn’t like. At lunch, he told me of the time he and Shawn Southwick, his sixth wife, took their two boys to see “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” “I had no idea what was going on,” he says. “I turned to my wife and said, ‘What is this movie about? I don’t get it!’ ”

But when I dug up King’s old blurbs, guess who was at the top of the ad for the movie, enthusing: “Finally, a Movie Worth Seeing Over and Over Again!”

Larry! I thought you didn’t like the movie! “I didn’t,” he explained. “I told the CNN person to tell the studio, ‘I didn’t understand the damn movie at all. I’d have to see it over and over again to figure out what happened.’ And then they went and used it!”

King’s blurb for “The Good Shepherd” was originally “arguably the best spy movie ever,” but Universal asked if he would drop the qualifier. “I said fine, I don’t mind,” King says, shaking his head. “Hey, I want the movie to be good.”

King has always wanted to like movies. After hearing him talk about his childhood in Brooklyn, it’s easy to understand how movies became so deeply rooted in his psyche. When King was 9, his father dropped dead of a heart attack working at a defense plant. The police came to notify the family and, to take the young boy’s mind off his loss, one of the cops took King to see “Bataan,” a Robert Taylor war movie. Surely the experience of being swept away in the womblike darkness of the theater, stirred by the heroics of men his father’s own age, must’ve had a transforming impact on King’s view of film as an escape from any daily troubles.

“I remember the cop broke the news to me slowly as we were driving to the theater,” King says in a gruff dems ‘n’ doses accent that trumpets his Brooklyn origins. “Ya know, I got mad at my father for dying. I thought he just left me. It took me years to get over it.”

After his father’s death, King’s family struggled. “We were dirt poor,” he says. “I was on relief [welfare] for two years.” Movies didn’t put food on the table, but in Brooklyn, they put plates on the table. Anyone who went to the neighborhood theater, the Benson, on Friday night, received a free plate. “We ended up with a whole set of dishes and plates from the Benson,” King says.

His favorite pictures were rousing crowd-pleasers. “I loved ‘Gunga Din,’ ” he says, rattling off titles, injecting blurb-jectives as he goes. “Sands of Iwo Jima” (“Loved it!”); “State Fair” (“No one was better than Dana Andrews!”). His first crush was on Joan Leslie, but there were others: Betty Grable (“She was hot!”) followed by Jane Russell in “The Outlaw” (“They had to cover her breasts in the ads!”).

One of his favorite actors was Marlon Brando, whom he interviewed later. Most writers found Brando confounding, but not King. “He called and said, ‘Larry, this is Marlon,’ and I said, ‘Marlon who?’ ” Brando picked King up in an old white Chevy (“The doorman said, ‘I see it, but I don’t believe it’ ”) and they proceeded to drive around Beverly Hills, singing show tunes.

“I love actors,” says King. “They’re incredibly smart and they all understand human nature. Brando always said, ‘Acting is observing. Observing is what I do.’ ”

Having appeared in 21 movies, from “Ghostbusters” to “Shrek 2,” King feels like one of the tribe. Not shy about promoting anything -- when I ask about his wife, he immediately says, “She just recorded a song with Willie Nelson and she’s opening for Rickles in Vegas in a few weeks. Let me tell you, she can really sing!” -- King figures this interview might be a good way to tout his own acting potential. “I’m 73, I got a nice voice, I look healthy, I could play a judge, lawyer, crook, politician. I’m tired of just doing cameos.”

He says he just finished a small part in “Shrek 3,” reprising his role as Doris, an ugly bartender. He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Here’s a hot tip. Doris has a sister this time and it’s Regis Philbin!”

Of this year’s crop of Oscar films, his favorite was “The Departed.” “It was flawless!” he enthused. “Beautifully acted. Scorsese at the top of his game. I didn’t want it to end!” He still hasn’t seen “The Queen,” because for him it feels like deja vu all over again. “I did shows every night on Princess Di when she died,” he says. “And we’ve done so many royalty shows that I guess I’m tired of the subject.”

He still can’t get over the fact that “All the King’s Men,” his idea of an Oscar picture, was slammed by critics. “What was wrong with that movie?” he asks. “I don’t get it. How could they knock Sean Penn, who is our best film actor today? The girls were great. Geez, they even rapped Anthony Hopkins!”

King complains that critics would rather pan a movie than praise it. “That’s what I don’t get about ‘em,” he says. “It’s like they don’t even want to like the movie. I have a confounding time with a guy like [The Wall Street Journal’s] Joe Morgenstern. Sometimes I don’t even know what he’s looking at.” King is still upset that the critics bashed “The Holiday,” calling it corny and sentimental. “What -- is sentimental such a bad word?” he says. “If a movie makes you cry, it has to have moved you. I cried in ‘Letters From Iwo Jima.’ Is that such a bad thing?”

King makes no apologies for the way studios use his name to sell tickets. “Do you really think people think Larry King is a movie critic?” he asks. “Come on! I’m the guy on CNN who liked the movie. I mean, after Roger Ebert, how many film critics could I even name? Joe Morgenstern. The guy with you. [The New York Post’s] Lou Lumenick. [The New York Times’] A.O. Scott. I mean, how many people in Dubuque, Iowa, know any of those guys?”

You can’t even put King in a roomful of critics without all hell breaking loose. When I called Morgenstern Friday to let him respond to King’s gibes -- he said he was “honored to be deplored by Larry King” -- he told me King had caused a scene that very morning, taking cellphone calls in the middle of a screening of the upcoming film “Breach.” After a barrage of complaints, King went outside, only to have his phone go off again after he returned. “There was almost a brawl,” reported Morgenstern.

When I asked about the incident, King was apologetic. “But it was urgent. They were important calls, things I had to respond to. I didn’t talk on the phone for more than a minute or two.”

And what did King think of the movie? “It was super,” he said. “Had me on the edge of my seat!” From Larry King’s mouth to your ears -- does anyone need to hear more?

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The Big Picture runs each Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein @latimes.com.


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