In a little more than a month, Larry King will leave his first-floor studio on Sunset and Cahuenga. His last regularly scheduled program on CNN will be done. A driver will shuttle King home to Beverly Hills and a new life. But don’t you dare call it retirement.
The radio-turned-television personality, who turns 77 on Friday, will be making four specials a year for CNN. He’ll be speaking to charitable groups. He’d like to do a little stand-up, Friars Club style. (If he lands that biggest of all interviews, King knows the first question he’d ask God: “Do you have a son? Because there’s a lot riding on the answer.”)
The talking will not be over. No way, not by a long shot, as the guys back in Brooklyn might say, and not just because King’s got all those projects lined up. The talking really won’t stop because of Nate ‘n Al’s.
Up to seven days a week, King will amble into the Beverly Hills delicatessen at about 8:30 a.m. His bowl of blueberries will be waiting, as will a pair of waitresses who have taken care of him for three decades along with, most importantly, some of the fellas who have known him since he was just little Larry Zeiger of Bensonhurst
Larry and the boys will eat, joke and gossip. They will sort through the big questions — sports, politics and business — and the bigger imponderables: women, love and death. Guests will stop in and join the conversation. Madeleine Albright might show up, or Bob Costas, or Alice Cooper, or Barbara Walters, or Rod Blagojevich.
When Larry King slides into his booth at the Nate ‘n Al deli, you’re not likely to hear about how CNN’s ratings have slipped well behind cable television leader Fox News and even behind upstart MSNBC. You’re not likely to encounter the voices of a new generation, many of whom prefer their information fast, furious and sprinkled with snark.
In this new world, President George W. Bush can launch a memoir and somehow not stop in at “Larry King Live.” In this new world, the man who began talking five decades ago on Miami radio can be sitting home for the biggest story of the year — CNN’s glimmering set packed with seemingly every other pundit with an opinion and a pulse.
“This was the saddest election. It’s the first one I didn’t work in 52 years,” King said, picking over a plate of matzo brie, the concoction of egg and unleavened bread that bears his name on the menu. “It was painful.”
But the guy who has chewed it over with kings, generals, presidents and, yes, Frank Sinatra (“the best, just the best”) will not end his run without some marquee moments. Some of his favorite interview subjects — George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara, Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Colin Powell, Conan O’Brien and Al Pacino — have agreed to return for a final sitdown.
Few of the hosts of today can command such a lineup. Media personalities have spun into 1,001 far-flung newspaper, blog, radio and cable TV nooks and crannies. “They all cancel each other and they’re . . .” King paused to think of the right word. He looked to Sid (Yallowitz) Young, his pal since Lafayette High School, then realized what’s missing: “There’s no clout. There used to be clout.”
Young nodded in agreement, as did the rest of the boys —Barry Rubin, a lawyer; Budd Moss, an old-time agent; and Irwin Schaeffer, former head of the Friars Club, the one-time godhead of Jewish comedy.
There also used to be manners and respect and a willingness to ask questions because you actually wanted to hear the answer. King still values those things. That makes him an anomaly among the current roster of cable TV preeners, fear-mongers and conspiracy cranks.
King began as a radio DJ in Miami in 1957, so the thought of doing something different doesn’t come easy. He won’t miss the interviews with the families torn apart by loss, parents crying. But he will miss talking to Supreme Court justices and would-be presidents. “It’s bittersweet,” King said.
But at Nate ‘n Al, the sweet often still transcends the bitter. Waitresses like Gloria Leon always save a booth — or even two or three, when Larry warns that a crowd is coming. They know just how he likes his bagel hollowed out and they keep a jar of low-sugar jelly in the kitchen. You can’t be too careful about calories, after a quintuple heart bypass.
Here, King can talk in depth about sports, rarely a subject on his show. His friends love to hash over the previous night’s program and rate the guests. They recall, in particular, telling King to give the boot to Nancy Grace. Too harsh. Too nasty. But then they met the anti-crime virago in person and were charmed. Now she’s got her own show on CNN’s sister network, HLN.
Everyone’s an equal here and gets a say. But King appears first among equals. His buddies tell me his two young sons from his seventh marriage, Chance and Cannon (named for Canon Drive), “are fantastic athletes.” When I suggest King has a good memory, Sid tells me, yes, it’s “amazing.” When I laugh at one of King’s cornball jokes, former Friars chief Schaeffer says, “He’s very, very funny.”
Thinking of the last shows at CNN, Sid Young — the veritable capo régime, seemingly always at King’s side — declares, “He’s gonna miss it.” According to another Nate ‘n Al regular, King’s wife Shawn quipped she would have to get him a paper route to keep him out from under foot.
But there’s plenty of planning still left to do. After the last show, the whole gang will take over Spago for a blowout party. King’s favorite waitresses from Nate ‘n Al will be there. So, of course, will all the fellas.
As for the final show? King hopes to close things out with the man who gave him his first CNN interview back in 1985 — Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York and father of governor-elect Andrew Cuomo.
Only there’s a glitch: Cuomo had signed on, until he felt Eliot Spitzer, another former New York governor and now CNN talk host, insulted his son.
“I don’t know what he said,” King said, “but [Mario] Cuomo calls up CNN and says, ‘I will never go on CNN, because Spitzer is on there.’” King has tried everything to make it right. He has left messages. His brother has called. So has one of the guys who knows the Cuomos.
“The Italian core. It’s a family thing,” King says. “I can’t believe it.”
He’s still trying to get Cuomo to relent. But enough about hang-ups, King says, turning back to the group, determined to keep the conversation going.
“Sometimes we solve things,” he tells me. “Last week it was Iran. We fixed Iran.... Sowassitgonnabe today?”