For Larry King, the death of Osama bin Laden provided an awakening.
The veteran talk show host had been nudged toward the door by CNN in 2010 after 25 years of interviewing such titans as Frank Sinatra, Tom Cruise and Barack Obama. After that, King had been giving inspirational speeches in far-flung countries, doing an occasional stand-up comedy routine and taping a few TV specials for CNN. One was supposed to run on a Sunday in May 2011. King had dinner guests over that night for a viewing party.
Instead, CNN cut to live coverage following the Navy Seals’ deadly raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
“My first instinct was to run to CNN, to get on top of the story,” King said last week during an interview at his Beverly Hills home. “And I missed that. Nothing beats being in the middle of the hunt, in the middle of the scene.”
The event spurred the 78-year-old broadcaster back into action. A year ago, King entered a partnership with the world’s richest man, Mexican telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, who is bankrolling a new digital programming service called Ora TV. The venture currently produces just one program, “Larry King Now,” which runs on Hulu, the popular online video service.
“This is a whole new world to me,” King said. “I don’t do the Internet, and now suddenly I’m in the middle of this.”
The new talk show, which launched last month, is a lot like the old one. The same slightly stooped guy with suspenders asks the same succinct questions of guests such as Seth MacFarlane, Oliver Stone and Matthew McConaughey.
But it feels a little different.
King spent his entire career on a schedule that unfolded with military precision: Awake at 6 a.m. A breakfast of Cheerios, blueberries, 2% milk and half a corn muffin, “burnt,” at 8:45 a.m. When he hosted a radio talk show in Miami, it ran from 9 a.m. to noon. At CNN, he was in his seat in the network’s Sunset Boulevard studio for a live talk show that started promptly at 6 p.m.
Now, people can catch his show on Hulu any time. He tapes interviews when guests are available, whether it is at 11 a.m. or 4 p.m.
“Weird,” King said. “But I guess that’s how the rest of the world works.”
King, who started his radio show in 1957, already has earned the distinction of mastering radio and TV.
“I’ve broadcast in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s and now the 2010s — seven decades,” King said. “How many people in broadcasting can say that? Vin Scully, yeah, he’s done it longer. But Cronkite was for six decades and Carson was for six.”
Now, King could get new traction on the Internet, said Hulu’s senior vice president of content, Andy Forssell.
“Larry is relevant,” Forssell said. “He’s pretty timeless and it’s all about the guests. There is no ambiguity, no mystery to solve, and that clarity works well on the Internet.”
The first few “Larry King Now” interviews were conducted in King’s “trophy room,” a memorabilia-laden library off the grand foyer of the Beverly Hills mansion he shares with his seventh wife, Shawn, and their two young sons.
Gone are the calls from viewers in Columbus, Ohio, or Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Instead, questions arrive via Twitter. Crew members can be heard chuckling off-camera. In one segment, the family’s King Charles Cavalier spaniel Biscuit landed a part — on Betty White’s lap. The actress stroked the dog until he became overwhelmed by the bright lights and attention.
This month, production of “Larry King Now” moved to a new studio in Glendale. Shawn picked paint colors for the new set.
And now the man who spent decades trying to keep himself out of his questions, in an effort to focus the conversation on the guest, is trying to inject more of his personality and opinion into the show. “That’s expected on the Internet,” King said.
The new forum has allowed the septuagenarian to air his disgust with aging — and his fear of death.
“I want to be you,” King told McConaughey toward the end of an interview with the 42-year-old actor once branded the “sexiest man alive.” McConaughey appeared amused. “I’d like to be cryonic’ed,” he told White. “I’d like to be frozen.” The 90-year-old actress looked horrified.
“Yeah, I’m afraid of death,” King said during an interview at his home. “My father died at 47. I had a heart attack 25 years ago, I’ve had heart surgery. I think about dying almost every day.”
King hasn’t actually agreed to have his body frozen. He is intrigued by the concept, but Shawn, his wife, is not on board. Shawn insists there is an afterlife. Her husband shrugs and says he has little hope there is.
Still, King has trouble considering the world going on without him.
“I can’t imagine eternity [and], I can’t imagine not being there,” he said. “If I died today, I wouldn’t know who won the World Series — or who won the election.”
Perhaps that explains why King refuses to retire?
“No, no. I’m doing the show because I love it,” King said. Then he paused for a moment. “I guess it has something to do with keeping me going. I have a sense of being important, of counting, you know.”
King’s plan is to keep asking questions and continue “Larry King Now” for another seven years — until 2020, or until he dies.
“I think that’s the way it’s going to end,” King said. “I will fall over. And Shawn will emcee the funeral, but she’ll be late. She’ll be home doing her hair.”