For the past two decades, his show has been the cornerstone of the CNN primetime lineup. When Correspondent Mike Wallace first sat down with King 12 years ago, he was working in Washington, D.C., as a political junkie – the man most politicians wanted to talk to.
But today, a lot has changed. This talk-show icon now works out of Los Angeles, he's on his seventh marriage, and he's fathered two young sons.
Last winter, in his lavish Beverly Hills mansion, King talked to Wallace about the recent dramatic alterations in his life.
"Unbelievable. I pinch myself more. I can't …I mean, I was doing great. But whoever thought I'd get a house in Beverly Hills," says King.
It all started back in 1994, when King was in Los Angeles, covering the O.J. Simpson murder trial for CNN. "I got to like it, I liked the climate," says King. "I liked the people. I liked the entertainment world."
"Larry King Live" is now on CNN around the world, seven nights a week. And the show has brought King recognition that astonishes him. "I was in South Africa and I was walking down the street and a guy came out of, like, a hut," recalls King. "And he goes, 'Larry King Live.' It was, like, you gotta be kidding me."
Wallace showed King an excerpt from the first interview they did together when King was living in Washington.
Wallace: Larry King is the man the candidates want to talk to, for they've discovered what movie stars already knew -- that "Larry King Live" is an unedited hour with this witty, chummy interviewer who frequently asks simple questions others wish they'd thought of. Bottom line: He makes his guests comfortable.
Wallace: You're a patsy.
King: Oh, I – that's wrong.
Wallace: That's the rap.
King: Yeah, I know.
Wallace: I don't think you're a patsy. You get information your way; I get information my way. But the rap on King is that he's a patsy. He will never ask a hard question.
King: I'm Larry. I'm Larry of the corner. Honest to God, that's the way I feel. That's in me. I never got Brooklyn out of me. It's still in me. I've gotten confrontive, sometimes with racists, which really gnaw at me. But basically, my style is one of utter – it's almost – I don't want to say a naiveté – I'm curious. I want to know why.
"Looking at that, what wigs me out the most is how fat I was," says King on the 1992 interview. "I think I look better now. I know I feel better now. I'm looking at a person there … I look, except for my hair gone gray, that I look older there than I feel now."
Here's another look back at the interview.
Wallace: Women and Larry King: What a saga! Why are you looking so serious?
King: Because it's an area of my life I haven't done well with. I've done…
Wallace: You've been married how many times?
King: Five and it's been, as Bette Davis said to me, "You know, Larry, you're – that camera is a mistress, and nobody can compete with that."
Wallace: So your wife or your love is an intruder?
King: You know, I used to say if I came home and had two messages: 'Your wife called, urgent; CNN called, urgent." I'd call CNN. No contest.
And now? Would King change anything he said back in 1992?
"The part there that would change the most dramatically is that urgent phone call," says King. "If I got two urgent phone calls -- 'Call the wife,' or 'Call CNN' -- hands down, [I'd] call the wife."
Shawn King, a devout Mormon, and King, who describes himself as an agnostic Jew, met in December 1996, outside Tiffany's in Beverly Hills. They married nine months later. Wallace asked Shawn, who is more than 20 years younger than her husband, to tell him about their wedding night.
"Now, what kind of first question is that," says Shawn, laughing. "That's Mike," adds King.
Their wedding, however, almost didn't happen.
"I got a few chest pains, first chest pains I'd had in 10 years. It's my wedding day now. I'm lying in bed. There's a minister over there, people are gathering around the bed. The doctors are arguing. The guy from New York says he can get it out with angioplasty, let's take him back," recalls King.
"I said, 'I'm going back to New York.' So we got married right at the bed. Minister came over, performed the service. That night, we flew a Medivac plane to New York, and did the angioplasty on Monday morning."
"When we heard that Larry was gonna have to have surgery, it all happened very quickly," adds Shawn. "We had to make quick decisions. I knew deep down inside he was gonna be OK. He's a tough guy."
King says they had a wedding party in November, and repeated the ceremony. Ted Turner was King's best man, his flower girl was Jane Fonda and his poet was Al Pacino.
"'Saturday Night Live' did a whole shtick on it with people playing all of us," says King, laughing. "It was funny. But it was a great wedding and it was a celebration of health, too."
Was Shawn a bit skeptical about marrying King? "Larry is a great romantic," says Shawn, who admits she faced some resistance from family and friends.
"The marriage works partially, I think, because of the age difference," says King, on their 26-year age difference – even though he admits that it can at times be tough for him to handle.
"I'm walking in New York, my hometown. Me and the wife and the two kids. And a guy walks by, and he looks at me and says, 'Hey, Larry King, beautiful grandchildren. Great-looking daughter,'" says King. "That hurt. Fact of life."
King has three grown children from previous marriages. But four years ago, he and Shawn started yet another family. First came Chance, and a year later, Cannon.
"I never thought I'd have children. When we were doing – talking in '92 -- to have children again. Come on. Forget it. But there's nothing like it," says King.
But now, this father starts the day at 7:30 in the morning, and takes his two sons to preschool.
"The only time it hits you is when you … like Friday is play day for fathers at preschool. That means I have to go with the little one, Cannon, and you do everything they do for an hour and a half," says King. "If they color, you color. If they fall on the floor, you fall on the floor. If they roll around in the dirt, you roll around in the dirt. Good luck. I'm the oldest father there."
"What did Mickey Mantle say? 'If I knew I'd live this long, I would have taken better care of myself,'" adds King. "I'm the oldest person in a lot of places now."
One of the hangouts where he's not the oldest is Nate & Al's Deli in the heart of Beverly Hills. After dropping the boys at preschool, he heads here for breakfast with his two close childhood pals – Sid Young and Asher Dann -- who now live in California.
"We talk about sports, we talk about life, we talk about aging," says King. "The only thing we don't talk about is women. That's out," adds Asher.
They've been friends since 12, when they were all living in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Has King changed?
"No," says Asher. "Not one iota," adds Sid. "He's the same slob when he eats. Everything goes all over his shirt."
It's a happy world away from the serious power lunches he used to have at Duke Zieberts in Washington.
Does he miss Washington? "No," says King. "There are some things, and I certainly miss the political talk."
Although he does fewer political interviews today than when 60 Minutes first met him in 1992, King says that will change in this political year: "We'll be in both conventions. We'll be trying to get every candidate."
And no doubt, every candidate will be talking to King, who remains a magnet for powerful people who have something to say. Plus, he can give them the time to say it. But in recent years, his guest list has been heavy on the rich, the famous and the scandalous.
King and Wendy Whitworth, his executive producer for the last 11 years, acknowledge that these stories are simply good box office. "But we only do it where's a reason to do it," says Whitworth. "The nature of the beast," adds King.
But is he happy with the beast? "Sometimes not. But I gotta admit, I've come in some nights and I don't look forward to it, and once the show starts, I'm as curious about it as anybody," says King.
When Wallace sat down with King last November, Michael Jackson was just about to turn himself in on alleged sexual molestation charges, and Saddam Hussein had not yet been captured.
"Shame and stardom, the banality of shame today," says Wallace. "We don't do too much of that on the screen?"
"I often ponder this. What is too much? Do I think we do too much? Probably, yes. Scott Peterson's a story because of his wife's smile. The public was captured by that wife's smile, coupled with Christmas Eve and weeks away from having a baby," says King. "And then, if you take human drama of a famous person … I'm trying to think who's more famous than Michael Jackson?"
"Saddam Hussein," says Wallace.
"Yeah, he's more famous," says King. "Let's do it this way. I'll get you Saddam Hussein tonight for an exclusive or Michael Jackson tonight for an exclusive. Both will talk about anything you wanna talk about."
"Who will I take? No contest. Saddam Hussein," says Wallace.
"I would take Jackson and I would beat you if we go head to head. For example, Saddam Hussein tends to be boring. He's more predictable as to what he's gonna say. 'Yes, my troops will carry on. They carry on in my name. The infidels came to my country.' … Maybe I'll get him to say more."
"No, no, no," says Wallace. "You'd throw him softballs."
"You'll never be back in this house. You told me you'd be nice, Mike. You can't be nice, can you, Mike," says King, laughing. "I would rather do Saddam Hussein. But who would cause the most interest and concern? Hands down, Michael Jackson."
Today, at 70, King says he's a happy man, and he seems wiser and more self-assured.
"She's [Shawn] had a great effect on my life. I mean, look how much she changed my life," says King. "I think I put her on a pedestal. I think I do. And it's a healthy pedestal."
Wallace showed King one last clip from his 1992 interview.
Wallace: When you go to bed at night alone, what do you worry about?
King: The only thing I worry about is dying. I don't have any financial problems.
Wallace: What are you worried about? You're a boy.
King: A boy. This universe has been around a long time, and it's going to be around a long time, and I'm here for a blip of it … and I want to see it all.
What does he think now? "I would not change one iota of that answer. I still at times, right before I fall asleep, wonder if I'm gonna get up, and I read the obituaries every day, look at the ages of the people that died. Don't know any person my age that doesn't do that, by the way," says King.
"And since I'm agnostic, that is, I don't know if there's a God. Now, my wife believes we're gonna go on … She's a Mormon. I hope she's right. I just don't know. That's my three words, I don't know. Woody Allen had the best line: 'It's not that I fear death. I just don't wanna be here when it happens.'"