Larry King Talks
The broadcast maestro finally speaks about his diabetes
Larry King is on the air so much (seven nights a week on CNN) and has been for so long (he got his first radio show in 1957) that it's remarkable how little we know about him.
Sure, King's famous for having been married eight times. "I'm good at broadcasting and I'm good at fatherhood," the 75-year-old television host explains in an interview at New York's Time Warner Center. "Two out of three…" Yet King has always studiously avoided talking about himself from behind the microphone. "When I do a show I don't use the word I," he says, sporting his trademark suspenders in a corner office perched high above West 57th Street. "My show is about the guests."
But in a new autobiography, My Remarkable Journey, King finally opens up. He reveals the impact his father's early death had on him, why he changed his name from Larry Zeiger just moments before first going on air, and how a heart attack changed his life. The book is silent, however, about King's type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Forecast sat down with him on the day his autobiography was released to fill in the blanks.
You devote a chapter of your new book to your heart attack and bypass surgery in 1987 but don't mention your diabetes. When were you diagnosed?
The first time anyone said anything to me was around 1995. A doctor said, "You have a high sugar count—you ought to have this checked." And I went to the doctor and checked it, and I've been on medication ever since.
How did you respond to the diagnosis?
I was already exercising. I was pretty much watching my diet. Fat free. So I kind of took it as, Now? Now I get diabetes? But I might have had it before my heart attack. I don't know when the diabetes really started. I was certainly worried. I was scared a little bit the first time I had a sexual experience, scared what that might do to me. But I'm generally optimistic. And I consider myself lucky—a lot of my life has been luck. And I have a good attitude toward health.
Did you experience any symptoms before the diabetes diagnosis?
No symptoms. I try to do the best I can with my health, and diabetes just boggles me. I know when you get a heart pain; I've had them. I don't know what diabetes feels like. I know whenever I go to the doctor, they check my feet. I have my eyes tested once a year, and they report that to my diabetic doctor.
Does that explain why you've been more outspoken about your heart disease, founding the Larry King Cardiac Foundation?
I think more about the heart than I do about diabetes. If someone had said to me, "What's your No. 1 health problem?" I would have said heart disease and then diabetes. And what doctors tell me now is that I can transpose them and say diabetes first. In fact, as my cardiologist said to me, diabetes is heart disease.
If you have diabetes, you're [more likely] to have heart problems.
You said you have a good attitude toward health, but from reading your book, that came only after your heart attack. What were your health habits before then?
The worst: smoking, not caring what I ate, no exercise at all. And I never thought it would happen to me. I always remember Yul Brynner's famous television commercials. He had died, but he did a commercial before he died where he said, "I'm dead now. Don't smoke." And I would just change the channel. It wasn't going to happen to me. Until it happened to me. And then the most amazing thing happened: I never thought I'd be able to stop, and I stopped that day [of my heart attack]. I never smoked again.
Before you were diagnosed, did you watch friends or family deal with diabetes?
My father died when he was 47. He died of a heart attack. He might have had diabetes, but I don't know. My aunt had diabetes, but I don't know what the struggle was. My mother would say, "My sister, you know, has diabetes." But I looked at her and said, "She looks fine to me." So diabetes was just a word to me.
You quit smoking and lost weight after your heart attack. What other changes did you make after learning you have type 2?
I take the medication. I have my checkups. I exercise a lot, every other day. I do the treadmill and a lot of fast walking. I take my Glucophage and my Januvia, which is fairly new. I've been taking it for two or three years. I try to reduce my sugar intake a great deal, but I still manage to have a bagel every other day. There have been two or three times in the last 15 years when I got lightheaded. Once I was on the air. My guest was Betty Ford. She asked me if I was OK. I guess I got a little pale. It was happening about three quarters of the way through the program. And I broke for commercial, and I thought I was going to faint. They brought me some orange juice and it passed. I knew what it was.
Do your heart disease and diabetes provoke regrets about your earlier lifestyle?
If I had one day to live over again, it would be the day I started smoking. My father smoked, and no one associated it with having a heart attack. Baseball players smoked. It was hip to smoke. Old Gold cigarettes sponsored the Dodger games.And when I got into broadcasting, everybody smoked. I smoked on the air. I told myself it helped my voice, gave me some more timbre. Mike Wallace, who was one of my favorites, constantly smoked. Edward R. Murrow never took a cigarette out of his mouth. So my role models smoked. It was almost automatic for me.
You've devoted a few episodes of Larry King Live to discussing diabetes, but you never talk about your own experience with the disease.
I never liked to discuss my own. I've said it, that I have type 2 diabetes, but never at length. If I'm a guest on another program, I'll be happy to discuss it. I just think that on my own show, it's irrelevant what I have. Now they have Twitter—you write, "I got a toothache yesterday."
Between your show, family, and philanthropic work, you keep a busy schedule. Did your doctors tell you to lighten your workload or reduce your stress after the diabetes diagnosis?
They did. I changed a lot of things. But the one thing you can't change is a type A personality. I have stress, but I almost thrive on it. I like the moment before the show when the guest isn't here and we're going on the air in a minute—"Yeah, I'll handle it!" I don't say, "Oh, what am I going to do?" I use stress.
I don't go to yoga and I don't do meditation. I'm not a good vacationer. I mean, I'll go to Hawaii, but I got to have my newspapers. My mind is constantly going.
So the stress in my life is—I guess it's the thing I'm good at most in broadcasting: control. The light goes on, you're live, and the guest can't go anywhere. If I was an actor, I'd like theater better than movies because when the curtain goes up, you can't do anything but look at me. That's why I like stand-up comedy. That's what I'd have been if I didn't do this. I would have been a comic.
Have you done stand-up before?
At conventions. I never speak seriously when I do speeches. You walk out on a stage and you got all the woven stories in your head, and when you get those first laughs, you know you have them. Nothing transcends it. Anything you do—interviewing presidents, anything—you make people laugh and it's orgasmic. You feel the energy in the room that you created. It's a control feature.
And it turns out that you do lots of improv on your TV show. One of the surprising revelations in your book is that those blue cards you hold during your interviews contain facts, not questions. You make the questions up as you go.
My friend Herbie likes to say the key to my success—and not derogatorily—is stupidity. What seem like stupid questions, as Herbie says, are a kind of genius. For example, What is cancer? What does it do? Why does it kill you? You learn fascinating things when you ask questions that way. And I don't need a blue card for that.