Larry King, the rumbling voice of midnight questions, stares at Pat Buchanan, the White House director of communications. King's eyes are intense and prying, his chin is jutted toward the target, his lips are parted to give the impression that he is hanging on every word, about to interrupt but holding back to wait for a gem.
Except for six hours of sleep every 24 hours, Larry King keeps this expression all day and all night.
For the last five days, King has looked like this on a schedule that put demands on his phenomenal energy at an all-time high: he started a daily, hour-long interview show, "Larry King Live," for Cable News Network. On Monday it reached 306,000 households; Tuesday, 332,000. He then did "The Larry King Show" for Mutual Radio, which this week was cut back to a live four hours with the first hour recycled for a five-hour package that reaches 3 million to 5 million people a week. In between he writes two newspaper columns. On his slow days, he travels to Memorial Stadium and other sports arenas and does color commentary for Home Team Sports -- its audience by mid-June standing at 100,000. Once a month he does a worldwide talk show for the Voice of America and his next guest is scheduled to be Ronald Reagan.
"Certainly I have a weird life. But I like everything I do," says King.
At the end of his workday (and night), his companions and staff feel like they just took the red-eye from California in nonreclining seats. Millions of people work two or even three jobs to make ends meet. But, for perhaps the first time in his life, King isn't worried about money. Mutual alone is paying him a reported $2 million on a five-year contract.
Strangely enough, King, 51, never seems to be in a hurry. Lean with a bit of a belly, he moves at the deliberate pace of a batter stepping up to the plate. The voice and metabolism are fed by coffee and cigarettes. He rarely drinks. A long time ago, he mastered naps -- he takes them during the five-minute news breaks on the radio show.
The time is now 11:30 a.m. King already has dressed, taken mucho vitamins and one aspirin -- "because the late Dr. Michael Halberstam told me to" -- worked for an hour on his personality column for USA Today, haggled a bit with an editor on his next book, talked with an insurance company about his daughter's graduation present of a Firebird, and complained that he was missing that night's Orioles game. Before 4 the next morning, he will stop another three times and ask, "Am I crazy?" and then "What is my real complaint? I can't have dinner when I want to, I can't see the baseball game. But what if I had to be a librarian? No, instead, today I'm going to talk to Pat Buchanan and Harry Blackstone."
This is how he survives.
He eats lunch at Duke Zeibert's, dinner at the Palm. He gets one of his daily calls from his daughter, Chaia King, 17, and his oldest friend, author and consultant Herbert Cohen.
He doesn't prepare beyond his daily consumption of several newspapers, backed up by information from his contacts and his nearly 30 years behind the mike.
"I work with an acquired dumbness, a street dumbness," says King. That means he tries to think about what Joe Citizen would want to know.
From 5 to 9 a.m., he sleeps. He wakes up without an alarm. He tries to nap from 3 to 5 p.m., but the telephone jangles. Sometimes he calls someone personally to ask them to be on the show, such as New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, his first guest on CNN.
It's now 12:15 p.m. King is at his daily table in Duke's in full view of the glass doors. He has ordered coffee and is nibbling on the onion rolls. When his platter of fruit and cottage cheese arrives, he largely ignores it. He talks about his forthcoming book. "Sterling Lord is the agent. He's the kind of guy, you have dinner with him and they remove the plate, you have the crumbs, he doesn't have any. Impeccable," says King.
Bill Aber, the general manager of cable TV's Home Team Sports, tells a King endurance story: "On Wednesday, April 4, 1984, King had done his regular show, then he flew to Cleveland to do a luncheon banquet, then he had to meet us in Baltimore for our kickoff. The game was rained out and at 6 p.m. Larry interviewed celebrities for our party. Then he left at 7 to go to the Capital Centre to do some color on the Caps. Then he did the Wednesday all-night show."
In the last month King spurned offers from every major network and syndicator, says his agent, and renewed his contract with Mutual. The perks include 12 Fridays off and four weeks of vacation each year and a new luxury car every two years. Now he is driving a gray Riviera, on which Mutual put an "L King" vanity license plate, which King hates. Since the phones started lighting up on Jan. 30, 1978, when he was heard on 28 stations, he has built his affiliate stable up to 262 stations. His is the only talk show ever to win the prestigious Peabody Award. In the last few weeks, he signed with CNN for a reported $200,000 over three years. Once that show gets rolling, King says, he will tape a couple of shows a week. He dropped his weekly show on Channel 7 last week. And he is cutting back on speeches.
He has had cameos in two movies -- "Ghostbusters" and "Lost in America" -- and television will increase his recognition by sight, not just sound. July 12 is King Day in Baltimore. Where once the Mutual show was taken on the road to build up audiences, now it's taken out to satisfy demand. In the next few months it will travel to the All-Star Game in Minneapolis, and to media gatherings in Nashville and Dallas.
It is now 8:15 p.m., the start of his evening's work.
Walking into the television studio, he says, "you got to be pretty weird to be doing radio, television and newspapers. Godfrey used to do it. I'm tired right now but . . . something about that light going on . . . I can't explain it."
Makeup is applied to his face and hands. Then King and Buchanan are facing each other.
Each night there is one offbeat question. A caller from Tucker, Ga., wants to know if Buchanan is responsible for keeping the helicopter blades going outside the White House to drown out the political reporters watching the president leave or arrive by air. Buchanan shakes his head no. King jumps in, "You deny the helicopter blade accusation." Buchanan deadpans, "I don't know anything about it.
At each commercial break, King lights up a cigarette, having decided not to smoke on air because, as he says, he's a role model.
At 10:20 p.m. he is at Mutual's studios on the 12th floor of a Crystal City high-rise. This is home, behind the microphone, checking out the baseball game, doing promotions for a new station. During a commercial break he will do a 2 1/2-minute interview with Harry Blackstone Jr., the magician, for something called "Larry King in Focus." On Saturdays the network runs "The Best of King."
The staff talks about his professionalism and spontaneity. "If he is tired, he tells the audience. If he is up, he tells them. To be spontaneous, you have to work hard," says engineer Mari Koenig. "But we sleep all day. We never get adjusted to the hours."
King has been in one studio or another since 1957 when he moved to Miami after finishing high school in Brooklyn. In Florida he quickly established himself as a radio interviewer, added a newspaper column and did commentary on Miami Dolphins games. But he ran into some well-publicized financial troubles, which forced him to leave broadcasting for four years. In 1979, shortly after taking the Mutual job, he filed bankruptcy for $350,000 in debts. Because of his past financial difficulties, his money is now handled by Bob Woolf, the agent he shares with Doug Flutie, Larry Bird and Gene Shalit. King says he gets a $150 weekly allowance.
Now it's 11:50 p.m. He glances over a press release and talks about his approach.
"You need the ability to listen. A lot of broadcasters don't know how to ask a question. One of my idols, Jimmy Cannon, could pick up every detail but he couldn't ask a question in the locker room. You have to keep it spontaneous, always be curious. I have a good memory, I never expect the answer. I don't think I am a better interviewer than I was at 25. I can relax people."
He admires the research methods of Mike Wallace and Ted Koppel, and is adding David Hartman to his list. "I'm not a fan of Barbara Walters. I don't like junk questions -- 'If you could come back what would you like to be?' "
He adds, "Jimmy Hoffa embodies everything you want in an interview, except one thing. You want someone with a chip on their shoulder, passion, a little bit of anger, the ability to relate to the question and to talk about their business. But he didn't have a sense of humor."
At 12:06 a.m., his jacket is off and cigarette dangling. Blackstone is sitting where Gerald Ford, Bob Hope, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Brooks, Milton Berle, Sophia Loren and scores of others have sat.
King moves to the edge of the cushioned seat, his eyes wide. He says: "A magician is an entertainer. Can an entertainer be a magician?" Blackstone answers: "Yes, there's one in Washington, who used to be an entertainer and is now a master of deception. He lives not far from here." King smiles and says, "Now, Harry."
In the second hour King opens the phones to America. He writes down the caller's location and then crosses it off when the call is finished. Someone wants to know what magician, beside his father, impressed Blackstone the most. The answer: Orson Welles. King moves to the edge of the seat with a "really?" One caller sounds batty, so King points a finger at the engineer, who plays a tape of a gunshot going off. King punches the next telephone button.
At 3:55 a.m. he gets up from the chair, stretches and says he feels really tired. He doesn't hang around the studio. "We have entertained and informed the callers, and we only reach 1 percent of the audience," says King.
He adds: "I don't think much about it. I don't take it home with me."
And he goes home. But he'll be up again in four hours. Making that face.