Column: RSF producer shares secrets of Larry King’s success
Wendy Walker worked with the late CNN talk show host for two decades and produced King’s show for nearly 18 years
Larry King, the late talk show host who interviewed everyone from U.S. presidents to Miss Piggy, had a little known connection to San Diego.
For 14 years, the king of conversation’s senior executive producer at CNN, Wendy Walker, orchestrated the show from the guest house that she had converted into a production studio at her Rancho Santa Fe home.
Aided by three staffers, Walker communicated with an army of 12 guest bookers stationed across the United States and abroad to schedule the most interesting interviewees the moment a political crisis, celebrity happening or major news story broke.
The world changed so quickly, someone might be No. 1 one day and drop to No. 5 on the “get list” the next, Walker says.
After a string of medical setbacks, King, 87, passed away in an L.A. hospital on Jan. 23.
Even though “Larry King Live” wrapped up in December of 2010, the memories are vivid for Walker, who had deep respect for the man whose show she managed for about 18 years.
She oversaw the guest lineup, staff, public relations, even music for the hour-long nightly CNN program.
She also played a role in King’s personal life. She rushed to the maternity ward when King’s wife (he had seven, including one he married twice) had a baby. “Every time he was sick, I was at the hospital. ... Our lives were intertwined. The show was seven days a week.”
She admired King’s natural talent and expertise at getting his guests to relax and let their guard down. He never differentiated between presidents (he had interviews with every U.S. president since Richard Nixon until his show ended) and someone relatively unknown. “He treated each interview the same,” Walker says. “He never got ruffled. He never got nervous. It didn’t matter who it was.”
King also didn’t have an agenda, and that was his secret weapon. People on his show seemed to get comfortable — and they talked.
After the anonymous political tipster of Watergate fame, FBI official Mark Felt, known for 30 years only as “Deep Throat,” revealed his identity he gave his first TV interview on “Larry King Live” in 2006.
Vice President Dan Quayle told King in 1992 that he would support his daughter if she made the decision to have an abortion. Texas oilman H. Ross Perot confided in King that he was considering an independent run for president in 1992.
A show that Walker oversaw in 1993 was the setting for a historic NAFTA debate between then-Vice President Al Gore and Perot. In 1994, Marlon Brando got so comfortable he kissed King on the mouth as they finished their televised interview at Brando’s house.
King had his personal beliefs, Walker acknowledges. “But you never knew if he was a Republican or a Democrat. Both Republicans and Democrats liked him.... When he did an interview, he made it all about the other person. He never said, ‘Me, too.’... He walked into the White House like he was walking into an In-N-Out Burger. He wasn’t in awe,” she adds.
Key to the talk show’s success were booking agents Walker assigned to keep tabs on authors, the White House, Capitol Hill, Hollywood, international figures, and much more.
Toward the end of her CNN career, Walker wrote a book about her 30 years as a producer and even scheduled herself on King’s show. “I was a little nervous. I had never been in that position,” she says, but King’s soothing demeanor disarmed any jitters in no time.
“He made it look really easy. He was a master,” she says, likening King to a pro tennis player who effortlessly smacks a ball most people could never dream of hitting.
Unlike most talk shows in which hosts have advance in-depth sit-downs with producers to craft the content and learn details about interviewees, King preferred not to know that much about his guests. He wanted the information to come out during the live interview.
“The hardest part of my job,” Walker says, “was trying to brief him because he didn’t want to be briefed.” The program’s researcher diligently prepared talking points, but King preferred to have only an outline.
During the O.J. Simpson murder trial, for instance, the show was informed that F. Lee Bailey was joining the defense team. But why?
“We tracked Bailey down,” says Walker. “When Larry came in, we told him we had an addition to the show — that F. Lee Bailey was joining the dream team.” She started to explain: “He said it was because...” only to see King clap his hands over his ears. “Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me. I want to hear it from him.”
King kept his questions short and let his guests do most of the talking.
Walker won numerous accolades and orchestrated the 1999 death row inmate interview that earned the show a news and documentary Emmy. After King announced his retirement and his last show aired in 2010, she decided to try her hand at scripted TV shows.
Walker teamed up with criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos, a longtime consultant on “Larry King Live,” to create a dramatic TV series, “Notorious,” based on a fictional high-profile murder trial. The series aired on ABC in the fall of 2016. She is now working on three other TV show concepts.
King loved what he did and welcomed the challenge of scrambling to address breaking news during his show, Walker notes. “He used to say, ‘I wonder what it would be like to work for a living.’”
— Diane Bell is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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