Rancho Santa Fe resident reflects on accomplished television career
By Arthur Lightbourn
Wendy Walker, veteran senior executive producer of the iconic “Larry King Live” television show, is by nature a very private “behind-the-scenes” person, but at the urging of friends fascinated by her experiences she agreed to write a book.
But she didn’t want to just write a memoir “because I’m not a famous person … so people don’t care about a memoir from me. What they care about are the experiences and the stories and the lessons [I’ve learned].
“I started writing it three years ago and it was supposed to come out next March but then when Larry decided to end the nightly show, we decided to have it come out earlier.”
The book, “Producer: Lessons Shared from 30 Years in Television,” (Hachette Books) was published on Nov. 16.
The final edition of Larry King Live is scheduled for Dec. 16, ending a run of 25 years, the last 17 of which Walker has served as the show’s senior executive producer.
But King and Walker won’t be parting or fully retiring. They have contracted together to do four Larry King specials a year for the next three years.
The book, written in collaboration with bestselling Los Angeles author Andrea Cagan, is filled with anecdotes, show transcripts, and behind-the-scenes glimpses of history in the making as witnessed by Walker during her years with Larry King and 10 prior years as CNN’s White House producer.
It also reveals the lessons she learned along the way as she worked her way from a Brooks Brothers sales job in Washington, D.C., to serving as Ethel Kennedy’s private secretary, to launching her career in television.
Some of those lessons include: Never freak out. Mentor yourself. Details are everything. Think bigger than big. Work harder than anyone else. Don’t obsess about getting the credit. Opposites attract. And, extraordinary things happen when you least expect them.
We interviewed Walker recently while she took a short break from her producing chores for that day’s Larry King Live show.
The daily 60-minute show is broadcast out of CNN’s studios in Los Angeles, and, on occasion, out of duplicate signature sets in Washington, D.C. and New York City.
Asked what she enjoyed most about writing her book, she said, “Remembering things I had forgotten about.”
In her book, she writes, “It seems like fate has had a way of placing me in circumstances that are unexpected and extremely foretelling.”
Take the time when she was 3 years old in 1956 and living in Johnstown, Pa., when then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon arrived in town by train on a whistle-stop campaign tour. Her mother had dressed her up in her pink flannel “fat coat” with a fur collar and, Nixon, standing in the caboose, noticed her and swept her up for a photo op.
She saw her picture with Nixon in the newspaper the next day.
“Since his name was printed and mine wasn’t,” she reckoned, “that was an omen that my life’s work would be behind the scenes instead of in front of the camera.”
Walker was born in Chappaqua, New York, the youngest in a family of four girls. Her father was a corporate lawyer. She spent most of her growing up years in Dubuque, Iowa.
In 1975, she earned a B.A. with a major in art from Hollins University, a private women’s university in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley.
She spent her junior year in the “Hollins Abroad” program in Paris, improving her French, studying art and almost getting kidnapped.
After college, she left the security of her family and, with five friends and $40 in her pocket, set out for Washington, D.C. They found an apartment in Georgetown to share which took care of her $40.
Not really knowing what she wanted to do with her life, except possibly studying for a master’s degree in art, but recognizing her first priority had to be finding a job, she headed straight the then-posh clothing store Brooks Brothers.
She was hired as a salesperson. Her first customer was Clark Clifford, former U.S. Secretary of Defense. He wanted a large number of custom-made shirts with monograms. The sale totaled a couple thousand dollars.
And she was on commission.
She quickly became the highest earning salesperson on the staff.
Asked by her manager how she was doing it, she said: “I walk up to a customer. I smile, and I say, ‘If you need anything, I’ll be right over there.’ I don’t know about you, but when I’m shopping in a store, I hate it when someone starts following me around…and I don’t care how many times I ring up a $10 sale. I just know it adds up.”
Another fortuitous customer she met while at Brooks Brothers was Ethel Kennedy who later invited Walker to accompany her son, Joe
Kennedy, to a dinner party at her home in honor of LA Rams football legend Don Klosterman.
And that led to the 23-year-old Walker being hired by Ethel Kennedy as her personal secretary, despite being dyslexic, a poor speller, and a not-too-great typist.
But she did have a redeeming natural talent for organization and getting things done, including helping to arrange all the details of Ethel Kennedy’s successful 1978 charity-fundraising RFK Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament in Forest Hills, New York. It was televised by ABC.
“I was bit by the producing bug then and there,” Walker recalls in her book. “Among the many things I took away from this unique experience and particularly from Ethel, is that details are everything. I learned to multitask and to write everything down … so I wouldn’t forget,” invaluable traits for a producer.
After a year with Ethel Kennedy, Walker presented herself to ABC, telling the receptionist she would like to become a producer based on her experience arranging the RFK tennis tournament.
“You’re going to need a lot more experience than that,” she was told. “Would you consider becoming a secretary?”
She was hired as an entry level assistant to deputy bureau chief Kevin Delaney and on her first day, she met another new ABC employee, Katie Couric, who was hired as a newsroom desk assistant.
They became the “odd-couple” roommates: Wendy, the ultra-neat, highly organized Felix, and Katie, the messy Oscar.
Where they connected, Walker recalls, was in their work ethic. Both were ambitious. Both of them spent their weekends working free at ABC to learn as much as they could about the business.
Couric today, of course, is the managing editor and anchor of the CBS Evening News.
After eight months with ABC, Walker left with her boss, ABC Washington bureau chief, George Watson, in 1980, to join about-to-be launched 7/24 cable news network, CNN, the brain child of visionary (“Think Big”) broadcast entrepreneur Ted Turner.
Watson became CNN’s first Washington bureau chief and Walker was his secretarial assistant.
When CNN went on the air at 5 p.m. EST, June 1, 1980, with a minimal staff on a shoe-string budget, Jimmy Carter was president and the country was reeling from a protracted hostage drama in Iran.
“When I look back at the historical origins of CNN, I realize that if I had waited around for someone to show me what to do, I would still be waiting. I never studied political science or communications in college. I just used the old trial and error method as did my colleagues, and we got back what we put in.”
In 1983, she was appointed CNN’s White House producer.
“The White House producer job had been my dream, and…it [took] me all over the world for a decade…I stood beside President Reagan in the Far East when he visited the Great Wall of China. I saw and heard him exhort Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. I accompanied George H.W. Bush when he ate Thanksgiving dinner with the troops in the Persian Gulf. I saw Clinton elected.”
But, 10 years later, she was ready for another change.
She applied to Larry King for the job as his senior executive producer. They were polar opposites. King was a suspender-wearing Jewish guy who loved sports and had been hosting Larry King Live since it debuted in 1985; and Walker was a blonde WASP who knew nothing about sports and could care less.
But she really wanted the job and decided, being opposites, “could work in our favor.”
“If he and I were exactly alike,” she reasoned, “the show’s topics could get boring and so could our relationship. As opposites, we would bring different things to the table and it would never get humdrum.”
She obviously was right.
The show recently made the Guinness World Records as the longest running show, with the same host, in the same time slot, and on the same network.
Among the memorable guests to appear on Larry King Live was, in 1994, the then-reclusive actor Marlon Brando.
Brando, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, agreed to appear on the show only if he could meet Larry first, then and there. Larry agreed and Brando, 10 minutes later, arrived at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel driving a big white Chevy and waving for King to hop in.
When they returned a few hours later, Walker recalls, “they were singing and hugging and having a great time.”
Larry reported that Brando agreed to do the interview, but at his home on Mulholland Drive, instead of at the CNN studios.
The result was a legendary interview in which a relaxed, bare-footed, overweight Brando admitted he chose acting as a profession “because there isn’t anything that pays you as much money as acting while you are deciding what the hell you’re going to do with yourself.”
By the end of the interview, Larry and his new best friend had their arms around each other and were singing.
“And they looked at each other and kissed on the lips,” she recalled. “And I thought, ‘Oh, my god, what a moment.’”
Seconds after the interview Walker got a call from her boss, CNN president Tom Johnson in Atlanta, who said, “Wendy, why did you let them kiss? How could you let that happen?”
“Tom,” she said coolly, “you know, I actually forgot to tell them not to kiss. I forgot to say, ‘Oh, by the way, guys, at the end of the interview when you feel like kissing each other on the lips, just don’t do it.’
The moment made television history.
“That was quite kiss,” Larry said to Brando after the show. “Kiss my producer like you just kissed me.”
In her book, she says, “I stared at him for a moment and closed my eyes as Marlon took me in his arms. As he placed his lips on mine, gone were the dirty feet, dirty toes, coffee cups, overweight bellies, and perspiration. It was Stanley Kowalski, Terry Malloy, Fletcher Christian, you name it. It was that man kissing me like I had never been kissed before.”