Larry King's Luminary Friends Chime in on His News

Talk show host Larry King says he's stepping down after 25 years.

June 29, 2010, 10:00 PM

June 30, 2010— -- Moments after Larry King announced on his show that he is "hanging up his suspenders," the calls from his luminary friends came flooding in.

"I'll miss you!" former first lady Nancy Reagan told King after his announcement.

"I couldn't let you do this without my calling you," she told the veteran interviewer and talk host who is ending his live show on CNN after 25 years. "You didn't call to ask my permission!"

Reagan ended her call with "Lots of love Larry -- and I'll miss you!"

She's not the only one.

"You're one of a kind," TV host Regis Philbin told him. "I'll miss you, I'll miss your suspenders -- I'll miss everything!"

When ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer called in to praise him, King extracted a promise from her to appear during his final week this fall.

CNN founder Ted Turner sent the following statement to "Larry has been the face of CNN for many years and has set the example for others to follow. He is and always will be one of my closest friends. I wish him and his family all the very best."

King first announced he was leaving his show Tuesday in a message on Twitter: "It's time to hang up my nightly suspenders."

Later in the day, he released a more fleshed-out statement that he also read at the top of his prime time show.

"Before I start the show tonight, I want to share some personal news with you," he said. "Twenty-five years ago, I sat across this table from New York Gov. Mario Cuomo for the first broadcast of 'Larry King Live.'

"Now, decades later, I talked to the guys here at CNN, and I told them I would like to end 'Larry King Live,' the nightly show, this fall and CNN has graciously accepted, to agree to giving me more time for my wife and to get to the kids' Little League games."

He added that after leaving in the fall, he would remain affiliated with the cable news network in a more limited capacity, hosting the occasional special.

King's guest Tuesday evening was his friend, the comedian and talk show host Bill Maher, who alluded to media gossip that King was being pushed out of the job against his will.

"I hope you're doing this of your own volition," Maher said to King.

"There was no pressure from CNN," King replied, adding that he has conducted an estimated 50,000 interviews in a broadcasting career that has spanned five decades. "It was time, Bill. It was time."

Not everyone sees the situation in the same light.

"CNN has made it clear there's not a lot of future for him there and I think he wanted to go out on his own steam with his head held high," Tammy Haddad, a former executive producer on the program, told ABC News.

And indeed, King, whose contract is set to expire in 2011, has seen his show plummet in ratings lately: "Larry King Live" had an average of 653,000 viewers each night in May, its lowest average since the data started being electronically stored in the early 1990s, according to The Nielsen Company.

Still, CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein said in an e-mail message to staffers that King "is not leaving CNN" and is ending the show "on his own terms."

"I'm tired of the nightly grind," he told an interviewer from The Associated Press on Tuesday. "I do want to do other things, but I want to stay at CNN in some way.

"There's a case of great mixed emotions," he said.

King told his staff Tuesday during a conference call he referred to as "one of the saddest 10 minutes of my life."

King, 76, a former radio host from Brooklyn, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest running show with the same host in the same time slot on the same network.

King got his start as a radio host in 1957 in Miami Beach, where he'd frequently hobnob with the jet set of the day: Jackie Gleason, Bobby Darin and Lenny Bruce would all appear on a program he hosted from a restaurant called Pumpernick's, according to King biographer Peter Occhiogrosso.

"He led the life. He bet on the horses a lot, got into some gambling debts and things like that," Occhiogrosso told ABC News. "He liked the action and he liked not knowing what was going to happen."

King's interviewing style famously eschews any rigorous preparation. Occhiogrosso says King prefers knowing as little about his guest as his audiences do, using a frank and downhome approach that attracted guests who would otherwise not do television interviews.

Ever since debuting on the fledgling CNN in 1985, his show has been a cross-section of A-list political and entertainment celebrity interviews and conversations with crackpots and conspiracy theorists. On the week in which he celebrated his 25th anniversary, he spoke to basketball star LeBron James, Bill Gates, President Barack Obama and Lady Gaga.

King said he began thinking about stepping down as he flew home to Los Angeles from Akron, Ohio, where he interviewed James.

"I said, 'I can't top this,'" King recalled in an interview with The Associated Press Tuesday.

In 1993, when King paired Al Gore and Ross Perot for a debate about NAFTA, he set a cable news ratings record that still stands: 16.3 million viewers.

"He helped change the course of an election in 1992 with Ross Perot, getting him to announce his campaign on his show," says Haddad, his former producer. "He was the first talk show host on cable news who proved you could get an audience with interviews and talking about news."

King, who repeatedly remarked on Tuesday's show that he wanted to spend more time with his family, had also recently been having widely publicized difficulties with his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick.

King filed for divorce from Southwick, 50, April 14 in Los Angeles Superior Court, citing "irreconcilable differences" and asking for joint custody of their children.

But a week later the two were said to be back together and in counseling. In May 2010, Southwick overdosed on prescription pills.

Whatever the reason for his departure, King has said that if it were up to him, American Idol emcee Ryan Seacrest would be his choice to fill his shoes, according to The Associated Press. Earlier this month the New York Post reported that CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric, whose own contract is set to expire, is not interested in King's job. Also widely speculated as a potential replacement is Piers Morgan, the former tabloid newspaper editor and winner of Celebrity Apprentice.

Whoever ends up in King's chair, one thing is clear: he or she will have a mighty large pair of suspenders to fill.

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