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My first professional experience in the media, or any office, was interning for “Larry King Live” in Washington, DC, in 1993. It was the summer before my junior year of college. CNN was at its early-’90s height after the first Gulf War, and the show was enjoying its new prominence following its role during the 1992 presidential election.
During the day, the show was ruled by the powerful and intimidating executive producer Tammy Haddad. Her volatility was legendary. The interns were scared of her, and we weren’t the only ones. Whenever I’d run into a certain “Crossfire” producer, he’d jokingly say “how’s the weather down there,” asking about Hurricane Tammy’s mood of the moment.
But in the evenings, when King walked in, the air shifted. After finishing his afternoon radio show, he’d arrive in time for dinner, always the same kung pao chicken and cranberry juice. While eating, he’d review blue index cards prepared by segment producers with notes on that night’s guests. He’d kibbitz with staff, get into makeup, and slip right onto live TV.
King didn’t go in front of the cameras with a list of prepared questions. He had come from a previous era of broadcasting, with an instinct for what was fascinating without a need to be flashy. Unlike other TV interviewers, who appeared to only be ticking boxes, he let the conversation flow naturally, really engaging with his guests. The vastness of his knowledge and his recall of past events was impressive, pulling facts and previous interactions seemingly out of the air.
As interns, we didn’t have much time interacting with him, but he was always generous with advice. He’d pose for pictures with us on set. I still remember sitting at that famous desk, King staring me down as the camera clicked. He pointed at me and said, in that growly voice, “So. You say you didn’t know she was 15!”
And those guests: An impressionable 20-year-old, I’d traded in my school books for meeting leading politicians and A-list movie stars, mixed in with the latest flavors from that week’s news cycle, whom no one would remember the next week.
“Larry King Live” went on the air at 9 p.m. every night, whether the guest had arrived or not. Vice President Gore made it to the studio five minutes before air on the night the senate was passing President Clinton’s budget act. He was following the voting along with us, and had to leave early to cast his tie-breaking vote.
Another night, frequent guest and former presidential candidate Ross Perot was supposed to be on, but by 8:30 p.m. there was still no sign of him. Finally, we got a call. His private jet had been circling the airport for 20 minutes, unable to land due to traffic, until his pilot called the tower and explained why they needed to touch down as soon as possible. They snuck him into the flight pattern and he was rushed to the studio just in time.
Celebrities, of course, left the biggest impression. Two nights before the opening of “Jurassic Park,” Jeff Goldblum was booked for the show. I went to the lobby to bring him up.
There was a crowd in the parking lot outside the building, which was unusual, and the first person to walk in was Goldblum’s co-star Sam Neill, who was not expected at all. Then Goldblum came in with Laura Dern, the third star of the film, whom he was dating at the time.
On the elevator, most guests ignored the intern; I still feel burned by the non-reaction of Sen. Patrick Leahy when I told him I went to college in his state. But Goldblum was charming and effusive. He cracked jokes at the expense of his friends, delivered directly to me as his straight man. I dropped them off at the green room, where the surprised producers tried to get all three actors to appear on the show, but in the end, it would be only Goldblum.
Goldblum was the second guest that night. During the commercial break before the first guest’s final segment, it was my job to guide him across the office and into the studio before the doors had to close for the show to go back on air. We had two minutes to cover some distance.
The problem was, I couldn’t get him off Dern fast enough. They were wrapped up together, slow to part. I finally had him on his feet and out of the green room, only to turn around and see the couple kissing in the doorway. The clock was ticking. I was a college kid who had to figure out how to stop two movie stars from making out in time for one of them to be on live TV. We made it to the studio, just barely.
Leslie Nielsen, one of my comedy heroes as a teenager, was on the show to promote his book the night that my family visited. They were seated behind the cameras while Nielsen clowned around with a whoopee cushion on set. Any noise we made would end up on the air, and my father was silently laughing so hard that he was shaking.
The most volatile guest I remember was Don King. He got into such a heated argument with another guest during a segment that it spilled into the hallway afterward, where they had to be separated.
Sometimes it felt like watching history. One night we had on former Sen. Barry Goldwater, resembling more of a gentleman grandfather than the lion of the Republican Party he had been in the 1960s.
As the show went to commercial, they rolled a clip of the famous “Daisy” ad, run against him by President Johnson’s re-election campaign. The ad cut from a girl counting the pedals she plucked off a flower to the sound of a missile countdown, followed by the explosion of a nuclear bomb. It had a devastating effect on Goldwater’s campaign and greatly changed political advertising.
Off air during the break, King turned to Goldwater and said, “That ad said that, if elected, Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war.”
“Yup,” said Goldwater calmly. “Sure did. That’s the best ad I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Michael Liss is the Vice President, Product at the New York Post. He was a former intern for “Larry King Live” in 1993.
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