Larry King on his lucky heart attack and love of smoking

Larry-King

By Ray Bennett

Longtime TV interviewer Larry King, who died today aged 87, almost didn’t make it to 60. He told me: “I got a lucky break. I had a heart attack.”

One dark February morning in 1987, King signed off his overnight national radio talk-show feeling uncommonly sluggish. Worried, he cancelled a date and drove home through the Washington, DC, snow. His doctor told him to take some Maalox and go to bed. Pain soon awakened him. Pain in his right arm and shoulder that fast became ferocious.

He went to the hospital where doctors told him that right then and there he was having a heart attack. King said,“I was lucky because it would have been unlucky not to have the pain because then you have no warning.”

In fact, he had plenty of warnings but he ignored them. He said: “I was 54. I ate what I wanted and I smoked heavily. I knew my father died of heart disease. I knew I had a heart problem. I just never thought I’d be going into an emergency room.”

King’s career was on a roll. His primetime CNN-TV talk-show was a hit; he had a newspaper column in USA today; his radio show was heard on 326 stations; he toured the nation giving speeches; and he was making a reported $1 million a year.

After the heart attack, King quit smoking and in 1988, he founded the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, a Washington-based national organisation to which he has donated all his extracurricular income from the several books he’s written. It remains a thriving organisation that helps people with heart disease who cannot afford treatment.

In an interview I did with him in 1989 for Inside Books Magazine, he said his biggest fear back then was that he would start smoking again. Then Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop was King’s guest on CNN the night before his heart attack and his last words to the host before he left that night were, “Boy, you oughta stop smoking.”

King stopped cold turkey the very next day out of fear: “I smoked from age 16 to age 54 and I never thought I could stop until that heart attack. I’ve never smoked since.”

He admitted that he still thought about it: “You know, people give me great credit. I won a Lung Association award as a celebrity non-smoker, but to tell you the truth, if I hadn’t had the heart attack, I would never have stopped. I liked the feel of it, the taste of it. I didn’t wake up in the morning coughing. I didn’t hack. I wasn’t one walking around saying, ‘Jeez, these terrible things.’ I loved every drag I ever took.”

He worried that the desire for cigarettes would return: “I saw the movie ‘The Accused’ with Jodie Foster, who is terrific and who smokes all through the movie. They had close-ups of her smoking and I kept saying to myself, ‘God, I used to smoke just like she does, inhaled, held the cigarette, just like she does. I used to do that.’ And I wondered, ‘What if I wanted one?’ God, I wouldn’t know what I would do.”

It didn’t help that many of his friends and acquaintances smoked: “You know who loves smoking? Judge Antonin Scalia. I was with him last election night. He’s a chain smoker. Now, you’d think, hey, he’s a judge on the Supreme Court. I said to him, ‘Why do you smoke?’ He said, ‘Why do smart people do dumb things? I’ll tell you why – it’s a terrific habit!”

Actor Martin Sheen smoked even after the massive multiple heart attacks he suffered making “Apocalypse Now”, King said: “He comes to visit me; he still smokes. Now, either he’s some kind of fatalist or there’s something in his emotional makeup that makes him willing to roll the kind of dice that I’m unwilling to roll.

“I smoked as much as Sheen. I liked it but apparently not that much. I could stop. What I’m scared of is that I’ll be like Frank Sinatra. He told me he had stopped smoking for two-and-a-half years and he just started one afternoon. He was in the house, he was alone, there was a pack of cigarettes. He smoked Camels, unfiltered. He said he just lit one up and said, ‘Fuck it.’”

By all accounts, King never went back to smoking. Sinatra died aged 72 in 1998, Scalia died aged 87 in 2016 and Martin Sheen turned 80 in August.

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Mel Gibson, great filmmaker, shame about the demons

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – I’ve spent time with Mel Gibson, who turns 65 today, and always found him to be genial, open and likeable even though he gave me a clue about his demons in an interview in 1984. It’s a shame they got the better of him as he is a good actor and a formidable filmmaker (‘Braveheart’, ‘Apocalypto’).

He had been in Toronto shooting ‘Mrs. Soffel’ with Diane Keaton but we couldn’t sort out a time for me to see him so it ended up a phone interview. He was riding high after ‘The Road Warrior’, ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ and besides ‘Mrs. Soffel’ he had ‘The Bounty’ with Anthony Hopkins and ‘The River’ with Sissy Spacek due for release. He was friendly and relaxed on the phone until I asked him what he thought of Canada. He said he liked Toronto because it reminded him of Melbourne. 

‘The only thing I don’t like about Canada is Bell Canada, the phone company,’ he said ‘They want you to pay the bills before they send you the bill. And if you don’t pay it, they cut you off. Do you believe that bunch of cretins? Unbelievable. They’re mobsters. I even paid my bill and then got cut off, which is doubly distressing. After a little session with them you just want to buy a machine gun and go in there and blast them all. I mean, I wouldn’t do that but I just … you know … they make me so angry.’ 

I asked if he’d ever had to overcome any particular obstacle in his life. He said, ‘Ha. Well, you have to overcome certain things, everybody does, don’t they?’ 

‘Anything specific?’

‘No, nothing really springs to mind like that. I mean, do you want me to make something up? I had a problem with the bottle.’ 

‘Now,’ I said, ‘I don’t know if you made that up or not. Did you? 

‘No.’

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Jack Elam on westerns, auditing, acting … and that fly

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – With his blind left eye, American character actor Jack Elam, who was born 100 years ago today, made a perfect villain in hundreds of TV shows and feature films but he told me he was a better auditor than he was an actor.

He started out in the film business as a chartered accountant and worked as an auditor for Samuel Goldwyn Studios and General Services Studios: ‘I do believe that I was as good an auditor as there was when I was an auditor. I was as high a salaried auditor as there was so I knew my business. I felt a very great self-respect as an auditor, which as an actor is pretty hard to feel because you might like what I’m doing and the other fella doesn’t like it at all. You say, jeez, I thought you were great in such-and-such and he says he thought it was a terrible fucking thing and you were awful. There are no matters of opinion in audting. If the sonofabitch balances, you can shove it up your ass, your opinion. You can go fuck it, you know?’

You might think the kind of personality that balances columns of figures wouldn’t necessarily have the imagination and the creative freedom to be an actor, but Elam said:  ‘It doesn’t take any imagination or creative freedom to be an actor. Doesn’t take either one of those things. It just takes the guts to go stand in front of a camera and talk, the ability to memorise the goddam lines. There’s no creative thinking about acting to that extent. There’s no more creative thing about acting than there is about auditing. You come to me with your books to balance and I can look at ‘em and say, wait a minite, I think I know where I’ll find it, and I can save thousands of hours of work by being able to understand where the shortage is. That’s just as creative as actors creating. When I went into it, I didn’t know anything about acting. I’ve learned through doing it.’

His left eye was blinded when a fellow boy scout accidentally stuck him with a pencil as a boy. He quit accounting when a doctor told him he risked sight in his other eye if he continued staring at financial reports. He became an actor when he helped finance a friend’s movies in return for roles. I spoke to the genial but thoroughly professional actor – who died in 2003  – at an NBC-TV gathering during the Television Critics Association tour in Los Angeles in 1986. Famous for his evil roles, he was equally adept at comedy in movies and TV shows. That year, he appeared in a sitcom titled ‘Easy Street ’as an ageing hillbilly named Bully who is brought to live in Beverly Hills by a distant and suddenly rich relative played by Loni Anderson (above with Elam and Lee Weaver).

I asked if he had a favourite of the films he’d made: ‘No way to tell you. Actually, it would be a series of steps. My favourite early one would be “Rawhide” with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward (pictured with Elam left) in 1950 because it’s the one that blasted my career and I’ve never been out of work since. Then, I’d go to “Support Your Local Sheriff” with Jim Garner (pictured below) because that was the change into comedy. There’ve been many that I loved. Listen, let me tell you something. I would have been very happy to have played that Frankenstein monster the rest of my life. I loved that sonofabitch. I like Bully in this show and it’s a nice company. I just don’t like the process. I don’t like the live camera stuff.’

In an earlier press conference, he said Burt Kennedy (‘The Rounders’, ‘The War Wagon’, ‘Support Your Local Sheriff’) was the best director of westerns he’d worked with and I told him that surprised me given all the directors he’d worked with. He said, ‘I’ll tell you what surprised the shit out of me: somebody just asked me what has he done. I thought, you’re putting me on. Burt Kennedy, in my opinion, has done some of the best westerns. For example, ‘Support Your Local Sheriff’ was one of the biggest grossing westerns of the year. It won the Box Office Award, all kinds of award. I can’t believe that people don’t know what Burt Kennedy has done.’

He put Howard Hawks (‘Rio Bravo’, ‘El Dorado’, ‘Rio Lobo’) in second place: ‘I put Howard at number two because Howard’s gone and Burt is a personal friend. I did only a couple of pictures for Howard. I’ve done nine for Burt so that becomes a difference. I think he’s very definitely in Howard’s category, though, because they work the same way. Howard was very easy. We’d sit around, talk about the script, he’d ask if we had any ideas, any changes we wanted to make. He’d ask Duke what d’you think? Duke’d say, well, I think we oughta come over the hill there, we oughta have more guys than we’ve got. Howard would say, fine, Duke, we’ll do that. It was very congenial but he had his finger on everything going on.’

Did they think they were creating art? ‘No, it was just let’s do it. It was our job. It was a professional thing. Our job is to make a movie. In those days … let’s go back to Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, those guys. I never saw one of ‘em ever late. Duke Wayne (with Elam in ‘Rio Lobo’ below). They were never late. I never saw one of ‘em didn’t know his lines. They came prepared, they came on time. They expected to have to work, it was a profession. The making of the picture itself, they didn’t consider themselves some special kind of artist. They considered themselves, I don’t know, actors who were just hired to fill a role.’ Were the directors were in sync with that? ‘Oh, yes, absolutely, right down the line. In those days, the directors, even the ones that were mean like John Farrow (“Ride Vaquero” 1953), he was kind of a mean man but he was right on the nose.’

Was working with Sergio Leone different? ‘Well, Leone had all the money and all the time in the world so it was almost like a game to him. I don’t know that I ever made a contact with him because I only did the one show with him and I was on it only about ten days.’ Leone directed Elam in one of the most iconic scenes in western movies – a man, a gun and a housefly. In the opening scene of Sergio Leone’s epic ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (below), three bored gunmen await the arrival of a train at a dusty frontier outpost. One of them, played by Elam, sits in a chair as flies buzz around his grizzled chin when suddenly he traps a fly in the barrel of his six-shooter. The special effects man had a fly on a wire and they could have done the shot in two hours, he told me: ‘Leone said no, no, he wanted it to fly. We took a day and a half before I caught a fucking fly. He smeared apricot jam from the lunch table on my beard thinking it would attract flies. Well, they came to my beard but they wouldn’t go where I could catch ‘em. Then he smeared honey in my beard. No luck. One afternoon, we broke and there was some watermelon on the set. He spread some watermelon on me. Millions of flies came and I caught a fly.’ Leone offered him another film  afterwards but Elam said drily, ‘I had a good enough time on that one. I was busy so I said I’ll just pass.’

Did spaghetti westerns ruin things for the Hollywood western? Elam said, ‘I think the greatest damage was probably “Blazing Saddles”. It was a big success, a $100 million gross or whatever it was but it made fun of westerns and I don’t think you can make fun of westerns and then come back. Burt Kennedy had two or three good prokects in the works and he and I went to see “Blazing Saddles” amd neither one of us liked it. All of his projects were cancelled because none of them were comedies. Go back and look at the record, there were no westerns made since that date except the occasional one or two like ‘Pale Rider’, there would be one or two but that ended the eight or ten westerns a year, that ended it.’ I suggested that perhaps sci-fi movies also contributed as they were westerns in space: ‘I think they probably had a lot to do with it. We have a generation now … I don’t see any cowboys. I see “Star Wars” with kids … I’ve got two kids and I don’t see any cowboys at home. Westerns are too straight, maybe, there’s a black hat, there’s a white hat.’ What about Rambo? ‘I can’t relate him to a western at all. That’s something kids can understand because there’s no dreaming to that. Let me play you some cowboy music, there’s a dream to the cowboy. The cowboy’s a quiet soul. Go look at the westerns, really look at Gary Cooper and Bob Taylor and those westerns they did, and Kirk Douglas, those guys, they don’t come on in front. Rambo is a front character, it’s another personality entirely so I don’t see any relationship of any kid. Of course, I’m in love with the other thing.’

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My chaotic encounter with composer Ennio Morricone

By Ray Bennett 

LONDON – The late Ennio Morricone was a giant in film music but the Italian composer could be a difficult man as I found out when I went to interview him in London.

He was in town for his 75th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004 and he also had a new album to promote. Titled ‘Focus’, it featured Morricone and the Portuguese Fado singer Dulce Pontes and so I was to interview the two of them. Continue reading

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Recalling Dan Tana’s barkeep Mike Gotovac, an L.A. legend …

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Legendary Dan Tana’s barkeep Mike Gotovac died aged 76 on May 15 following complications caused by Covid-19. He was among the many rich characters I encountered in my time in Los Angeles and I recall clearly the first time we met.

The evening after the Los Angeles Herald Examiner folded in 1989, a group of us from the paper went to Dan Tana’s, the fabled West Hollywood restaurant for a meal. As we waited just inside the door, somebody recognized columnist Gordon Dillow from the photo on his column and Jimmy Cano, the city’s best maitre’d, asked if we were all from the HerEx. When we said we were, everyone in the place applauded and we weren’t allowed to pay for anything. Continue reading

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When Kenny Rogers welcomed me to Los Angeles

By Ray Bennett

We flew into LAX from Toronto, checked into the Sportsmen’s Lodge in the Valley, went directly to the then open-air Universal Amphitheater and were led to seats in the front row just as the biggest entertainer in the world strolled onto the stage: Kenny Rogers, who died today aged 81.

It was in early May 1978. TVGuide’s Canadian editions had just been purchased from the US parent company and art director Brian Moore and I were in Los Angeles to talk to freelance writers and photographers as we began to establish our own identity. Continue reading

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My wish list for the 2020 Oscars: ‘Little Women’

Best Picture

My favourite film of the year is Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ with its splendid filmmaking, intelligent update of the story and wonderful performances. The film I admire most is Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ with its biting satire, great comedy, astute insight and rollicking surprises.. I enjoyed some other nominated films:  Sam Mendes’s ‘1917’, James Mangold’s ‘Le Mans’66 (Ford vs Ferrari)’ Todd Phillips’s ‘Joker’ and Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’. Three I thought were awful … Quentin Tarantino’s ‘ Once Upon a Waste of Time in Hollywood’, Martin Scorsese’s ‘Geriatricfellas’ and Taika Waititi’s ‘Jojo Duck’.  I would have liked to see nominations for Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’, Josh and Benny Sadfie’s ‘Uncut Gems’, Celine Sciamma’s ‘Portrait of a Lady On Fire’ and Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘Clemency’. I also enjoyed Gavin Hood’s ‘Official Secrets’ and Todd Haynes’s ‘Dark Waters’ Continue reading

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Martin Shaw hasn’t always been a TV copper

Martin Shaw as George Gently x650

By Ray Bennett

Martin Shaw, who turns 75 today, is known best for playing TV coppers in “The Professionals” and “Inspector George Gently” but he also has had a long stage career in roles from Stanley Kowalski to Lord Goring to Elvis Presley, and he loves to fly.

The Birmingham-born actor is regarded as a prickly interview subject but when we chatted in 2011 for a story in Cue Entertainment, we got along fine, possibly because we’re about the same age. Continue reading

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It’s the ‘Royal Toy Story’ for Harry and Meghan

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – In ‘Toy Story 4’, the beloved cowboy action figure contemplates leaving the old gang to go off with a beautiful outsider. In the United Kingdom’s version, the monarchy, a much-loved prince wants to do the same.

Think of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as Woody and Bo-Peep. Continue reading

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Recalling Peter Cook and his effortless comedy

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Peter Cook, who died 25 years ago today aged 57, was the funniest person I ever saw and ever met. He was naturally, effortlessly funny but he was never ‘on’ in the way some comedians seem to always be performing. Continue reading

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