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Turning 50: Larry King, 73, celebrates a half-century in broadcasting

King survived a 1994 interview with a mondo Marlon Brando.

PASADENA, Calif. -- He's got suspenders older than you. So who hasn't he interviewed?

"We almost got the Pope before he died," says Larry King. "We got a 'maybe.' That was somethin'."

CNN is makin' a little somethin' out of this with a week-long salute to King, who's been asking questions in public for 50 years since breaking in at a small Miami Beach radio station. "The King-sized" events begin on Monday (April 16), with Oprah Winfrey scheduled as his only guest on Larry King Live (8 p.m. central, 9 eastern).

King, 73, will be interviewed Tuesday by Katie Couric before starring in Wednesday's two-hour Larry King -- 50 Years of Pop Culture. Bill Clinton joins King on Thursday. Then it's a wrap with Friday's visitation by Bill Maher and "more than 20 surprise all-star guests."

He's been a CNN mainstay since 1985, a year after playing himself in Ghost Busters, his first of 21 feature films to date. He used to wear specs the size of saucers, which prompts the question, "Have you changed your eyeglasses recently to not be quite so bug-eyed?"

King takes this in good humor.

"You know, it it's kind of weird . . . They were much bigger. And then my wife suggested one day (he doesn't say which wife) that that doesn't look real good. And you know, when wives suggest it, it's not a suggestion. I also weighed about 20 pounds more. Some people say I look better now than I did 10 years ago."

He's made a huge pop cultural imprint, whether being parodied or parrying in his own non-confrontational style with a now storied list of celebrity guests.

"I'm not a soap box talk show host," King says. "Never have been. What I think of someone may not be what you think of someone. So what I try to do is present someone in the best light . . . The Perot-Gore (1993 NAFTA) debate was a classic example. If you watch that show, every question was asked fairly. Each man got the same amount of time. And you had no idea who I thought won."

A year later, King journeyed memorably to Marlon Brando's house to interview the oft-daft actor about his newly published autobiography. Brando's first words were instructive: "If the dog hadn't stopped to pee, he might have caught the rabbit." They ended up singing "Got a Date with an Angel" at Brando's insistence. Then Saturday Night Live pounced with a sketch featuring Kevin Nealon as King and John Travolta as Brando.

King says he's never minded any of the lampooning, but is offended by self-important questioners.

"The best way to judge an interviewer is how often does he or she say 'I.' If they say 'I' a lot, they're not an interviewer. They're interested in themselves. I don't use the word 'I.' I never have all these years."

His influence has waned in recent years after peaking during the tumultuous 1992 presidential campaign, when Ross Perot announced his candidacy on Larry King Live.

That year's race for the White House seemed to revolve around his show, so much so that King wrote a book titled On the Line: The New Road to the White House. He also went on to play himself in the 1998 film Primary Colors, starring Travolta as a thinly fictionalized Bill Clinton.

Fox News Channel and MSNBC didn't exist in 1992. Now King is in a nightly dogfight against Hannity & Colmes and Scarborough Country, both of which have political agendas.

"There's no question that Larry can sit in his chair as long as he continues to perform," says CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton.

That can be interpreted in several ways, but King can't imagine quitting cold turkey the way Johnny Carson did after 30 years of hosting NBC's Tonight Show.

"He was an unusual person to begin with," King says. "He was able to put it away and literally go out on his boat. I don't know what I would do being idle. I couldn't be idle. The worst case would be if I were sick or something, or physically unable. That would be terrible, but at least that would be a cause."

His latest contract with CNN will expire in 2009. That will be cause for reflection by both parties, with King not getting any younger while most advertisers have little interest in sponsoring programs drawing predominantly older audiences.

"Well, it bothers me because I'm 73," King says of today's TV realities. "Technically what you're saying is I don't (want to) appeal to myself."

There's no question about that.