How Jackie Gleason Helped a Young Larry King Kickstart His Career

by Joe Rutland

Larry King and Jackie Gleason were friends for many years. In fact, King, who died on Saturday, often said Gleason gave him his big break.

Let’s take a journey back to a different time in both television and radio. Gleason, known for playing Ralph Kramden on CBS’ “The Honeymooners,” was one of that network’s biggest stars in the 1950s and 1960s. His Saturday night variety show was must-see TV for people across the United States.

Gleason was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in poor conditions. Larry King himself was also born in Brooklyn with his birth name, Larry Zeiger. So, how do these two Brooklyn kids end up crossing paths?

Larry King Gains Traction With Talk Show, Column

Miami Beach, called “The Sun And Fun Capitol Of The World” in Gleason’s show opening, was an epicenter of entertainment with nightclubs and hotels at the time. Big-name stars like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Bobby Darin, and Dean Martin would play there regularly. Comedians like Alan King, Don Rickles, Shecky Greene and many others did, too.

Once King started gaining traction with his radio talk-show, the Miami Herald newspaper gave him a weekly column. King took advantage of the space to highlight those acts listed above and many others visiting Miami-area hotels at that time.

Gleason moved his variety show from New York City to Miami Beach in 1964, taking “The Great Gleason Express” – a train – down south from New York to Miami Beach. Larry King happened to be the emcee of the welcoming event for Gleason as he arrived with cameras rolling. It was big news for “The Great One” to bring his CBS show to the town.

Jackie Gleason Gets Frank Sinatra For King’s Radio Show

King happened to be on the press train for Gleason’s trek. Both crossed paths, talked, and struck up a friendship. They had lots in common, so it seemed natural.

One time, Gleason reportedly asked King during a party at Gleason’s home what was impossible about his radio career. All that King could say was the word “Sinatra.” He couldn’t get an interview with him, much like a lot of other media outlets in the mid-1960s.

Gleason fixed that real quick. He picked up the phone, called Sinatra, and lined up an interview with King that lasted three hours. Apparently, Gleason had a favor coming back to him from Sinatra so he used his chip, if you will, and got “Ol’ Blue Eyes” to sit with King.

Later, King would call getting Sinatra for an interview “enormous.” That interview gained King national and even international attention, sending the young kid from Brooklyn well on his way to nationwide radio success. It led to King becoming the first radio talk-show host to have a nationally syndicated show through the old Mutual Radio Network. It also led to CNN founder Ted Turner signing King to host “Larry King Live.”

“The Great One,” which Gleason picked up as his moniker after being called that by actor-director Orson Welles, gave King a break. It was the one that set his friend from Brooklyn off to stardom.

H/T: Grunge