His death, coming a day after he suffered a stroke Friday morning at his home in Boca Raton, Fla., was a shock because of the sheer huge-ness of his husky 6-foot-4 presence and gravely, Rodney Dangerfield-esque baritone. He hadn't been ill of late, though he had lived with diabetes for years.
Remembering him on Saturday, friends and colleagues gently referenced that he'd live the high life and the hard life, and that was surely true. In Vegas and other gambling meccas, Roger would wager coin in $50,000 and $75,000 increments without blinking. (I almost threw up while observing this during a NATPE confab many moons ago.) His carousing in the mid 1980s and early 1990s landed him in mild legal trouble (an arrest for cocaine possession and for stealing, briefly, a taxi cab) and a stint in rehab.
But as much as he liked to play, Roger was at heart a businessman and a tireless worker. Long after he and his company King World Prods. had made billions and changed the landscape of the TV biz with hits like "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy" and, of course, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," he stayed on the road making sales calls to TV stations in markets large, medium and small. People marveled that Roger spent so much time on the road, making personal calls on station owners in markets that had less overall ad coin than King World's annual revenues. Roger did it because he loved the game, the thrill of the hunt, and he had real affection for the broadcasting biz and the people in it.
He knew every TV station general manager from San Diego to Paducah, Ky., and all points in between, and he always blew away his sales targets with the depth of his knowledge of the competitive picture in each market. He prided himself on his mental Rolodex. He came in with a casual "Hi howya doin' attitude" and a slap on the back (which would often make the recipient airborne) and then launch into a relentless but sophisticated sales pitch with hurricane-force wind.
It's not for nothing that Merv Griffin was famously quoted as saying: "Roger King is without a doubt the greatest salesman in the history of anything, and I don't even limit him to just television. He could sell you anything."
Selling was surely in his DNA. His father, Charles King, was a radio producer and salesman whose fortunes rose and fell sharply during the '40s and '50s. Generally based in Southern California, Roger and his six siblings moved in and out of high- and low-rent districts frequently as kids.
In 1964, Charles King spent $50,000 that he most definitely did not have in the bank to buy the TV rights to the "Little Rascals" shorts. He named his new company King World because "World" sounded impressive. Charles King's business fortunes seesawed for the rest of his life; he died on the road selling "Little Rascals" in San Antonio, Texas, in 1972.
At the time, Roger, his younger brother Michael and the rest of the siblings took over the company and with great kinship and fortitude vowed to keep it going. In the years prior, Roger bounced around working in newspaper, radio and TV sales and management, but it was really the challenge of rescuing his dad's legacy that galvanized the Greatest TV Salesman that Ever Was.
And whenever he was asked about King World's rags to riches success story, Roger unfailingly was quick to cite his father as the wellspring of all of their success. It was one of those aw-shucks, living-the-American-dream qualities in Roger that made him impossible not to like.
Certainly, Roger put a lot of his silver-tongue skill to work on Merv Griffin's behalf, and Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil McGraw and most recently, chirpy chef Rachael Ray. It's hard to believe that a mere 23 years ago, the notion of taking out a daytime syndie talk show hosted by a black woman would be eyebrow-raising in some parts of this country. But it was.
Roger loved to tell the anecdote of the general manager in a deep-South market who flatly dismissed Roger's pitch by telling him that "I could get better ratings with a potato sitting in a chair." Roger didn't sugar coat that comment, or other slightly politer versions that he heard in other markets, in reporting back to Oprah on his progress. And he assured her that those bigots would eat their potatoes when her show became a big hit. Roger took pride in recounting how, years after Oprah became Oprah, he would always make sure to charge those stations a little more when some of them invariably came begging for her show. It's not exaggeration to say that in throwing himself as he did into selling the promise of Oprah Winfrey, Roger King helped change our world, one market at a time.
Of his many accomplishments, Roger was always proud of having prospered by being an entrepreneur -- through his salesmanship, through his doggedness, through his willingness to gamble on unproven properties, through seeing openings in the market a la local stations' need for high-end syndie shows. Nobody ever gave the King family a huge break -- whatever King World reaped under the leadership of Roger and Michael, it earned the hard way.
I became friendly with Roger during a heady time for the company, in the mid-1990s when the brothers couldn't decide whether they should try to buy another big company like Spelling Entertainment or MGM, or sell out to suitors such as Turner Broadcasting and New World Communications.
The first time I met Roger was at a NATPE convention in the King World booth. I stood meekly off to the side of a small crowd around him while he was planted in the middle of the booth, glad-handing visitors in the morning before the closed-door meetings began. I hung around long enough for the crowd to thin, and I overheard him talking to another King World executive about a big renewal deal he was closing with the ABC O&Os for "Wheel" and "Jeopardy."
Finally, I let loose an "a-hem" and tugged at his elbow. He turned around, and no kidding, looked down and said "What'er you doing there?!" with a broad smile. From there I got the Roger King treatment -- (he had every incentive -- I was working for the syndie-friendly weekly Broadcasting & Cable at the time). As he chain-smoked cigarettes, he asked me where was I from, where had I worked before, why did I decide to become a reporter, etc. After a few minutes he roared and shook with laughter when I mentioned that I overheard him talking about the newsworthy renewal deal. From then on he liked to joke that I "stole" that story out from underneath him.
Roger seemed to genuinely respect reporters -- even though he'd been on the wrong side of the headlines a few times -- and appreciated the fact that the good ones have to work for their stories. (He always told me how much he liked my Variety colleague John Dempsey, except to Roger he was always "Jack Dempsey.")
Roger got a kick out of dropping crumbs, big and little, that resulted in page-one stories. And he was proactive -- I always knew he was on the line when I'd pick up and hear the static-y sound of a speaker phone for about 10 seconds before he'd say in dramatic fashion: "Cyn-thee-aa..."
Having been such a maverick and his own boss for so many years, I was surprised that he stayed with CBS after the Eye bought King World in 1999. But Roger was smart -- he saw the entertainment biz changing around King World, and he knew his role as CEO of the CBS Television Distribution sales unit gave him a perch to continue doing what he did best: Peddling ice to the Eskimos, and "Wheel of Fortune" everywhere else. CBS chief Leslie Moonves, to his credit, always afforded Roger the utmost respect that he'd earned. By all accounts, Moonves allowed Roger the berth to be Roger so long as he raked in the money, which was definitely part of Roger being Roger.
The syndication business that King World ignited in its heyday is unquestionably in a transitional period, as all of television is. Some of Roger's greatest strengths -- his internal databases of station managers, market ratings and golf handicaps -- are not as vital as they once were. It's a little too simplistic to say that his rise in the early 1980s and death today are the bookends of the money-minting era that Oprah, "Wheel" and "Jeopardy" wrought. But it's not an overstatement to say that Roger King did more than any other individual to define that biz in its shining moments.
As a friend, as much as he loved the traveling salesman's life, I'm glad to know he didn't follow in his father's footsteps by dying alone on the road, but rather in the home he shared with his beloved wife, Raemali (pictured right). I'll miss those calls, that roar and his infectious excitement over the fact that his latest show is about to move to a better time slot in St. Louis.