* Larry King ends interview show after 25 years
* Clinton, Obama pay tribute
* Television icon will be replaced by Piers Morgan (Updates with more details from show, CNN ratings woes)
LOS ANGELES, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Larry King, the gruff CNN personality whose nonconfrontational interviews were a hit with newsmakers and viewers for 25 years, signed off at the cable news channel on Thursday with a series of reminiscences from big names, old pals and family members.
“Good evening and welcome to the last ‘Larry King Live,'” the 77-year-old broadcast icon said at the outset of his hour-long swan song. “It’s hard to say that. I knew this day was coming. These words are not easy to say.”
With comedian Bill Maher and “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest sitting across from him providing comic relief, King played the straight man professing to be surprised as the tributes rolled in.
In a pre-taped segment, President Barack Obama called King “one of the giants of broadcasting.” Outgoing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared Thursday “Larry King Day,” giving King less than six hours to celebrate the honor.
King announced his retirement in June, saying he wanted to spend more time with his seventh wife, Shawn, and their two young sons. The couple earlier this year said they would divorce, but have since reconciled.
Besides returning to CNN for the occasional special, King has revealed aspirations to enter the bagel and standup comedy arenas. Sporting bold red suspenders, he vowed to keep wearing his trademark accoutrements in his retirement.
“Larry King Live” was an obligatory stop for politicians, moguls and celebrities since it launched when CNN was barely five years old. Earlier this month, the show generated worldwide headlines when Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin issued blistering threats against the United States and its Western allies.
Movie stars and rock stars on the promotional trail could be assured of a platform to hawk their wares without having to fend off any probing questions.
On Wednesday, King hosted Barbra Streisand for what the Los Angeles Time described as “a virtual ... infomercial” during which she aggressively promoted her new book, upcoming film and charitable efforts.
But both his show and CNN are regularly beaten in the ratings. CNN has lost viewers to right-leaning Fox News and left-leaning MSNBC. In September, the network’s U.S. president Jon Klein was ousted after a six-year tenure.
Klein had just hired British journalist Piers Morgan as King’s replacement, effective in January, and brought on former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and columnist Kathleen Parker for a news show leading into “Larry King Live.”
Morgan has said he will ask tougher questions than his predecessor, and will also be better prepared.
King proudly claimed that he never prepared for interviews, and it showed in 2007 when he manage to rankle unflappable comedian Jerry Seinfeld by suggesting that his top-rated sitcom had been canceled. On another occasion, he mistook former Beatle Ringo Starr for his late bandmate George Harrison.
Still, King appears to be beloved by his news-media peers.
“We are your groupies, your proteges, your Pips -- as Gladys would say,” said ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, referring to the soul combo Gladys Knight and Pips.
She was joined at a New York-based tribute by Barbara Walters -- whom King cut off mid-sentence -- and her rivals at NBC and CBS. Other guests included TV personality Regis Philbin, real estate investor Donald Trump, and former President Bill Clinton, who used the occasion to pitch Obama’s tax cuts and discuss his own foundation’s charitable efforts.
Perhaps the most intriguing guests were the show’s last ones: King’s wife and their sons, Chance, 11, and Cannon, 10. The boys fidgeted as CNN anchor Anderson Cooper recalled how both he and King had lost their fathers at an early age. Cannon restored some levity by mimicking his father angrily saying, “Get in the car!” and “Stop doing your makeup!”
As the hour wound down, King sat alone in the studio. Staring into the camera, he struggled to hold back tears as he signed off with: “Instead of ‘goodbye’, how about ‘so long’?”
The studio went dark and a light shone on the trademark prop microphone that separated him from some of the most intriguing people of the times. (Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Todd Eastham)