Born in the Bronx, New York in 1926, as a teenager Franklin "followed around" Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, who eventually began buying jokes from the young Franklin and whose Carnegie Hall show he later produced. At age fourteen, Franklin began working behind the scenes for The Kate Smith Hour and at sixteen, Franklin officially began his entertainment career as a record picker on radio sensation Martin Block's Make Believe Ballroom where he became known as "The Young Wreck with the Old Records". He is considered an authority on popular culture of the first half of the 20th century, including silent film. He has been called "The King of Nostalgia" and "The Wizard of Was" for focusing on old-time show-business personalities. Franklin was also a pioneer in promoting products such as Hoffman Beverages and Ginger Ale on the air.
A&E's documentary It's Only Talk, The Real Story Of America's Talk Shows, (Actuality Productions) credits Franklin as the creator of the TV talk show. Franklin is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Longest Running Continuous On-Air TV Talk Show Host, more than a decade longer than Johnny Carson's legendary run.
After retiring from his television show, Franklin concentrated on his overnight radio show, playing old records on WOR-AM on Saturday evenings, and mentoring thousands of aspiring entertainers who for decades have sought an audience with him at his notoriously cluttered Times Square office. Through mid-January 2015, in spite of failing health, Franklin continued working and his celebrity interviews called "Nostalgia Moments" could be heard daily on the Bloomberg Radio Network.
Franklin's guests included (sometimes on the same panel) Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe (with whom Franklin co-authored "The Marilyn Monroe Story" in 1953), Jayne Mansfield, Cary Grant, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Rudy Vallee, Jimmy Durante, Madonna, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Bing Crosby, The Ramones, Captain Lou Albano, and five U.S. Presidents juxtaposed with countless unknown local performers, fringe bands, balloon-folders, self-published authors, celebrity impersonators and lounge singers, all of whom gave the show a surreal atmosphere.