(b. 26 December 1927 in New York City; d. 9 May 2004 in New York City), comedian, actor, producer, writer, political activist, and philanthropist who built a sixty-year career in show business by capitalizing on an angry New York–Jewish persona.
Born Irwin Alan Kniberg and raised as the youngest of eight children on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section by Russian immigrant parents, Bernard Kniberg and Minnie (Solomon) Kniberg, King dropped out of high school in Brooklyn to enter show business. His father made leather handbags and revered the labor leader David Dubinsky, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the New Deal. His mother was a homemaker.
King attended Boys High School and Eastern District High School (both in Brooklyn) before dropping out. At age fourteen King made his debut on Major Bowes’s Amateur Hour. He sang a Depression favorite, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” in dirty face and torn knickers. His mother, quipped King, urged her son to learn a trade so that she could tell her friends what kind of work he was out of.
When he was fifteen King ventured north to the Catskills. There, working his way up from the number three tummler (Yiddish for entertainer), he spent summers in the borscht belt and winters in Lakewood, New Jersey. Hired by the Gradus Hotel in the Catskills, he complained: “When you work for Gradus, you work for gratis.” King also worked for the Tisch family, which owned Laurel in the Pines, Lakewood’s most elegant hotel. He copied every successful comic of the 1940s from Milton Berle to Danny Thomas. King developed an aggressive style that the critic Kenneth Tynan likened to “a [talking] sawed-off shotgun.”
Soon King was seen among the stars. He opened for Frank Sinatra at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Memorial Day 1944. King also frequently appeared with Judy Garland during her rueful “days of wine and roses.” In 1956 his work opening for the troubled singer elevated the young comic to stardom.
On 1 February 1947 King married his childhood sweetheart Jeannette Sprung, with whom he raised three adopted children. On the stage, he personified a kvetchy (cranky), frustrated, middle-class denizen bedeviled by the incongruities of modern life. He railed against insurance companies, airline food, and “boomer” children. As a guest on Ed Sullivan’s celebrated Columbia Broadcasting System television show on Sunday nights, King vented his anger in multiple appearances (Bruce Weber of the New York Times cites fifty-six in King’s obituary). King poked fun at zoning laws. A line ran through his home, he said; his kids were zoned for another school district. He quipped: “They tried to tell me that if my kids slept in the garage, they could go to schools in Rockville Centre,” a more desirable Long Island school district. Obsessive cleanliness and finished basements also triggered King’s comic wrath. He said that whenever he got up at 5 a.m. for a trip to the bathroom, he returned to find that his wife had made the bed. As for finished basements, King observed, “It’s so wonderful to walk into a house with an eight-foot ceiling and a basement with a four foot-ceiling and spend an evening like Quasimodo or Toulouse-Lautrec.”
Befriending the entertainer and activist Harry Bela-fonte, King marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. Flanked by a host of both celebrities and those who were not well known, he campaigned for civil rights. The assassinations of Dr. King and the Kennedys in the 1960s heightened his commitment to social justice.
Never content to be just a stand-up comic or a political fellow traveler, King essayed Broadway and Hollywood. He made his movie debut with a small role in Hit the Deck (1955), a clichéd remake of the three-sailors-on-leave formula. In The Helen Morgan Story (1957), he played a gangster opposite Paul Newman. Moving to Broadway, he lightened up by playing the much-beloved gangster Nathan Detroit in a limited-run revival of Guys and Dolls in 1965. Following Guys and Dolls, King spent a year and a half on Broadway in the original comedy The Impossible Years (1965). Not content merely to perform on Broadway, King also first brought James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter (1966) to the New York stage, followed that same year by a revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s Dinner at Eight (1966).
King returned to Hollywood to make Bye Bye Braverman (1968), which converted him from ganef (thief) to rabbi. In 1980 King gained star billing as Max Herschel, a garment center tycoon, in Just Tell Me What You Want. Max bemoans suburban America because basically he is New York City–urban and Jewish, despite living in a palatial estate on Long Island. Married to a helpless alcoholic and involved with a sultry mistress, he agonizes. The film, directed by Sidney Lumet, conveys a dark vision of Jewish assimilation, social mobility, and moral rot.
After acting in a number of mediocre films and producing Cattle Annie and Little Britches and Wolfen (both 1981), King, as producer and star, joined Billy Crystal to make Memories of Me (1988), which he likened to his King Lear. Ultimately, he acted in twenty-nine films, including Enemies: A Love Story (1989), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Casino (1995), and Sunshine State (2002).
Spurning Danny Kaye’s advice to be less Jewish, King rooted his humor in ethnicity as this often-told joke demonstrates: The richest man in town died. So reviled was he that the local rabbi refused to preside at the funeral. A substitute was found who offered these words: “Here lies so-and-so. He was a liar, a thief, a hypocrite, an atheist. Had he died twenty years earlier, the world would have been far better off. Sitting in the first row, however, are his three brothers. Compared to them, he was an angel!”
After a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II in 1958 in Glasgow, Scotland, he was introduced to the British monarch, who greeted him with “How do you do, Mr. King?” He replied with polite but leveling common sense: “How do you do, Mrs. Queen?”
As a philanthropist, King established a medical center in Jerusalem and a scholarship for American students at Hebrew University there. He also served on the Long Island Jewish Medical Center Board of Trustees and as an advocate for emotionally disturbed youngsters in Nassau County on Long Island.
As a member of the Friars Club from 1945, King often served as master of ceremonies. In 1961 he cohosted the John F. Kennedy presidential inauguration party, and he hosted the Academy Awards in 1972. The coauthor of five books, King also portrayed that master of malaprop, the Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, in 2002, off Broadway. Always eager to do stand-up with cigar in hand or worse, a chain of cigarettes, the ailing comedian continued to crack jokes at his own expense. At Kutsher’s Country Club in August 2003, he observed: “My prostate is now bigger than my ego.” In 2001 he was awarded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
King succumbed to lung cancer on 9 May 2004 in New York City. He is buried in Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, Queens, New York City.
King’s book, Name-Dropping: The Life and Lies of Alan King, written with Chris Chase (1996), is the best source of biographical information. Also informative are Anybody Who Owns His Own Home Deserves It, written with Kathryn Ryan (1962); and James Barron, “Alan King’s Love-Hate Relationship,” New York Times (30 Aug. 1998). Obituaries are in the New York Times (10 May 2004) and London Times (28 May 2004).