Alan King

Master of the 'angry' comic monologue

Kenneth Tynan once wrote, "If a sawn-off shotgun could talk, it would sound like Alan King." Cigar-wielding master of the angry monologue, and star of over 30 television specials and 16 films, the durable King was revered by his fellow funny men. "Alan King took aggravation to new heights of hilarity," wrote Bob Monkhouse. "He's irritated but he doesn't irritate." Billy Crystal, who played King's son in the film
Memories of Me (1988), called him "a museum of comedy".



Irwin Alan Kniberg (Alan King), comedian, actor, writer and producer: born New York 26 December 1927; married 1947 Jeanette Sprung (two sons, one daughter); died New York 9 May 2004.



Kenneth Tynan once wrote, "If a sawn-off shotgun could talk, it would sound like Alan King." Cigar-wielding master of the angry monologue, and star of over 30 television specials and 16 films, the durable King was revered by his fellow funny men. "Alan King took aggravation to new heights of hilarity," wrote Bob Monkhouse. "He's irritated but he doesn't irritate." Billy Crystal, who played King's son in the film Memories of Me (1988), called him "a museum of comedy".

The son of European immigrants, the Brooklyn-born Irwin Alan Kniberg grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side. A natural mimic, he earned pennies for his impersonations on street corners at the age of eight. His first acting role was as Huckleberry Finn in a school production of Tom Sawyer. At 14 he sang "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" on Major Bowes's Original Amateur Hour, a popular radio show. He lost first prize to a musical plumber, but Bowes invited him to join a company of amateurs on a nationwide tour.

At the age of 15, Kniberg worked as a comedian at a Catskill mountain resort called the Hotel Gradus. After one gag ("When you work for Gradus, you work for gratis"), Mr Gradus, the owner, sacked him. Having played many Catskill resorts, Kniberg got a job in Canada, briefly working as Second Banana in a Montreal burlesque house. While in Canada, Kniberg became a professional prize-fighter. He won 20 straight fights, but was roundly defeated by a local boxer. Deciding that "there's gotta be a better way for a nice Jewish boy to make a living", he followed his broken nose back to New York, determined to concentrate on comedy.

After working as a doorman at Leon and Eddie's, a popular night-spot on 52nd Street, he was soon performing himself. Now calling himself King (the name of the Canadian fighter who had defeated him), he became resident comic at the Tap Room, a notoriously rowdy night-club on 78th Street. After a rave review in Walter Winchell's influential newspaper column, he found himself in demand. One thing worried him; although a critic on the show-business journal Variety called him "a funny young man", he added, "Don't know how he'll do west of the Hudson."

King's act was then a lightning-paced succession of one-liners, routines and impersonations stolen from various other performers, until the fateful night that a fellow comic took him to a night-spot where Danny Thomas was appearing. "There was no sense of hurry," King recalled in his memoirs:

We were watching somebody in complete control of what he was doing, and in com-

plete control of his audience. When I saw Danny Thomas I knew what I had to do.

He began to concentrate on material that, like Thomas's, evoked the familiar and the recognisable. He talked about his brother, the doctor ("My brother is the youngest member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. And I wouldn't let him cut my nails"). He recalled his mother's cure for any ill: an enema ("It even cleared out your nostrils, your sinuses, and the wax in your ears"). With acerbic wit, he barked out his irate observations on such subjects as marriage, politicians, the economy, suburbia, insurance companies, railways, airlines and banks. ("The banks have a new image. Now you have 'a friend'. Your friendly bank. If the banks are so friendly, how come they chain down the pens?")

He travelled around the United States, working as opening act for such singers as Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne and Tony Martin. When Martin was cast in the MGM musical Hit the Deck (1955), he suggested King for a role in the film. His performance in Warner Bros' Miracle in the Rain (1956) led to a contract with the studio.

In The Helen Morgan Story (1957), King played a gangster, as he would in such later films as The Anderson Tapes (1972), I the Jury (1982), Cat's Eye (1985) and Night and the City (1992). He was a teamster boss controlled by the mob in Casino (1995), and a rabbi in Bye Bye Braverman (1968), Enemies, A Love Story (1989) and The Infiltrator (1994). He made innumerable appearances on television shows.

The most memorable chapter in King's career began in 1956 when he appeared with Judy Garland at New York's Palace Theatre. After 26 weeks there, he toured the US with Garland, also appearing with her in London at the Dominion Theatre. When asked why the brilliant but chronically unreliable Judy had employed him for so long, he replied, "Because no one could make the announcement 'Miss Garland will not appear tonight' better than I could."

In the mid-1960s, a gambling addiction caused King to cut down his shows at Las Vegas. Deciding it was better to gamble on the theatre instead, he co-produced New York productions of James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Dinner at Eight and Peter Weiss's The Investigation. At the time he was also acting in Walter Hyman's play The Impossible Years (1966), which kept him on Broadway for a year and a half.

In 1992 King stopped smoking his trademark cigars when cancer caused half his familiar jutting jaw to be removed. He continued to write and perform, returning to the stage in 2002 in Mr Goldwyn, about the legendary Hollywood producer.

His books, co-written with many authors, include the tongue-in-cheek cookbook Is Salami and Eggs Better Than Sex? (1985), Help, I'm a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery (1964) and his autobiography, Name Dropping: the life and lies of Alan King (1996). His last book, Matzo Balls for Breakfast and Other Memories of Growing Up Jewish, will be published next year.

Dick Vosburgh

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable