Master of the 'angry' comic monologue
Friday 21 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".
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.
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