Multi-hyphenate was a master of the quick one-liner
Alan King, cigar-chomping Borscht Belt comic, actor and legit-pic-TV producer whose tirades against everyday suburban life grew into a career as a nightclub headliner and regular TV guest, and who later played Broadway and character roles in movies, died Sunday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan of lung cancer. He was 76.
Host of the New York Friars Club’s celebrity roasts appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” between 56 and 93 times (various tallies differ) beginning in the 1950s; in any case, he was one of its most frequently appearing regulars.
King played supporting roles in more than 20 films including “Bye Bye Braverman,” “I, the Jury,” “The Anderson Tapes,” “Lovesick,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Casino” and “Rush Hour 2” after appearing in a handful of films in the late 1950s, including “The Girl He Left Behind,” “Miracle in the Rain” and “Hit the Deck.”
On Broadway he appeared in “Guys and Dolls” and “The Impossible Years,” and he produced Broadway plays “The Lion in Winter” and “Something Different.” Most recently he starred in the 2002 Off Broadway play “Mr. Goldwyn,” playing the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn.
He also produced several films, including “Memories of Me,” “Wolfen” and “Cattle Annie and Little Britches” as well as 1997 TV series “The College of Comedy With Alan King.”
In 1961, he was emcee for part of President Kennedy’s inaugural party; in 1972, he was host of the Oscars.
A protege of Milton Berle, the wisecracking and hard-edged Brooklynite became a master of the quick one-liner. With his urgent hometown accent, the comic then found his new material as a monologist after his wife persuaded him to forsake his native Manhattan, believing the suburban atmosphere of the Forest Hills area of Queens would provide a better environment for their children.
His rantings about suburbia struck a chord with the public, and soon he was appearing regularly on the Sullivan show, Garry Moore’s variety show and “The Tonight Show.”
He also worked as the opening act for such music stars as Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Patti Page and Judy Garland, whom he joined in a command performance in London for Queen Elizabeth II.
He authored at least five books including “Anyone Who Owns His Own Home Deserves One” (1962) and “Help! I’m a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery” (1964). Another was “The Alan King Great Jewish Joke Book” plus a volume of reminiscences, “Matzoh Balls for Breakfast and Other Memories of Growing Up Jewish,” to be published next year by Simon & Schuster. A fifth was “Name-Dropping: The Life and Lies of Alan King.”
Born Irwin Alan Kniberg to Russian immigrants, he grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Brooklyn. He married Jeannette Sprung in 1947 and they had three children. When King was at the height of his career, he faced one son’s drug addiction and said he realized he had neglected his family. “It’s not easy being a father,” he said, “but I’ve been allowed a comeback.” He spent more time at home and his son conquered his addiction.
His offstage humanitarian work included fund-raising for a Long Island center for emotionally disturbed children, establishing a chair in dramatic arts at Brandeis U. and founding of the Alan King Diagnostic Medical Center in Jerusalem.
In addition to his wife, two sons and a daughter, he is survived by seven grandchildren.