Alan King was a Jewish American actor and comedian, known for his sharp wit and angry humorous rants. His story reads like a typical American dream, a rags to riches fable—he went from being a poor high school dropout to become one of the most well loved and respected comedian of his time. He was proud of his Jewish heritage and comedian Jerry Stiller described him as a “Jewish Will Rogers.” He often joked about the annoyances of daily life and societal issues which helped him connect with his audience and endeared him to his fans. He developed a conversational style of delivering his punches and talked directly to his audience. In the words of Jerry Stiller, King was "in touch with what was happening with the world, which is what made him so funny.” The comedian opened for many celebrities like Tony Martin, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, etc. King has made several appearances on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ which increased his popularity among the masses. He was also a talented actor who starred in many movies, in both comic and serious roles. As a theatre artist he made appearances in several theatrical productions, also producing many of them. In addition to the show business, King had a deep interest in politics and became a political activist campaigning for John and Robert Kennedy.
Childhood & Early Life
Alan king was the youngest of eight children born to Minnie and Bernard Kniberg who were Russian immigrants in New York. His birth name was Irwin Alan Kniberg.
He gave street performances as a child in order to earn some money. He dropped out of high school at 15 to pursue a career in comedy.
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He got a job as a stand-up comedian at the Hotel Gradus in Catskill Mountains. However, he once made fun of the hotel’s owner during a performance and was fired. He later went to Canada where he found work in a burlesque house and also began fighting as a professional boxer.
He was quite successful in his boxing career and won a series of matches, but he quit boxing after his first loss. He adopted the last name “King” of the boxer who beat him, and from then was known as Alan King.
He met the legendary comedian Milton Merle while he was working as a doorman in a nightclub. Merle recognized his talents and became his mentor. King was also influenced by comedian Danny Thomas.
In the 1950’s he became a very popular nightclub comedian and opened for celebrities such as Nat King Cole, Tony Martin and Lena Horne. On Martin’s recommendation, King was offered a small role in the movie ‘Hit the Deck’ (1955).
Over the next few years, he starred in many movies like ‘Miracle in the Rain’ (1956), ‘The Girl He Left Behind’ (1956), ‘The Helen Morgan Story’ (1957).
He was not much active in films in 1960’s and 70’s, though he came back with a bang during the decade of 1980’s. He appeared in films like ‘I, the Jury’ (1982), ‘Lovesick’ (1983), ‘Cat’s Eye’ (1985), ‘Memories of Me’ (1988), and ‘A Love Story’ (1989).
After playing a comic role in a series of films, King was bothered about being typecast as a comedian and wanted to play serious roles. He portrayed a gangster in ‘Night and the City’ (1992), and ‘Casino’ (1995).
In the new millennium he starred in three movies ‘Rush Hour 2’ (2001), ‘Sunshine State’ (2002) and ‘Mind the Gap’ (2004) before his death in May 2004.
He is also the author of five books that include ‘Anyone Who Owns His Own Home Deserves It’ and ‘Help! I'm a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery.’
He starred in the 1980 American comedy film ‘Just Tell Me What you Want’ with Ali MacGraw. He played the role of married, wealthy, and vulgar head of a company who has a stormy yet funny relationship with his mistress.
He played a major role in the 1988 film ‘Memories of Me’ as Abe the ‘King of the extras’ in Hollywood. The movie was about the strained relations between a father-son duo.
Awards and Achievements
He was the first ever recipient of the award for American Jewish Humor (1988) from The National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which is the leading advocate for Jewish cultural life and creativity in the United States. The award was later renamed in his honour.
Personal Life & Legacy
Alan King married his wife Jeanette Sprung in 1947 and had three children. They had been married for 57 years at the time of his death.
He had a lifelong interest in charity work. He founded the Alan King Medical Center in Jerusalem, and created the ‘Laugh Well’ program which sends comedians to hospitals to perform for patients.
During his later years he suffered from oral and well as lung cancer. He died on May 9, 2004.
He was the emcee for a portion of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural party in 1961.
As a teenager he had formed a musical group called ‘Earl Knight and His Musical Knights’.