Comedian Alan King dies at 76

Appreciation

May 10, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Alan King, the stand-up comedian who parlayed a Borscht Belt sense of humor, a tummler's cheek and a big appetite for the limelight into a thoroughgoing show business career that lasted more than half a century, died yesterday morning at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. He was 76, and lived in King's Point, N.Y.

The cause was lung cancer, said his wife of 57 years, Jeanette.

King was an unabashed exemplar of Jewish comedy whose sensibility, delivery -- and accent -- never migrated far from their Brooklyn roots. As a boy, he worked in the Catskills and sang on the radio, and he was schooled in the rimshot wisecrack by Milton Berle.

King grew into his own swaggering persona -- part impatient executive, part cranky citizen, part bedeviled husband and father -- complete with elegant haberdashery, a long cigar and, frequently, an expression that seemed to indicate he had just eaten something disagreeable.

King became especially well known through his 56 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show during the 1950s and `60s and his frequent guest-host appearances on the Tonight show. His career included 29 films as a character actor (he specialized in rabbis, show business agents and gangsters) and myriad guest appearances on television.

He was a producer of both film and theater (his Broadway credits included The Lion in Winter in 1968); from 1987 to 1988, he was host of Inside the Comedy Mind, a series of interviews with other comedians that was a regular staple on Comedy Central.

He was the author of five books, including a collection of reminiscences, Matzoh Balls for Breakfast and Other Memories of Growing Up Jewish, to be published next year by Simon & Schuster.

Alan King was born Irwin Alan Kniberg, on Dec. 26, 1927, in Brooklyn; he grew up in the Williamsburg section of the borough and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His father, Bernard, was a handbag cutter; both his parents were Russian immigrants.

In addition to his wife, whom he met in Brooklyn when they were both teen-agers, King is survived by two sons, Robert, of Manhattan, and Andrew, of Washington Township, N.J.; a daughter, Elainie Gagne, of Vermont; and seven grandchildren.

In recent years, responding to suggestions that he slow down, he scoffed. A gardener, he was especially proud of his roses, but stopping to smell them, he said, was not as pleasurable as making people laugh.

"You only live once," he said. "Except for Shirley MacLaine."

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