It's Good to Be the King

It's Good to Be the King Schmuel Gelbfisz, a glove salesman who entered the movie mainstream under the Americanized name of Samuel Goldfish, and Irvin Alan Kniberg, the man who would be Alan King and whose father hailed from the same Warsaw ghetto as Gelbfisz, crossed paths only once — but there was a sweet smell of success about the experience that lingers today.

Schmuel Gelbfisz, a glove salesman who entered the movie mainstream under the Americanized name of Samuel Goldfish, and Irvin Alan Kniberg, the man who would be Alan King and whose father hailed from the same Warsaw ghetto as Gelbfisz, crossed paths only once — but there was a sweet smell of success about the experience that lingers today.

The comedian-actor, now answering to Mr. Goldwyn at the Promenade, remembers the event as occurring in 1956 while he was playing the Palladium with Judy Garland. "I saw him in a famous apothecary, buying cologne, and I ended up buying the same cologne."

Almost a half-century later, King finds himself playing this role for which he is uniquely and keenly qualified — that of legendary movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn: No other stand-up comedian has gone through his career with the buttoned-down sartorial splendor of a studio titan — "I've always taken pride in my appearance," King confesses, "I guess because I didn't have a two-piece suit until my bar mitzvah" — and no other has racked up honest-to-God producing credits while doing it.

Most of these were for the stage (The Lion in Winter, Carl Reiner's Something Different, The Investigation, Tyrone Guthrie's revival of Dinner at Eight and The Impossible Years, which he personally did for a possible year-and-a-half on Broadway), but several have been for the screen (Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Memories of Me and Wolfen).

The bulk of King's screen work has been as an actor. He hit the flicks with Hit the Deck in 1955, and his newest ones jump from Hong Kong (Rush Hour 2 with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker) to Florida (John Sayles's political/ecology drama, Sunshine State). "I always play villains — either Italian villains or rabbis — and I don't know what to make of that. I did a rabbi in Enemies: A Love Story, and I played two rabbis in Bye Bye Braverman." The latter, a cult comedy from 1968, was his first for director Sidney Lumet, who historically gave King his best screen shots (The Anderson Tapes, Just Tell Me What You Want and a Serpico cameo of a brash young comic named Alan King).

King counts himself above all else a film buff, and that factor warmed him to the idea of playing one of Hollywood's more outrageous founding fathers. "These moguls — they were tough, they were demanding, they invented Hollywood — Sam Goldwyn, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, the Warner brothers, Carl Laemmle at Universal, William Fox, Columbia's Harry Cohn. It's amazing, but according to A. Scott Berg's biography on Goldwyn, six of them came from within 500 miles of each other in Europe but didn't meet till they started hating each other in California."

For 90 films and 45 years — from The Squaw Man in 1914 to Porgy and Bess in 1959 — Goldwyn gave us some of the best movies of our lives. He just couldn't always pronounce them. (His own personal favorite he often identified as Withering Heights.) He had an immigrant's tentative grasp of English, resulting in much mangling of language. Some people still think he made more malapropisms than movies, but they should look at his impeccable output. It speaks volumes for an immigrant's craving for inclusion and class.

"He paid writers more than anybody in California," King cites. "He brought Sinclair Lewis out there — and Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Kaufman and Hart, Hecht and MacArthur. He paid them big bucks because he believed in their words. Same thing with ballerinas. He brought Vera Zorina to Hollywood, and the choreographer he got for her, George Balanchine, married her during The Goldwyn Follies. He was enchanted by the arts, despite his limited education. In the play, he says he loved the opera and symphony, but he liked ballet best because 'you don't have to know English.'"

Mr. Goldwyn, written by Marsha Lebby and John Lollos and directed by Gene Saks, occurs 50 years ago — on two nights in 1952 when Goldwyn finds himself at a kind of crossroads: one during the filming of his Danny Kaye Hans Christian Andersen, and the other on the night of that picture's premiere, which Goldwyn — on the mend from a medical emergency — is forced to sweat out in his office. He personally found the film "full of charmth and warmth," but he worried over the audience's reaction: "They don't want Hans Christian Andersen. They want that sex film, Trollycar Named Desire."

Goldwyn would live 22 more years, dying in 1974 at the age of 91, and have only two more rolls of the dice (big ones: Guys and Dolls and Porgy and Bess), but he left a lot to look back on — and King revels in this opportunity. "That's the reason I'm doing this," he admits, "At this point in my life, I'm not looking for a career move."

If you ask him what he's proudest of, the comedian responds with a knee-jerk reaction — his 54-year marriage to Jeanette, which comes accessorized with three children and six grandchildren — but, on second and deeper thought, King feels a kinship to the character he now plays. "I think the thing I'm proudest of is, like Sam Goldwyn, I kept reinventing myself. I'd do my concerts or my nightclubs, I'd make a movie or produce a play or picture. I've got interests in quite a few things, so I wake up in the morning thinking I can't wait to get to work. There are few people who can say that."

—By Harry Haun