By Robert Simonson
07 Jan 2013
Mr. King, who was born in Texas, and worked for a number of newspapers in that state, was a leading light of the "New Journalism" movement of the 1960s and early '70s. His personal essays and investigative pieces frequently appeared in the pages of Harper's Magazine. His most fruitful article, however, was published by Playboy in 1974. It was about the Chicken Ranch, a notorious, and highly profitable brothel that operated for decades in La Grange, TX. Though illegal, the cathouse was tolerated by local officials, who often used the whorehouse as a way to glean information that led to criminal arrests.
After Mr. King's article was published, he and and fellow Texan Peter Masterson developed it into the book of the Broadway musical, for which Carol Hall wrote the score. The show, directed by Tommy Tune, opened on June 19, 1978, and ran for 1,584 performances. It was nominated for several Tony Awards—including a nod for Mr. King—winning two, and was later turned into a movie starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.
Mr. King also wrote the book for the failed 1994 sequel, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public.
He additionally wrote a few other plays. The most significant of these was The Night Hank Williams Died, a melancholy drama set in a rural honky-tonk in 1952. Produced by WPA Theatre in 1989, it was a critical hit, and later transferred to the Orpheum Theatre for a brief commercial run. The play "captures the spirit of Hank Williams's homely poetry while adding a generous helping of Mr. King's Texas geniality and humor," wrote Mel Gussow in the New York Times. "The play is itself a plaintive country-western song. All that is missing from the landscape is the lonesome whistle of a train."
The Kingfish, a one-man play about Louisiana demagogue Huey P. Long, was mounted at the John Houseman Theatre in 1991.
Occasionally, Mr. King—who was known for his outsized personality and storytelling skills—acted in his own plays, portraying the Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd in Whorehouse, and Gus the bartender in Hank Williams.
Of Mr. King's books, the confessional and controversial “Confessions of a White Racist” (1971) was the most famous. It was nominated for a National Book Award.