Walter Woolf King (1899-1984) will probably best known to readers of this blog as the singing villain of two Marx Brothers movies, A Night at the Opera (1935) and Go West (1940), and as a shady main character in Laurel and Hardy’s Swiss Miss (1938). King’s movie career was fairly modest, but factoring in live theatre and television, his time as a performer lasted about 60 years. In early years, he was sometimes billed as “Walter Woolf” or “Walter King”.
The son of a San Francisco saloon keeper, Walter Woolf King started out in singing in churches, eventually forming a vaudeville act with Charles LeMaire (brother of Rufus and George). His first Broadway show was a 1920 revival of Floradora. Over the next decade and a half he would appear in another 15 Broadway productions, including The Last Waltz (1921), The Lady in Ermine (1922-23), The Passing Show of 1923, Artists and Models (1925-26), and his last one, May Wine (1935-36).
As early as 1930 King had starred in the Warner Brothers musical Golden Dawn, but when it didn’t do well at the box office, he was let out of his contract. He returned to Hollywood in earnest in 1933 as a supporting player. The success of A Night at the Opera convinced him to place his chips entirely on films, though for the most part he was relegated to the roles of mustachioed villains in B movie mysteries and the like. Yanks Ahoy (1943) was his last film for quite some time. At this stage he began acting regularly in radio and then in television. He appeared on dozens of tv shows through the 1970s, including The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (7 episodes), The Virginian (10 episodes), The Big Valley, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Munsters, and many others. By these years, King was essentially a bit player. He still appeared in the occasional film, including such well known ones as Stars as Stripes Forever (1952), Call Me Madam (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), An Affair to Remember (1957), The Joker is Wild (1957), and Airport (1970). His last screen credit was in the tv movie One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story (1978). During his last couple of decades he filled time between bookings as an actor’s agent.
To learn more about show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.