Three Kings of Broadway

Having already given attention to another King Family of showfolk, we now undertake our third singing Dennis, after Dennis Day and Dennis Morgan: Dennis King (1897-1971), who, like Boris Karloff, was really named Pratt. He also shares a birthday with Walter Woolf King! None of which is significant, it just speaks to how many posts we’ve done, and perhaps how many performers of middling fame fall by the wayside; their names lose purchasing power when shared by others better remembered.

Dennis King’s movie footprint was quite small. Laurel and Hardy fans as the title character in Fra Diavolo a.k.a. The Devil’s Brother (1933). He also played Francois Villon in both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of The Vagabond King (1925 and 1930 respectively), the latter featuring Jeanette MacDonald, Lillian Roth, et al. Though he made few theatrical films, King was a major star of Broadway and the West End for decades, and did lots of television.

King was from England; he began his theatrical career at the Birmingham Repertory Company as a teenager. After World War One service, in which he was wounded in action, King returned to the London stage. His Broadway debut was in Claire de Lune (1921), an adaptation of The Man Who Laughs starring Ethel and John Barrymore. Over 40 more Broadway turns followed, including the American premiere of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (1922), the original Broadway production of Rose Marie (1925, in which he introduced the title song and the “Indian Love Call”), the Ziegfeld produced musical The Three Musketeers (1928), the 1932 revival of Show Boat, and the original stage adaptation of Billy Budd (1951) as well as Broadway productions of classics like Romeo and Juliet (1923), Antony and Cleopatra (1924), Peter Ibbetson (1931), A Doll’s House (1937), The Three Sisters (1942), He Who Gets Slapped (1946), Medea (1947), and The Devil’s Disciple (1950).

After nearly a decade, King returned to the big screen in the ensemble of the spooky wartime drama Between Two Worlds (1944). From 1948 through 1961 he did tons of television, especially live TV dramas like Philco Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90. He did TV versions of Dinner at Eight (1948), A Christmas Carol (1948), Knickerbocker Holiday (1950), Babes in Toyland (1950), The Devil’s Disciple (1955), Jack and the Beanstalk (1956), Twelfth Night (1957), Don Juan in Hell (1960), and the famous 1960 version of The Mikado with Groucho Marx. He also performed on variety programs like Your Show of Shows, The Milton Berle Show and All Star Revue. His last appearance was in Garson Kanin’s 1969 film Some Kind of a Nut with Dick Van Dyke.

We mentioned a King family, and this we come to his two sons. Dennis King Jr (1921-1986). Junior was on Broadway a half dozen times in the ’40s in revivals of The Playboy of the Western World (1946) and The Cradle Will Rock (1947) and other things, and has a couple of dozen screen credits, including supporting roles in Let’s Make Love (1960) and The Chapman Report (1962). His younger son, John Michael King (1926-2008) made the bigger noise, on Broadway at least. He created the role of Freddy in the original production of My Fair Lady (1956-1962) and was in the original production of Me and Juliet (1953) as well as appearing in revivals of Tobacco Road (1943), The Red Mill (1952), Of Thee I sing (1952), and The King and I (1977). He was also in the major TV mini-series Kennedy (1983) starring Ed Shea.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous