Remembering the King

Remembering the King | Donahue Ditches Nader

Remembering the King

One of the perks of this job is getting to know your heroes and having them turn out to be okay. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way, but that's another story.

I think the first time I set eyes on Alan King was at the bar at Bice on East 54th Street right after it opened. This was quite a few years ago. He was smoking his trademark cigar and was resplendent in a three-piece suit.

For several years after that I had the pleasure of talking to him. Of course I told him how much I admired him as an actor, a comic, a bon vivant. He was bigger than life, and he was real New York. It really hurt to hear he passed away yesterday at age 76.

When I was growing up in the sixties, King was a fixture on the old "Ed Sullivan Show." Along with Buddy Hackett, Norm Crosby, Shecky Greene, Jack Carter, Joan Rivers and Bill Cosby, King was one of the great comics of his generation.

Maybe he was even something more. His act was unhurried and his monologues had a hint of intimacy. He was a little less ribald than the others.

You had the feeling that there was an underlying wisdom. He was a mensch. Maybe that's why he got cast in movies so often as a rabbi. He was very convincing in the role. (And in many others, as well, including his terrific performance in Paul Mazursky's "Enemies: A Love Story." Rent it.)

In his later years, King became the abbot of the Friars Club, which seemed fitting. Milton Berle brought him into the Friars in the late forties, and he never left. The last time I recall him being at a Friars Roast was the night when Susie Essman zinged him from the stage at the Jerry Stiller roast.

"Alan King is here," she probably started. "He's old. His prostate is bigger than his ego."

King loved it. His eyes teared up from laughter the first time he heard it.

"She killed with that joke," he told me later. He said he was going to start using it himself.

He regretted not getting some of the younger generation, such as Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart, more involved with the organization.

"It's not as easy as it was," he told me. "Those guys are members, but young comics today — especially the ones in L.A. — they don't need a club. They have private trainers, private everything. But when Billy Crystal is in town he stops by and so does Robin Williams. We have luncheons once a month for young comedians where the old guys sit around and reminisce. And the young guys don't even check their watches."

In more recent years, Alan was involved with the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. I think the first year he was honored, then in subsequent years he inducted some of his pals, like Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar.

For the former, he vetoed showing the swells dining at the Pierre Hotel a videotape sent in by Rob Reiner. Apparently, there were many references to the size of genitalia.

"It was rough," King told me later, "too rough."

The foundation spoke to his essence, I think, because King — more than any other comedian of that generation — made being Jewish accessibly funny not only to Jews but to audiences of every religion.

He himself could tell the off-color joke, but there was always a sweetness to it. He cushioned the blow of a four-letter word or a rude reference. There was little rage in his stories, or outrage, and if there was he had a way of contextualizing it.

He was the torch bearer for ethnic humor wrapped in anecdote, not anger, which is what gave him longevity. He gave the audience respect.

With Alan King, you always felt good when you walked away from him. And that's why he will be so missed.

Donahue Ditches Nader; Bono Filibusters Tribeca

Everything became clearer Saturday night at the Tribeca Film Festival when a witless security guard wouldn't allow Jane Rosenthal backstage.

"I have the wrong pass on," she said, shrugging.

"Now you know how we felt in the press all week," I replied.

Jane, showing why she's in charge of Robert De Niro's film company and the founder of the festival, then took off her credentials and hung them around my neck. I felt like the Tin Man getting my award from the Wizard of Oz.

One of Jane's assistants said, in an exaggerated stage whisper, "Yesterday they wouldn't let her into Stuyvesant High School for a screening!"

All this was going on below the outdoor stage set up for the concert while Steve Winwood and his terrific band were ripping through hits like "Higher Love" and "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" in front of a huge audience.

This was not just downtown, but waaay downtown, past the World Trade Center site, below Bowling Green station, at the bottom tip of Manhattan facing the Statue of Liberty.

Winwood had been preceded by Macy Gray, Black Eyed Peas, a Japanese stand-up comic and some young poets discovered by famed TV producer Norman Lear.

"We're taking back this concert," said one Tribeca associate, furious that Winwood's show had gone on so long.

The Tribeca people were also upset that the demographic for the show was old — well, my age and theirs. Add main attraction Van Morrison to the mix and it wasn't exactly a show for the MTV generation.

"We never should have let American Express take over," said the associate. "They didn't even want anyone from 'Saturday Night Live.'"

Last year, Jimmy Fallon had proven to be a welcome part of the evening.

Of course, even after all of us managed to get onto the backstage rigging, even after Bono made a rambling 25-minute pitch for money for AIDS research in South Africa, even after yet another security guard tried to stop yours truly from shaking hands with artist/director Julian Schnabel, there was still talk of how Disney managed to kidnap last Saturday's opening night, and how Vanity Fair had made such a mess of its events earlier in the week.

Meantime, Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, David Duchovny, actor Javier Bardem and comedian Chris Tucker (Bono's guest) roamed around the VIP area.

The only photographer allowed near anyone of importance, the affable Kevin Mazur, did what he could to capture the moments. Until the last possible second, Van Morrison, for example, did not want to talk to anyone. Yet another security guard (is Sing Sing empty or what?) protected him from having a conversation prematurely.

But then Bono was finished, and there was almost a problem: Winwood, readjusting after his exciting set, watched Bono streak past him in the wings.

"I was told Bono wanted to speak to me," he said, "but I guess not that much."

No sooner had he said it, Bono — who must have ESP — zoomed back across the area he'd just crossed and clasped Winwood.

"Seeing you up there was amazing," he told him. "But I was a little nervous making that speech. You know, we're raising cash for Africa."

This was about the time De Niro took the stage. He'd been accompanied all night by the mother of one of his children, Grace Hightower, a lovely, poised woman who may also be his wife. (This is unclear, as they've reportedly filed for divorce.)

While he spoke, veteran concert promoter Ron Delsener prowled the wings of the stage in a bright, almost robin's egg-blue full-length winter coat that covered the same color sport jacket.

Rock writer Lisa Robinson — black bangs, black pants suit — Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and his boyfriend Matt Nye were like a Greek chorus from a Fleetwood Mac album, shaking hands with all the performers, chatting them up, taking pictures. You kind of forgot why we were there in the first place.

Then Van Morrison took the stage, wearing a black cashmere coat and a black fedora. It was cold out and it was windy. Van, who can sometimes be fuzzy on stage, was sharp as a tack. His set was crisp and professional. He even played sax on "Into the Mystic," sang Sinatra's "That's Life" with bravado and knocked out a beautiful rendering of his first hit, "Gloria" — all the while watching a digital clock on stage that counted down his contracted hour to the second.

When he went a few bars over, one of his staff said, "You can't believe how hard it was to get him to do this show." But by then, Van Morrison, with the voice of an Irish angel, was already in his car and buzzing out the gates, indeed into the mystic.

Oh yes, any news? Here are two tidbits:

Macy Gray has left Epic Records after three albums, the last of which Epic simply abandoned rather than promote or sell to the public. They were better-kept secrets than American soldiers' behavior in Iraq. Macy tells me she's signed with V2 Records, and will have a new album out in February 2005.

Phil Donahue is not supporting Ralph Nader this time around. He's behind John Kerry, although he didn't sound too convincing.

"Did you hear John Kerry say on TV that maybe there are weapons of mass destruction? Did you hear him? He might as well be helping Bush!"

Marlo Thomas looked great, by the way, but we had to explain to my friends' 13-year-old son who she and Donahue were, and that was a bit upsetting.

Who was Marlo, anyway?

"Jennifer Aniston, forty years ago," we explained.