Perry King was born in Alliance, Ohio to a father who was a doctor. He was the fourth of five children and his family lineage can be traced back to that of Roger Sherman, a signer of The Declaration of Independence. His great-great-grandfather was Senator William Evarts, who also served as Secretary of State and Attorney General. King, however, though civically minded, has never considered a political career.
After receiving a degree in drama from Yale University and studying as well at Juilliard, King (whose full name is Perry Firestone King), won a featured role in the film Slaughterhouse-Five, based on the famous Kurt Vonnegut novel. (He narrowly beat out another future hunk Dirk Benedict for the part.)
Next up was a distinctly unusual role in The Possession of Joel Delaney. He played the title character, the younger brother of a (long-haired!) Shirley MacLaine who comes back from a trip to Tangiers and begins taking on the characteristics of a seedy Puerto Rican friend who hadn’t figured into his life previously.
MacLaine and he have a vaguely incestuous tinge to their onscreen sibling relationship and here, in his second film appearance, King displays frontal nudity obscured only by a mottled shower door. As his personality continues to be usurped by the evil spirit, MacLaine eventually has to confront him in a memorably perverse (and controversial) finale involving her and her two young kids. King’s character makes her young son strip naked at knifepoint!
King fondly recalls the help that his female costar extended to him when he was still very new to the aspects of filming a motion picture. She made it her business to help him because she knew he seriously wanted to learn.
After this film, he did a TV movie with Gwen Verdon called Deadly Visitor about a boarding house that is haunted, followed by guest appearances on the TV series Medical Center and Cannon. In 1974, he was back on the big screen in the low-budget sleeper hit The Lords of Flatbush. Here he received top-billing over costars Sylvester Stallone (who would soon breakout with Rocky) and Henry Winkler (who would parlay the leather-jacket persona into a family-friendly rendition on Happy Days.)
More a series of vignettes than a story with great dramatic thrust, the film was part of a wave of nostalgia-oriented movies kicked off by American Graffiti the previous year (just as Possession had been one of the films kick-started by Rosemary’s Baby.) King’s primary storyline dealt with him trying to upgrade from his current girlfriend to the new girl in town played by Susan Blakely. Neither of them (nor the bulk of their costars) were of a convincing age to play high schoolers, but that was not unusual at that time (or now in many cases!)
King continued to guest on episodic television, doing two episodes of Hawaii 5-O, before joining James Coco and Miss Raquel Welch in The Wild Party, the film adaptation of a risqué poem inspired by the career demise of silent film comedian Fatty Arbuckle. Portraying the sexual catalyst for an act of violence, King was well cast. The movie, however, suffered from a too-tame approach, a too-high percentage of anachronisms and a plastic, non-genuine performance from Welch.
As usual, King’s matinee-idol good looks (complete with strong profile) and trim physique helped make the whole thing more palatable. His character’s name was none-too-subtly named Dale Sword! Though we don’t get to see Perry’s sword, we do come close at one point. Welch looked good, too. She just wasn’t able to break loose and let her acting appear natural rather than highly artificial.
In 1975, King played in what was destined to be one of the all time great bad movies, Mandingo! There are hardly words to describe the tawdry, violent, relentlessly vulgar tone of this slavery-themed plantation drama. Perry plays the partially crippled son of a landowner (James Mason) who is urged augment his bedding down the female slaves and with taking a respectable wife and providing a legitimate heir. He winds up with Susan George, but their relationship is marred from the beginning. Eventually, circumstances lead to several cases of interracial lust (a fact that was not only not shied away from in the movie’s posters, but promoted as the key selling point.)
The title refers to a certain type of slave, a much sought after lineage from a particular African region, and one of them is portrayed here by boxer-turned-(almost)actor Ken Norton. Norton’s unbelievable build does exactly what it’s supposed to in the film, but his acting is nothing to shoot the cat over. King, who seemed at this stage of his career to always be shedding most of his clothes for the screen, goes full monty in an early scene with “bed warmer” Debbi Morgan (of All My Children fame!) It’s a gritty, bleak, sometimes savage movie, but contains many riotously (unintentionally) funny moments as well.
A sort of antidote to all the racial disharmony in Mandingo was King’s next project, a TV movie called Foster and Laurie, based on the true story of two police officers, one white and one black, who form a friendship after an uneasy beginning only to see their careers end tragically. Dorian Harewood portrayed the black cop and he and King established a solid rapport with one another. (Years later, they would attempt a series together, The Knife and Gun Club, but it didn’t sell.) Just look at Perry’s chiseled features in these publicity shots for Foster and Laurie. Beautiful man.
Perry continued his (unintentional?) trend of taking part in films that were reactive to prior hits of a similar nature. Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, in 1974, concerned a man’s revenge for the sexual assault (and, in one case, death) of his wife and daughter. 1976’s Lipstick brought the female perspective to the vengeance genre. Margaux and Mariel Hemingway played sisters sexually victimized by Chris Sarandon. King’s utterly thankless role was less substantial and it became yet another film treasured more for its badness than for any quality aspects. Around this time, he also auditioned for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars (!), but it was not to be.
Probably my first exposure to Perry King was in the 1976 TV miniseries Captains and the Kings. The main protagonist of this lengthy, all-star adaptation of a thick Taylor Caldwell novel (somewhat inspired by The Kennedy Family) was Richard Jordan, but King played his son. He was a handsome (duh!), burgeoning politician in love with Jane Seymour (in one of her earliest miniseries roles.) The white-hot beauty of this couple, in early 20th century costumes, had my jaw agape even as a nine year-old. The supporting cast (which didn’t carry quite the same weight for me then as it does now) is a wet dream including: Patty Duke, Ray Bolger, Henry Fonda, Blair Brown, Charles Durning, Celeste Holm, Barbara Parkins, Ann Sothern, Robert Vaughn, Beverly D’Angelo, Martin Kove and many others. It was one of those mammoth, multigenerational, early entries in the genre that eventually proved too costly to continue to produce.
After appearing in a TV project called The Hemingway Play (having, perhaps, taken an interest in Ernest Hemingway after working with his granddaughters Margaux and Mariel), Perry somehow wound up playing the “Joe Dallesandro part” in an Andy Warhol film! Bad, had King playing a studly drifter who goes to work for electrolysis technician and assassination organizer Carroll Baker! It’s safe to say that he was all over the map, taking roles of great variety in both TV and movie projects, something that may have hurt his ability to establish a reliable identity with audiences.
Next was another TV miniseries, though not as long a one as Captains was. He costarred with Sam Elliott in Aspen, the story of a man (King) wrongly convicted and sentenced to die for the rape and murder of a fifteen year-old girl as his attorney (Elliott) struggles to see justice done. Based on a novel, this was conceived as a possible series for Elliott, but it didn’t come to fruition. (I wish someone could tell me why TV Land doesn’t rerun some of these wonderful old TV movies and miniseries instead of the same old flotsam and jetsam they’ve been purveying for years now! We need a miniseries channel!)
In the feature film The Choirboys, King played one of many police officers shown wading through their duties in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on their often-salacious private lives. King played a cop with secret sexual hang-ups that included S&M. The movie was disowned by its source novelist Joseph Wambaugh, whose police-oriented works were made into many film projects before and after. Containing plenty of material that could be considered offensive, his reputation was done no favors through his involvement with it.
If The Choirboys harmed him at all, his next role would, according to him, do him even more damage career-wise. A Different Story was a then- controversial romance with the conceit of having a gay man (King) and a lesbian (Meg Foster) marry for a nonromantic reason and then fall in love and have a baby! Though King had a terrific, memorable time making the movie (and by his own admission cried when it was done filming), it was not a success at the box office and it was released at a time when playing gay onscreen could result in unwelcome stigma from both the public and from casting directors.
King had no qualms playing any of the required scenes, which, truth be told, are very tame anyway. He begins the film as a sort of boy toy to the decidedly un-sexy Peter Donat. At least this segment of the movie calls for him to trot around in skimpy shorts. There’s even a visit to a non-threatening bathhouse. Later, as he is heterosexualized, he is shown in far more conservative clothing, though there is the unmistakably Joe Dallesandro-esque shot of him holding his baby. (Those reading who are of a certain age will recall Joe’s famous portrait depicting himself nude with his infant child.)
In any event, the film is contrived and superficial, but has appealing stars, a good heart and offers a sensitive performance from Meg Foster and a funny one from Valerie Curtain as her neurotic friend. Even if the movie offended some gay folks in the audience, it was purportedly based on a true story!
Shaking off this role, he next had the lead in the little-known action film Search and Destroy, about a group of Vietnam veterans who are savagely tracked down one by one by a disgruntled former guide who was left for dead on a mission of theirs. Here, he was reteamed with Choirboys costar Don Stroud. Next, he played a concerned doctor in support of alcoholic Natalie Wood in one of her rare TV movies, The Cracker Factory. He then worked with Jennifer O’Neill in the Gone With the Wind knock-off Love’s Savage Fury (which had Debbi Morgan in the cast, again as a slave.)
A raft of TV projects kept King working steadily. He did the miniseries The Last Convertible, which featured a gaggle of hunks such as Edward Albert, Bruce Boxleitner and Michael Nouri. He supported David Janssen and others in the serial killer thriller City in Fear. He and Kate Jackson portrayed prison inmates who fall in love in the country’s first co-ed prison (yes, it was now 1981, when tackiness rose to all new levels) in Inmates: A Love Story. He then played the heir to a publishing empire in Golden Gate.
Finally, another feature film came his way, though it was quite a comedown from what he had been doing previously. Nevertheless, the film Class of 1984 became a cult favorite with a significant following. He played the new music teacher at a large school, which has been overrun by a sneering gang led by Timothy Van Patten. Principal Roddy McDowall has lost all control and eventually it’s up to King to bring the punks down. It’s a lurid, exploitive film, but it benefits from King’s presence and has many fans.
The Clairvoyant had Perry playing a journalist investigating a series of killings along with an artist who can see (and is able to draw!) the killings before they occur. Though these types of films were available to him, he clearly strove to take part in more meaningful fare, thus he took part in the filmed play The Hasty Heart (receiving a Golden Globe nomination) and the TV-made follow up to The Miracle Worker, Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues, playing Annie Sullivan’s husband-to-be.
Perry King’s first role on a regular series came in 1984’s Riptide. Costarring Joe Penny, this was a sort of Magnum P.I. divided by two, with Perry getting the mustache and Penny the hairy chest. He and Penny played private investigators working out of King’s boat, The Riptide, while also employing a speedboat and a helicopter in their adventures. Never meant to be anything but a fun, light show, it was a moderate success, though tampering with the formula (it briefly turned somewhat darker in tone) and the time slot eventually led to cancellation after two seasons. King enjoyed the show very much as well as working with his costars, but had a serious aversion to the eighteen hour days, vowing to only take on supporting roles in series television in the future.
From this point on, King’s film career was, for all intents and purposes, over. He did land a brief, but perfect for him, role in Blake Edwards’ Switch as a womanizing type A jerk who is killed only to have his spirit return in the body of Ellen Barkin. His contribution in the film didn’t last beyond the early scenes, but it couldn’t have been too tough on him to lollygag in a Jacuzzi with several scantily clad actresses! Aside from a couple of very minor, low budget films, it would be thirteen years before he did another feature, this time in a small role as The President of the United States in the massive CGI-infused disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow. We’ve rarely, if ever, had a President that good looking!
None of this is to say that King still wasn’t busy working all along. He has morphed into a sort of go-to guy for roles that call for a handsome silver daddy type. He first entered this realm when he played Herbert Pulitzer in Roxanne: The Prize Pulitzer, all about the scandalous divorce and messy custody battle of the publishing millionaire from his younger wife. In this instance, his hair was grayed with makeup, but eventually there would be no need for such efforts.
He’s played supportive husbands, jerky husbands, cowboys and corporate types. He’s just the type of actor who can effortlessly compliment whatever actress he’s paired with and help her look as good as possible through his own affability and charm, so he’s often called up on for female-oriented projects. In Stranded, he was paired with Loni Anderson as a couple of advertising execs washed up on a deserted island. In Their Second Chance, he and Lindsay Wagner played a couple who had conceived a child as youths, given it up for adoption and then were reunited years later by the daughter. There was Danielle Steel’s Kaleidoscope in which he reunited long lost sisters Jaclyn Smith, Claudia Christian and Patricia Kalember (there’s an odd gene pool!) She Led Two Lives had him sharing Connie Sellecca with A Martinez without each other’s knowledge (or John Tesh’s, one presumes!)
He also enjoyed a fourteen-episode stint on Melrose Place and worked in the first several episodes of Titans, a failed Aaron Spelling primetime soap that starred Victoria Principal. Then there was also his memorable appearance on Will & Grace as a man who may turn out to be Sean Hayes’ long lost father, but who he also finds inordinately attractive!
These days, he still acts (such as in a recent series of appearances on Big Love), but finds himself more inclined to pursue his hobbies of car racing and motorcycling. He has a grown daughter from his first thirteen-year marriage and a younger son with his present wife and takes great interest in both of them. Still in terrific shape and with the same sharp face, hopefully there is much more in store for this King of the screen.