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Larry L. King dies at 83; playwright wrote 'Best Little Whorehouse in Texas'

King wrote a 1974 Playboy piece about the demise of the Chicken Ranch brothel. It was turned into a Broadway hit and later was made into a movie starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.

December 22, 2012|From Times Staff and Wire Reports
  • Playwright Larry L. King was so certain the play "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" would fail that he kept a journal in the hope that “he could whip up its obit notice into a funny magazine piece,” The Times reported in 1980.
Playwright Larry L. King was so certain the play "The Best Little Whorehouse… (Jeffrey Richards )

Larry L. King, a writer and playwright whose magazine article about a campaign to close down a popular bordello became the hit Broadway musical "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and a 1982 movie starring Burt Reynolds, died Thursday. He was 83.

King, who had emphysema, died at a retirement home in Washington, D.C., where he had lived for six months, said his wife, Barbara Blaine.

He wrote his most famous piece, about the demise of the Chicken Ranch brothel in Texas, in 1974 for Playboy magazine. When Peter Masterson, an actor from Texas, came across the article in his Broadway dressing room, he proposed making a musical out of it and persuaded another Texan to get involved, composer Carol Hall.

King was so certain the play would fail that he kept a journal in the hope that "he could whip up its obit notice into a funny magazine piece," The Times reported in 1980.

Instead the Tommy Tune-directed production became a smash hit after opening on Broadway in 1978, running until 1982. Touring productions were staged around the world.

When asked what made the bawdy musical comedy a success, King had cited the "subject matter and a million-dollar title" — and Tune's choreography.

The film version starring Reynolds and Dolly Parton was less than a hit with critics, including King, who thought Hollywood had ruined the story and turned it into a sex romp.

A sequel to the play, "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public," by the same creative team flopped on Broadway in 1994.

He wrote in a good ol' boy Southern vernacular, producing 14 books and hundreds of magazine articles.

"Writing looks much easier than trapeze work, I know, until you sit before a typewriter long enough to realize it won't speak back unless spoken to," King wrote in his 1986 book about writing, "None But a Blockhead."

His 1971 memoir, "Confessions of a White Racist" — he called it "a gratuitous admission of guilt on behalf of all white racists past and present, malignant and benign" — was a finalist for a National Book Award.

"King's strengths are his energy and wit and his integrity not to compromise the fundamentals," the writer Norman Mailer once said. "He rings an American bell."

He was born Jan. 1, 1929, in Putnam, Texas, to farmer and blacksmith Clyde King and his wife, Cora Lee.

After serving as a writer in the Army Signal Corps from 1946 to 1948, King briefly attended what is now Texas Tech University.

In 1954 he arrived in Washington, D.C., as a West Texas journalist to work for a congressman from El Paso. He spent a decade as a political aide, an experience that led to "Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator," a 1978 best-seller that he co-wrote.

President Kennedy's assassination caused King to reevaluate his life, he once said. He quit politics and headed to New York, where he taught, wrote books and freelanced for magazines.

King once battled alcoholism but stopped drinking decades ago. A life of sobriety, he had said, gave him more time to write.

His marriage to his first wife, Jeanne, ended in divorce. His second wife, Rosemarie, died in 1972. In 1978, he married Blaine, who survives him, as do three children from his first marriage. He also had two children from his second marriage.

news.obits@latimes.com

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