Fire Island is well known as a getaway spot for actors. Yet only one, whose centennial we mark this year, could call it his birthplace: Brett King, a little-remembered but fine actor
born Bertell Wadsworth King, Jr., in Ocean Beach on Dec. 29, 1920.
King’s father, nicknamed Buzz, was a marine surveyor, sportsman and early aviator. After completing his education, the younger King studied acting at the American Theatre Wing before joining the Army Air Corps in World War II, where his service earned him a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Returning to civilian life, and changing his first name to the more macho-sounding “Brett,” King resumed his theatrical training before moving to Hollywood in 1949 to begin an extensive film and television career.
King appeared in only 13 films, all but one shot between 1949 and 1951, with the last – his only lead – in 1954. He then turned to television, the medium in which he’d appear continually until his retirement.
His movie work was mainly in supporting roles, in films ranging from major productions to B pictures, working variously at MGM, RKO, Columbia, Warner Bros. and low-budget Monogram. He appeared opposite major stars such as John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Bette Davis, Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor, among many others.
With his rugged yet darkly handsome looks he was most often cast in action pictures: crime dramas (“Side Street,” “State Penitentiary,” “The Racket”), a crime comedy (“According to Mrs. Hoyle”), and five war films (“Battleground,” “Operation Pacific,” “A Yank in Korea,” “Flying Leathernecks,” “Purple Heart Diary”).
He regularly bounced between heroic and villainous roles – Marine Air Corps Officer Robert Ryan’s loyal lieutenant in “Flying Leathernecks,” murderous racketeer Ryan’s equally murderous brother in “The Racket” – in all of which he was quite effective. His other films included a couple of comedies (“Father Makes Good,” “The Big Hangover”) and a superior soap (“Payment on Demand”).
Then there was his lone lead role, “Jesse James vs. the Daltons.” This was King’s only big-screen western, a curious fact as this was the genre that would become his bread-and-butter when, good movie roles failing to materialize, he turned permanently to TV after 1954. Never given his own show, King guest-starred steadily on nearly four dozen series through the late 60s, mainly westerns such as “The Roy Rogers Show,” “Lawman,” “Yancy Derringer,” “Death Valley Days,” “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” “Bat Masterson,” “Gunsmoke,” “Laramie,” “Wagon Train” and “The Virginian.”
Away from the saddle, he appeared on “Highway Patrol,” “The Millionaire,” “Dragnet,” “Rescue 8,” “Whirlybirds,” “Men Into Space” and the final two episodes of “The Green Hornet,” after which he left the business. In 1968, he and his wife, Sharon, developed the successful (and still operating) Coral Sands Hotel in Harbour Island, Bahamas. Brett King died of leukemia in Palm Beach on Jan. 14, 1998, at 77, leaving a legacy of family, service and success … and of bringing enjoyment to millions who never knew his name.
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