February 21st, 1895 — May 7th, 1957
Short, stocky, and mustachioed, with a poker face and a Texas drawl, Charles King spent over twenty years playing villains in B-westerns and chapterplays. Although he played his share of brains heavies, King is best-remembered by serial and western buffs as a henchman. Whether he was the leading action heavy or a lesser member of the villain pack, King was always distinctive; his droopily deadpan face, confident manner, and wryly jovial voice made his henchmen seem almost admirable; they approached villainy in an uncomplaining and matter-of-fact humorous way, treating it rather like a nine-to-five job. Though usually competent at evildoing, King’s bad guys were never hissable like the vicious characters played by Kenne Duncan, Harry Cording, and others; in fact, most matinee audiences found King rather lovable in spite of himself. Fans and buffs today tend to recall him by the affectionate nickname of “Blackie,” a non-de-plume that nicely suits the combination of roguishness and likability he brought to his roles.
Charles King was born in Hillsboro, Texas. According to his Internet Movie Database biography, which may or may not be accurate, he began working in movies while still a child, although there’s no documentation of these early screen appearances. The Old Corral reproduces a census record that lists King as serving in “WWII;” this has to be a misprint for “WWI,” since King worked steadily throughout World War 2 and was far too old for service by that time anyway. In any case, he first began recorded film work around 1920, after finishing his presumed World War 1 service. The early twenties found him working as a supporting player—typically taking non-villainous juvenile roles—in silent Westerns (Singing River), society dramas (The Price of Youth), and comedies (The Black Bag). Beginning in 1925, with the short Paging a Wife, King would spend most of the second half of the 1920s working in Century Film Studios’ comedy shorts, co-starring in their “Mike and Ike” series as well as taking additional starring and supporting parts in their other shorts. During this time, he managed a few appearances at other studios—in comedy shorts at Universal and Hal Roach, and in silent Westerns and crime pictures (Range Courage, You Can’t Beat the Law) for Universal, Trem Carr Productions, and others; in these latter pictures, he started playing the heavies that he would specialize in during the sound era.
King’s comedy career more or less ceased entirely with the coming of sound, perhaps because producers felt that his distinctively Texan voice was best suited to Westerns. He quickly embarked on a new career as a sagebrush heavy, opposing Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, Bob Steele, and other cowboy heroes in multiple early 1930s B-westerns for studios like Tiffany and Sol Lesser Productions. He made his first serial for independent producer Harry Webb’s distribution company “Syndicate” in 1931– a very low-budget cliffhanger called The Mystery Trooper. In this tale of the struggle for a lost Northwestern mine, King played an outlaw named Mack, the right-hand man of lead villain Al Ferguson. King’s down-to-earth performance was one of the better ones in this creaky but reasonably entertaining chapterplay; his role was also one of his larger and meatier 1930s serial parts, a part that allowed him to be both intimidatingly mean (especially when trying to bully the secret of the mine out of various characters) and entertainingly crafty (particularly when pretending to be reformed and repentant after hero Robert Frazer saved his life–all as part of an ungrateful plan to trap his rescuer).
King spent the rest of the 1930s working almost exclusively in B-westerns; during the first half of the decade, he worked chiefly for Tiffany, Monogram, and other small studios; by the mid-1930s he was appearing frequently in cowboy films for bigger outfits like Columbia and Universal, while still turning in work at newer small studios like Victory, Supreme, and the fledgling Republic Pictures. He played a few bits in non-western shorts and features during this time, as well as appearing in multiple serials. King’s second cliffhanger was Mascot’s The Hurricane Express in 1932; as Mike, one of a gang of railway saboteurs, he obeyed the orders of a criminal called the Wrecker and tangled repeatedly with John Wayne as the son of a slain engineer. King’s part here was typical of most of his 1930s chapterplay roles; he was a noticeable presence throughout, but strictly a background member of the henchman cadre.
King didn’t make another serial until Universal’s 1935 release, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (Universal, 1935); as one of the soldiers of villainous Latin-American rebel leader Herbert Heywood, he appeared sporadically at Heywood’s headquarters, mostly stayed in the background, and wasn’t given a character name. He returned to playing named henchmen again in the serials The Miracle Rider, The Roaring West, and Adventures of Rex and Rinty (all 1935 releases—the second one being a Universal chapterplay and the other two Mascot outings). In Miracle Rider he was Hatton, one of a gang of modern-day outlaws battling Texas Ranger Tom Mix; he enjoyed plenty of screen time, got to carry off a jail-break on his own, inadvertently spilled some important information to a rival villain, and finally set up an attempted double-cross of his boss that wound up getting King arrested and taken out of action. King had fewer individual moments of this kind in Roaring West; as an owlhoot named Tex, he served largely as chief backup-man for aggressive rustler boss Walter Miller, his laid-back manner providing an interesting contrast with Miller’s intensity. His role of a henchman-pack member named Martin in Rex and Rinty was smaller than either his Rider or Roaring parts; he participated in most of the serial’s action, but only received a minimum of dialogue.
Above: Tom London and Charles King think they’ve made a motorcyle getaway from Tom Mix in The Miracle Rider (Mascot, 1935).
Above: A fight between Charles King, Kane Richmond (center) and Edmund Cobb is interrupted by an (off-camera) barn fire in The Adventures of Rex and Rinty (Mascot, 1935).
King played a rather offbeat henchman in his first 1936 serial, Victory Productions’ Shadow of Chinatown. This low-budget and slow-moving serial possessed some surprisingly interesting facets–among them King’s character, Grogan, who began the serial as an obedient henchman to deranged criminal Bela Lugosi, but who chafed under Lugosi’s haughtily dictatorial demeanor, and was inspired to revolt against his leader after receiving some warm sympathy from Lugosi’s reluctant female associate Luana Walters; Lugosi was finally forced to hypnotize King to stop him from working against him. As a result of this hypnotism, King spent most of the serial’s second half walking around in a bug-eyed stupor, occasionally breaking into a maniacal laugh; however, during the serial’s first half, he got to show a greater range of emotions than in many of his other chapterplay roles–bitterly snapping back at Lugosi’s sarcastic remarks, displaying fervent romantic interest in Walters’ character, and reacting with convincing wrath when he realized she was merely manipulating his emotions as part of her own attempt to eliminate the uncontrollable Lugosi.
The Phantom Rider (Universal, 1936) gave King the role of co-action heavy; as an owlhoot named Keeler, he followed the orders of lead villain Harry Woods and served as a shrewd and laid-back counterpoint to his grumpy and hot-headed partner in henching, James Mason (not the British actor. The Painted Stallion (1937), King’s next cliffhanger and his first serial for Republic Pictures, featured him as a lower-ranking henchman, an outlaw named Bull Smith–who was assigned a fair share of dialogue and henching duties in the earlier episodes of the serial, but who receded into the background in the later chapters and became basically a non-speaking backup thug.
Above: Charles King holds a gun on the white-coated Buck Jones in The Phantom Rider (Universal, 1936). That’s Harry Woods with his back to the camera, Jim Corey between Jones and King, and James Mason between Jones and Woods.
Flaming Frontiers (Universal, 1938), gave King a relatively small role as “Blackie,” one of the henchmen serving the villainous Charles Middleton in his struggle against both hero John Mack Brown and rival villain James Blaine. As a faction follower in a serial full of striving factions, King had comparatively little to do, but he did fight Brown hand-to-hand in one chapter and had an amusing dialogue scene in another, placidly playing solitaire while good-naturedly trying to convince jittery cohort Charles Stevens to relax.
The Lone Ranger (Republic, 1938) featured King as Morley, one of the bullying troopers enlisted under crooked administrator Stanley Andrews; he was strictly a background pack member in this outing, though noticeable enough. In his next serial, the science-fiction cliffhanger The Phantom Creeps (Universal, 1939), King had only a one-chapter bit, popping up briefly as a police officer who gave temporarily stranded hero Robert Kent a lift to town.
The Oregon Trail (Universal, 1939), cast King as an outlaw pack member named Dirk, assisting James Blaine, Charles Stevens, and Jack C. Smith in wagon-train sabotage. Zorro’s Fighting Legion (Republic, 1939), again featured King as a henchman pack member–Valdez, one of a gang of Mexican outlaws supporting the rebellious Yaqui Indians and their walking “god,” the mysterious Don Del Oro. King (like the rest of the cast) wisely didn’t attempt an accent, and showed better sword-fighting skills than some of his co-henchmen in their many tussles with Zorro (Reed Hadley).
Above: Seated left to right are Jack C. Smith and James Blaine. Standing left to right are Charles Stevens, Colin Kenny, Charles King, and Forrest Taylor in this still from The Oregon Trail (Universal, 1939).
The beginning of the 1940s found King still working as a B-western heavy for multiple studios; as the decade progressed, he would keep appearing in the films of Republic, Columbia, Universal, and others, but would work most frequently at Monogram and—especially—Producers’ Releasing Corporation (PRC). At Monogram, he was generally the action heavy, getting beaten up by Bob Steele or Buck Jones on a regular basis, but at PRC he played a wider range of parts, working as henchmen, suit-wearing brains heavies, and occasional sidekicks in innumerable B-westerns starring Steele, Buster Crabbe, Lash LaRue, and Eddie Dean right up until the end of the forties.
Of course, he continued his serial career during this period as well. King’s first 1940s cliffhanger was The Shadow (Columbia, 1940), which cast him as a gangster named Russell, one of the minions of the cranky mystery criminal the Black Tiger. The Shadow’s director was James W. Horne, who had helmed many great comedies during the 1920s and 1930s, and who preferred to play his serials for laughs, undermining their value as action films but definitely creating some memorably funny sequences in the process. King, with his silent comedy background, was a perfect “villain” for Horne’s serials, and would become a regular member of the director’s stock company, confining his serial work exclusively to Horne outings for the next two years. That said, The Shadow–Horne’s first solo-directed sound serial–was a less comedic than most of his subsequent chapterplays; King largely played his part in it straight, only engaging in a little bit of comic grumbling and in one slapstick pratfall (after being clobbered by cohorts who mistook him for their nemesis, the Shadow).
King was much more of an overtly comic stumblebum–a henchman named Blackie–in Horne’s next serial, Terry and the Pirates (Columbia, 1940), while in Deadwood Dick (also Columbia, 1940), the most non-comic of Horne’s serials, he played things relatively straight as a background henchman named Tex. King was back to clowning in The Green Archer (Columbia, 1940) as Cardoni, one of the jumpy and irritable henchman of the hysterical crime boss Abel Bellamy (James Craven); he fell out with Craven a third of the way through and was gunned down by other henchmen after an angry confrontation with his boss. White Eagle (Columbia, 1941), also featured King as one of Craven’s leading minions, an outlaw named Brace. In this chapterplay, Craven was quite as high-strung as in Archer, but King was much less bumbling; as in The Shadow and Deadwood Dick, he played his part in basically serious fashion.
The Iron Claw (Columbia, 1941), the most purely comic of Horne’s serials, cast King as an independent villain instead of a henchman, a gangster named Silk Landon who led one of several villainous factions vying for a cache of gold. King played his part with a perfectly straight face, issuing orders to his followers with calm confidence—but those followers’ perpetual mistakes and the continual fallibility of King’s plots made his deadpan unflappability very amusing, and somewhat reminiscent of Wile. E. Coyote’s approach to evildoing.
King’s last Horne serial was Perils of the Royal Mounted (Columbia, 1942), in which he played a henchman named Curly and engaged in a series of comedic bits worthy of his Stooge namesake–proclaiming “I done it all by myself” and collapsing on his face after temporarily besting the hero in a fistfight, doing an amusing double-take when realizing he’d forgotten his hat during a jailbreak, and otherwise behaving in an incongruous but very funny fashion.
Above: Charles King comically winces as John Elliott pulls a bullet out of him in Perils of the Royal Mounted (Columbia, 1942). Robert Kellard and Nell O’Day are at left, Karl Hackett in the background.
Horne died in 1942, and either coincidentally or resultingly, King’s chapterplay work temporarily ceased for about two years. Although he remained very busy in Monogram and PRC B-westerns during this time, taking occasional parts at Columbia and Republic as well, he didn’t make another serial till 1944, when he played a small recurring role as a bellicose townsman in Columbia’s Western cliffhanger Black Arrow; his character wasn’t knowingly villainous, but was always being manipulated into harassing the hero by slick villain Kenneth MacDonald. His next Columbia serial, The Monster and the Ape (Columbia, 1945) also had him obeying MacDonald’s orders, but both men were on the side of the law here, with MacDonald a police inspector and King a police officer who periodically helped hero Robert Lowery in his attempts to track down mad scientist George Macready and his killer ape. Sandwiched in between these two Columbia appearances was another policeman role–a one-scene bit–in Universal’s wartime spy serial The Master Key (1945).
King followed Monster and the Ape with a string of parts in the early serials of Columbia’s new chapterplay producer Sam Katzman; though these outings were a somewhat lackluster lot, three of them gave King some of the meatiest and most offbeat roles of his serial career, allowing him to play prominent non-henchman characters. Jungle Raiders, the first and probably the best of King’s Katzman outings, cast him as the principal brains heavy, a sloppy but very duplicitous jungle trading post owner named Jake Rayne who was determined to get his hands on the treasure of the lost “Arzec” tribe. As Rayne, King would repeatedly adopt a convincing hail-fellow-well-met manner with the heroes, express sympathetic concern for the heroine, and then descend to a secret basement to determinedly torture the heroine’s imprisoned father for the location of the Arzec valley. Even when his treachery was revealed to the good guys, he tried to keep up his façade of honesty, unblushingly attempting to play on the heroes’ sympathies through tearful protestations of innocence. The character was reminiscent of the serial heavies Noah Beery Sr. had played in the 1930s, and King gave the role just as much gusto as Beery would have in his prime.
Hop Harrigan (Columbia, 1946) featured King as an ostensible chauffeur who quickly proved to be one of the henchmen of a spy called the Chief Pilot. His character (Arlen by name) was fairly prominent throughout this remarkably dull serial; he frequently got to take the lead when he and his fellow-thugs engaged in skirmishes with hero Harrigan (William Bakewell) or the eccentric scientist Dr. Tobor (John Merton). King also was given the change to toss off a few wryly deadpan wisecracks at the expense of his colleagues and Harrigan’s dopey sidekick Tank (Sumner Getchell).
Above: Charles King correctly suggests that young Buzz Henry is leading him and his associates on an airborne wild-goose chase, but Peter Michael is unsuspicious in Hop Harrigan (Columbia, 1946). Terry Frost is hidden behind Michael.
King’s next Columbia chapterplay, the plodding Chick Carter, Detective (also 1946), featured him as a high-rolling nightclub owner named Joe Carney, King set the serial’s plot in motion by engineering a fake heist of his valuable Blue Diamond for insurance-fraud purposes, hoping to get money to pay off a debt to gangster George Meeker. The diamond went missing for real, however, and King quickly found himself in over his head when the subsequent investigation of the theft led to the murder of an insurance detective by Meeker’s henchman Leonard Penn–forcing King to spend the rest of the chapterplay trying to keep his own tracks covered, as police detective Lyle Talbot searched for the killer. Though officially a crook, King’s harried Carney came off as rather likable overall; the character never attempted to injure anybody, and doggedly tried to maintain a genial and dignified façade in the face of harassment from crooks and police–when not lamenting his dangerous situation in amusingly flustered fashion.
Son of the Guardsman (Columbia, 1946), an attempt at a medieval swashbuckler in serial form, featured King as Sir Edgar Bullard, a treacherous English robber baron whose nephew Robert Shaw (not the British actor) turned against his tyranny and joined a band of Robin-Hood-like outlaws to combat him. Although he was outranked by an evil Duke (John Merton) and an unseen Regent, and frequently deferred to the suggestions of his more astute secretary (Leonard Penn), King’s Sir Edgar served as the most prominent heavy in the chapterplay, double-crossing opponents and rivals as it suited his interests and combining poker-faced ruthlessness with joviality and (as his schemes started to backfire) harried perplexity. His colorful performance was one of the high points of an otherwise mediocre cliffhanger.
In 1947, King returned to Republic’s serials for the first time since 1939, playing henchman roles in Son of Zorro and Jesse James Rides Again. He appeared occasionally throughout Zorro as an badman called Dow, while in Jesse James he had a one-chapter bit as an outlaw named Trent and contributed a bit of humor with his unscripted reaction to a mouthful of overheated beans at the henchmen’s cookfire.
King was back at Columbia for Brick Bradford, Tex Granger, and Superman (all 1948); in the first, he was Creed, one of the followers of evil scientist Charles Quigley, in the second, he was Flint, one of town boss I. Stanford Jolley’s men, and in the third he was Conrad, an agent of the sinister Spider Lady. In Bradford, he was a prominent pack member and participated in much of the serial’s evildoing, calmly and gravely battling both hero Kane Richmond and trouble-making secondary villain Leonard Penn. In Granger he was a pack member as well, but a somewhat less prominent one, being frequently forced into the background by a large collection of higher-ranking heavies; however, he was spotlighted in the final chapter–in which he doggedly (but ineptly) stood guard on several of the good guys, genially laughed off the indignant reproaches of a frontier matron, got knocked on the head with a bottle by said matron during the climactic gun battle, and performed an amusing comic fall-down. In Superman he was again a fairly prominent member of the henchman squad—and had one very entertaining moment when dealing with a scientist who tried to delay King’s purchase of top-secret material by getting him to sign a release form. King’s growled response of “I’m not signing anything!” and his subsequent slugging of the scientist may have been thuggish, but it also provided a vicarious thrill for victims of bureaucratic procedure everywhere.
Congo Bill (Columbia, 1948), cast King as Kleeg, the reprehensible but amusing proprietor of a jungle dive called The Green Parrot. Kleeg was even seedier than King’s similar Jake Rayne in Jungle Raiders, but much less vicious; he spent the serial genially assisting or blithely betraying nearly all the other characters–jungle guide Don McGuire, gold smuggler Leonard Penn, crooked businessman I. Stanford Jolley, and white jungle queen Cleo Moore–and attempting to cash in on their various activities. King played this greedy, shifty, and grubbily genteel rascal with great comic flair, and more or less stole the serial in the process; his unctuous proclamations of his absolute honesty and his long-winded salutations to his various visitors were particularly funny.
Bruce Gentry (Columbia, 1949) gave King his last henchman pack member role; as a thug named Ivor, he got in on most of the action and had a fairly large share of dialogue, although both Jack Ingram and Terry Frost outranked him on the chain of command. The same year’s Ghost of Zorro, King’s final Republic serial, featured him in a one-episode bit as a henchman by the name of Joe.
King’s last big serial role came in Columbia’s 1949 chapterplay, The Adventures of Sir Galahad. Shaving his moustache and donning a wig, he took on the atypically sympathetic role of Sir Bors, a roguish, bumbling, but courageous Knight of the Round Table. Bors served as a trusty assistant to Galahad (George Reeves) in his quest to recover the stolen Excalibur for King Arthur, helping the young aspiring knight battle Saxons, a gang of renegades led by the Black Knight, and the magic of Morgan le Fay and Merlin. Sir Galahad was uneven, but much more energetic than Columbia’s earlier medieval serial Son of the Guardsman; King’s delightful performance in his rather Falstaffian sidekick part was one of its best features. Though his character flirted with serving wenches, frequently grumbled about being hungry, and performed many other comic acts, he also wisely advised and loyally supported the continually-misjudged Galahad throughout, and swaggered into battle against the villains with an appealing joviality; King handled both comedy and heroics with highly enjoyable gusto.
King made a nice one-chapter cameo appearance the following year in Columbia’s Atom Man vs. Superman, popping up as a wily thug who attempted to blackmail Lois Lane (Noel Neill), was bargained with by Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn), and then surprised and subdued by Kent in his Superman guise. By now, King’s chief employers PRC had ceased B-western production, and other studios were winding down their production of matinee output as well; the aging actor only made occasional screen appearances during the 1950s–among them his final chapterplay turn, a bit as a pirate in the 1953 Columbia serial Adventures of Captain Kidd; though his role here was only a brief background one, he was given a chance to display a bit of duplicity (sabotaging his captain’s victualing attempts as part of a mutiny scheme) and rowdiness (leading a buccaneer charge against hostile natives). With film work now scarce, King supported himself with his actors’ union pension and a job as a security guard at the Menasco Steel Company in the San Fernando Valley; he was still employed at the factory when he passed away in Hollywood in 1957.
No sound-era B-western heavy, not even Roy Barcroft or Harry Woods, is as beloved by as many fans and buff as Charles King is to this day. Serial aficionados hold him in similar esteem, despite the indifferent production values of many of his serials and the relative smallness of many of his roles. This most picturesque of hardworking screen rascals was always a welcome sight to matinee audiences, even in a walk-on, and was impossible to really dislike even in the nastiest of roles. Such likability sounds like a handicap for a screen heavy, but it never interfered with King’s effectiveness as a villain–and it has helped to keep “Blackie’s” popularity alive among fans for more than fifty years.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to the Old Corral’s Charles King page for biographical information, particularly Jim Martin’s account of King’s last years.