The son of a successful tradesman, Thomas King was born on 20 August 1730 in the parish of St George, Hanover Square. His education was at Westminster School, after which he was apprenticed to a solicitor but was drawn to the stage. He became a strolling player, and, in October 1748, he was seen at Windsor by David Garrick and on the nineteenth appeared at Drury Lane as Allworth in “A New Way to Pay Old Debts”. More supporting roles followed, and in the summer of 1749 he acted leading characters at Bristol: Ranger in “The Suspicious Husband”, Benedick in “Much Ado about Nothing”, Romeo, and George Barnwell. Playing opposite him and encouraging his career was Hannah Pritchard, a powerful ally. After another season at Drury Lane acting secondary roles King returned to Bristol in the summer of 1750 and then joined Thomas Sheridan’s company at Smock Alley in Dublin. For four years he gained invaluable experience from the enlightened manager and developed a talent for delivering prologues and epilogues and playing a line of fops, clever servants, elegant gentlemen and eccentrics. In October 1759 King returned to Drury Lane as a major member of the company, and by the mid-1760s he was earning £8 weekly, near the top of the pay scale. He became Garrick’s close friend and indispensable cohort.
At Drury Lane over the years that followed Tom King was the initial and usually inimitable interpreter of dozens of characters in new plays, among them Lord Ogleby in “The Clandestine Marriage” (G0023, G0398) Sir Peter Teazle in “The School for Scandal” (G0003, G0402?), Belcour in “The West Indian” and Puff in “The Critic”. Among his parts in old plays were Pistol in “Henry IV part 2”, Scrub and Archer in “The Beaux’ Stratagem”, Tattle, Jeremy and Ben in “All for Love”, Osric in “Hamlet”, Kastril in “The Alchemist”, Rodrigo in “Othello”, Tom in “The Conscious Lovers”, Sparkish in “The Country Wife”, Touchstone in “As You Like It” (G0401, another of his particularly successful parts), Shylock in “The Tempest” (one of his failures), Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”, Bayes in “The Rehearsal” and Sir John Brute in “The Provok’d Wife”.
King was one of the most dependable, hardest working actors of his time and one of the most amiable. His home life was equally admirable: in the summer of 1766 he married the actress-dancer Mary Baker and lived happily ever after. His career regularly involved him in provincial appearances and he had, as well, skill in management (tested to the limit when he struggled to run Drury Lane with the capricious Richard Brinsley Sheridan as proprietor). Further, he was instrumental over the years in developing the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund for the assistance of retired and disabled players. His amiability and joie de vivre drew him to gambling, and despite his handsome income, his finances were touch and go over the years.
After 55 years on the stage, Thomas King retired in 1802 following a final benefit at which he acted Sir Peter Teazle one last time and said his farewell to his loyal Drury Lane patrons. Plagued for years by gout, King died on 11 December 1805. He was buried, appropriately, at the ‘actors’ church,’ St Paul, Covent Garden. Mary King joined him there in December 1813. In 1820 the critic William Hazlitt remembered seeing Tom King in performance in his late years: ‘there was King, whose acting left a taste on the palate, sharp and sweet like a quince; with an old, hard, withered face, like a John-apple, puckered up into a thousand wrinkles; with shrewd hints and tart replies.’ (BDA) [EAL]