Behind the slogan "Make it in Massachusetts," King mounted a successful pro-business challenge to incumbent Dukakis, winning a bitter campaign by more than 100,000 votes in the 1978 Democratic primary.
"We were competitors, we were rivals, but he was someone who worked at his job very, very hard," said Dukakis. "He wasn't interested in going to Mexico or Canada. He worked at his job and I always admired him for that."
King beat Republican Francis W. Hatch in the general election, then as governor, froze property taxes, reduced state spending on social programs, and undertook a variety of efforts to encourage business and agriculture.
King also took a tough stance on crime, introducing mandatory minimum sentences and almost succeeding in bringing the death penalty back to Massachusetts.
In 1982, voters approved a constitutional amendment to restore the death penalty, and King signed capital punishment into law before leaving office that December. But two years later, the state's highest court ruled part of the law unconstitutional.
His stand on capital punishment prompted President Reagan to call King his "favorite Democratic governor."
Reagan's comment played a part in mobilizing more liberal Democrats to defeat King at the party's 1982 convention, where he lost to Dukakis, who went on to win his second term as governor. He later ran unsuccessfully for president against George H.W. Bush.
King and Dukakis disagreed on the death penalty, but shared a commitment to urban renewal.
"He was very committed to the state's cities and towns," Dukakis said. "A lot of the programs I started in my first term, he continued, so when I came back we never missed a beat.
"Don't forget that in the mid-70s they were calling (Massachusetts) the new Appalachia. Getting the state back on its feet was a huge priority for both us," he said.
During his first visit to the Statehouse in nearly eight years in 1990 at the official unveiling of his portrait, King continued to torment Dukakis, calling him "arrogant" and "incompetent" and his second term "disastrous."
King's administration was also rife with charges of corruption, cronyism and incompetence. High-level appointees resigned for falsifying academic credentials and for being tied to organized crime, while lower-level appointments went to relatives and others with strong personal ties to King.
Raymond Flynn, former Boston mayor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said King was the last "pro-life" Democratic governor. He was in office during Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Boston.
"His Catholic values helped make him one of the best public officials in our state's history," Flynn said.
King, a longtime Winthrop resident, switched to the GOP in 1985, saying that the Democratic Party was controlled by liberals. "The truth is simply that the Democratic Party has ceased to be the party of the sensible center and has become a party dominated by professional liberals," he said at the time.
King's values resonated with Democratic Party moderates, a demographic that President Reagan rode to the White House, said Thomas P. O'Neill III, King's lieutenant governor. "What people should remember about him is that he really predated Reagan in tapping into the conservative movement long before anyone else," O'Neill said. Had he brought his message nationally, he may have won higher office, O'Neill said.
Republican Gov. Mitt Romney said King never compromised his values. "Gov. King served with distinction and dignity," Romney said in a statement.
"He had a stiff spine, probably forged during those years he spent playing professional football, but he was absolutely unwavering in support of his positions. He changed parties, but never principles," Romney said.
King considered running for governor as a Republican in 1985, but explained his decision not to run by saying his wife, while supporting his candidacy, would miss spending winters in Florida.
King sued The Boston Globe in 1982, claiming the newspaper libeled him in three editorial cartoons, an editorial and three political columns. A jury ruled against King in 1988.
King was born in Chelsea and graduated from Boston College with a degree in business. He played three seasons of professional football as a lineman for the Buffalo Bills of the All-American Football Conference and the NFL's Baltimore Colts before joining the accounting firm Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery in Boston where he worked from 1953 to 1956.
His three years in professional sports helped him develop a lifetime of staying in top physical shape.
King became assistant director and comptroller of the Museum of Science in Boston in 1956, then worked for the Massachusetts Port Authority starting in 1959 until 1974, first as comptroller, then as secretary/treasurer, and finally as executive director, when he oversaw the expansion of Logan International Airport.
From 1975 to 1977, King was president of the New England Council, a nonprofit alliance of business and social leaders focused on regional economic growth.
After leaving political office, King joined the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton then was involved in real estate development. Although he became an official Florida resident in 1990, he re-entered Massachusetts public service in 1996 when former Gov. William F. Weld put King in charge of the Massachusetts Turnpike's extensive real estate holdings.
King was predeceased by his wife, Josephine T. King, who died in 1995 of complications following heart surgery. In addition to his son Timothy, he is survived by another son, Brian.