Zalman King: Writer and producer of '91/2 Weeks'

 

Zalman King's stylish erotica includes the TV-friendly Red Shoe Diaries, introduced by a pre-X-Files David Duchovny, and 91/2 Weeks but he began his career as a dramatic actor and continued to make occasional forays into non-erotic cinema. Zalman Lefkowitz changed his name when he began acting, starting as a gang member in Harland Ellison's autobiographical "Memo from Purgatory" (1964), an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Other one-off roles ranged from "Man with the beard" in a 1965 episode of The Munsters to the lead in "Muley", a 1967 episode of Gunsmoke, one of several different characters he played in the series. From 1969-71 he played Aaron Silverman in The Young Lawyers, about a Boston law firm that works for poor citizens, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.

From then on, King often starred, though never in a major feature. Lo B'Yom V'Lo B'Layla ["Neither By Day Nor By Night", 1972) despite its Hebrew title, was made in English. King plays an American in the Israeli army who is wounded and shares a hospital room with a blind woman who mistakes him for her long-lost lover, while he, increasingly embittered, rejects his father (Edward G Robinson). Some Call It Loving (1973) is an updated Sleeping Beauty, and Trip with the Teacher (1975) a basic exploitationer, while The Passover Plot (1976) is a ludicrous conspiracy thriller showing Jesus faking his own death to kick-start Christianity.

A change came when King wrote and produced 91/2 Weeks (1986), though it was directed by the 1980s style-merchant Adrian Lyne. Starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, its food-sex-in-the-fridge scene was frequently parodied. It was also nominated for a Razzie for Worst Screenplay, though it stood little chance against the winner, Howard: a New Breed of Hero.

Nevertheless he had found his forte, and moved into projects featuring lubricious young actresses in barely credible stories that necessitated regular disrobing. The business became a family affair, with King's wife and two daughters working behind the scenes.

Two Moon Junction (1988) follows a Southern debutante slumming with a drifter, and gained another Razzie nomination. Wild Orchids (1989), starring Rourke and Jacqueline Bissett, is little more than a disconnected series of erotic encounters. In true exploitation style, Wild Orchids 2: Two Shades of Blue (1991) traded on the name while having nothing whatsoever to do with the original.

King perfected the form in Red Shoes Diaries, eight plot-light TV series (1992-97), several direct-to-video features and a TV movie. Duchovny introduced each episode as a man whose fiancée committed suicide and who hopes to learn why through a personal ad asking women to write to him about their erotic experiences. It featured a surprising number of more or less serious actors: Bond girl Maryam d'Abo, The Breakfast Club's Ally Sheedy, Matt LeBlanc, later of Friends, stand-up Margaret Cho, alternative film stalwart Udo Kier, and model-turned-actress Joan Severance, while Sheryl Lee sandwiched her appearance between the television and cinema incarnations of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. It also supplied a pool of talent for his feature films. But neither ChromiumBlue.com nor Body Language could replicate its success.

Lake Consequence (1993), starring Billy Zane and Severance, showed that sexual repression can be overcome by infidelity and al fresco ménages-a-trois. In 1995 King found inspiration in the erotic diaries of Anaïs Nin and based Delta of Venus on selected episodes.

There was a different side to King: he produced two of Alan Rudolph's lesser films: Roadie (1980), a musical sex comedy starring Meat Loaf, and Endangered Species (1982) a sci-fi about mysterious cattle mutilation. Perhaps the ubiquity of harder sex on the internet took the rug from under King's gentle, almost romantic style. Female Perversions (1996), starring Tilda Swinton, apparently has ambitions as a feminist statement, albeit about a kleptomaniac and a lesbian and displaying the requisite acreage of flesh.

A friend of the Nouvelle Vague director Agnes Varda, he appeared in her autobiographical The Beaches of Agnes (2008); Crazy Again (2006) is a documentary about the mental health problems suffered by the country and western star Dale Watson.

John Riley

Zalman Lefkovitz (Zalman King), actor, writer, director and producer: born Trenton, New Jersey 23 May 1941; married 1965 Patricia Lousianna Knop (two daughters); died Los Angeles 3 February 2012.

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