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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Zalman King, king of softcore cinema

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Zalman King, king of softcore cinema

The Hollywood Reporter has news of the death of Zalman King, the actor turned director and producer behind such mainstream softcore staples as Two Moon Junction, Wild Orchid, Red Shoe Diaries, and 9 1/2 Weeks. King died of cancer at the erotically appropriate age of 69. (Also oddly appropriate: His death was first reported by his friend, Charlie Sheen.)


King started his career as an actor, turning up in small parts on television shows such as Adam-12, The Munsters, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Gunsmoke, Charlie’s Angels, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (in the memorable “Memo From Purgatory” episode written by Harlan Ellison and co-starring James Caan and Star Trek’s Walter Koenig). He also landed a starring role on ABC’s short-lived The Young Lawyers—alongside guests such as Barbra Streisand, Martin Sheen, Gary Busey, and Richard Pryor—playing an idealistic law student who tries to aid the impoverished in Boston under the supervision of Lee J. Cobb.

King’s feature acting was slightly more unusual. His roles on the big screen included a narcoleptic biker gang member who terrorizes a group of teenagers on Trip With The Teacher, a lonely man who purchases from a carnival a woman who’s been asleep for eight years in the bizarre Sleeping Beauty spin (and Z Channel favorite) Some Call It Loving, and in the similarly cult classic Blue Sunshine, a man wrongly accused of committing murders involving a toxic dose of LSD that causes people to turn into bald homicidal maniacs. If you haven’t seen the last two in particular, with all sincerity, please rectify that immediately.

Although King would continue to act in movies ranging from the sentimental Tell Me A Riddle to the schlocky sci-fi B-movie Galaxy Of Terror, his attentions turned to first producing and then directing in the 1980s—most notably beginning with his breakout work with director Adrian Lyne on 9 1/2 Weeks. The erotic drama starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke wasn’t a huge hit in the theaters, but became a smash on videotape, for obvious reasons.

Encouraged by that film’s success, King began the career that would make his name synonymous with late-night cable offerings. His directorial debut, Two Moon Junction—in which a rich girl gets up to carnal shenanigans with a carnival worker—is notable for having the final film performances from both Burl Ives and Herve Villechaize, as well as the film debut of Milla Jovovich. But in all honesty, it is perhaps even more notable for its full-frontal sex scenes featuring Sherilyn Fenn.

King would go on to repeat the Two Moon Junction formula many times to success, notably with Wild Orchid—a film that was very nearly slapped with an X-rating for being so sexually graphic, particularly for a scene where real-life lovers Mickey Rourke and Carré Otis were believed to be having actual intercourse. (Rourke and Otis denied it; King, mischievously, didn’t.) Like so many of King’s movies, it was roundly panned by critics and received more than its share of abuse from the Razzies, but did well enough on video that King crafted the completely unrelated sequel Wild Orchid II: Two Shades Of Blue two years later.

With his films absolutely burning up the wee hours of HBO and Showtime programming—thanks, in no small part, to kids who probably shouldn’t have been watching, but who nevertheless owe him a debt of gratitude—King eventually made the obvious transition to television with Showtime’s Red Shoe Diaries. Spawned from a TV movie of the same name, the anthology series featured David Duchovny reading erotic stories to his dog (yep), hoping to come to terms with his fiancee’s affair and subsequent suicide by soliciting the confessions of other women regarding their own sexual awakenings. The Red Shoe brand continued to spawn straight-to-video sequels well into the 2000s, many of their episodes directed by King himself.

King had similar success with his other TV ventures for Showtime, ChromiumBlue.com—a sort of erotic Fantasy Island meets The Love Boat, in which a billionaire playboy helps people live out their fantasies aboard his yacht—and most recently, Body Language, which ended its run in 2010. King also dabbled in slightly more literary (though no less erotic) efforts such as the 1995 Anaïs Nin adaptation Delta Of Venus, and occasionally took time away from full-frontal nudity and sex scenes for films like 1998’s surfing drama In God’s Hands and the fascinating, surprisingly moving 2006 documentary Crazy Again, in which Texas country singer Dale Watson comes to terms with the death of his girlfriend.

But of course, the name “Zalman King” came to be regarded as a mark of quality among connoisseurs of a certain breed of steamy, slow-motion cinema, and so it was that he always came back to that which he did best. King’s final film project (still listed as in post-production) was this year’s Kamikaze Love, described as the story of “a wealthy real estate developer [who] takes a young woman from an everyday mundane life and shows her a world of decadence and debauchery that pushes her sexual limits to the brink”—a synopsis that certainly sounds like vintage Zalman King.


Even more ambitiously, King had been planning to expand his brand with a web community centered around exclusive erotic content—everything from user-submitted amateur video to “state-of-the-art 3-D sequences in the lush visual style for which Zalman is world famous,” to montages of “extreme sports cut against gorgeous bikini runway models and cutting-edge music.” Sadly, that site supposedly poised to launch on February 2011 will never be realized now. But King’s work will definitely live on in the late-night hours, lingering like the curls of candle smoke in the sticky, satin-sheeted rooms of the heart.

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