Feb 4, 2012

Zalman King (1942 - 2012)


My first encounter of Zalman King was in his lead role for 1976‘s Blue Sunshine, which I saw for the first time in the summer of 1986. Although I hadn’t known it then, by the time I had viewed this picture, this actor had since strayed from before to behind the camera, as a producer. Then as now, Blue Sunshine would instantly became one of my favourite cult movies, and if the situation presented itself, one of the films I’d take to a desert island. Additionally, then as now, I would concede that Zalman King was no Olivier, there was just something fascinating about him onscreen.

His big nose, wild blue eyes and wild long hair made him an unusual screen presence- he had charisma with that wide smile, but his look also suggested some danger underneath the surface, which made his work oddly exciting to see, because one never knew what he would do next from scene to scene. And to be honest, whenever filmmakers tried to tap into that dangerous edge, his efforts at being intense, were, well.... let’s not speak ill of the dead.

Nonetheless, in a decade where unconventional or everyday-looking people like Gene Hackman or Dustin Hoffman could become stars, Zalman King in some way personified cinema in the early 1970s- his characters often embodied the restlessness and aimlessness that so pervaded the ragged scenarios of the day. As a result, his filmography is a grab bag of some fascinating projects that could only have been made in that magical period. After earning his stripes in television roles (especially in the series, The Young Lawyers) King moved on to the big screen, where his quirky persona seemed right at home with films made in the wake of the counterculture explosion.

He co-starred with Richard Pryor in two films: the lost(?) artifact You’ve Got To Walk It Like You Talk It Or You’ll Lose That Beat, and the haunting melodrama Some Call It Loving; and shared the screen with Charlotte Rampling in the dated allegory The Ski Bum- films that epitomized the “anything goes” spirit of the early 1970s. His “dangerous edge” could be employed in the micro-budget drive-in favourite Trip With The Teacher as a gonzo biker who terrorizes a busload of young women, and even on the small screen as the outrageous killer (wearing huge bow ties) in the second Harry-O feature pilot, Smile Jenny You’re Dead.

That edgy demeanour was also explored in Blue Sunshine, where his hero is nearly as psychotic as the murderers he is investigating.  However, for me, that role (and the film in  general) perfectly captures the mid-1970s.  Jerry Zipkin (note- “zip” equals “zero; zilch”) is the ultimate 70s underdog: an amiable misfit who’s perhaps a little crazy, and yet still tries to find his place in a world that is slowly receding from the counterculture revolution which he embodies, to Reagan-era complacency.

ABOVE: Zalman King in Smile Jenny, You're Dead

Zalman King would also play Jesus in The Passover Plot, and then have supporting roles in Tell Me A Riddle (Lee Grant’s directorial debut), and Galaxy of Terror (directed by Bruce Clark, auteur of The Ski Bum), before hanging up his acting career. In the early 1980s, he earned producing credits on Alan Rudolph’s films Roadie and Endangered Species. However, it was his work as producer on Adrian Lyne’s glossy, kinky epic 9 1/2 Weeks that truly began the second half of his career. Although that film was little more than a feeble, MTV-looking attempt at erotica, its theme of attraction-repulsion was perhaps central in his future work in producing and directing softcore for the big screen, and then for cable.

His directorial debut was the wonderfully bizarre Two Moon Junction (1988), which succeeds as an allegory of class structure and forbidden love, as well as, let’s be honest, an extremely erotic movie, whose couplings of Sherilyn Fenn and Richard Tyson offered eye candy for both sexes. Zalman King re-teamed with 9 1/2 Weeks star Mickey Rourke for Wild Orchid (1990) (which I never did see, but was topical for the “did they really or didn’t they” sex scenes between Rourke and Carre Otis).  Then he made Red Shoe Diaries (1992), whose central character of a betrayed widower who vicariously relives others’ sexual encounters, spawned the Showtime TV series.

If Zalman King represented the essence of the 1970s before the camera, one could say that his work behind the camera in the 1990s represented that decade. Seen in retrospect (ah, those Friday nights when the Showcase channel had syndicated the series), Red Shoe Diaries could not have been made in any other time. Above and beyond the bountiful nudity, each episode was also pretentiously arty (although creative nonetheless), with its jumpcutting and fantasy sequences, thus capturing a decade where David Lynch weirdness, and avant-garde edginess could be fashionably employed in a seemingly commercial project.

Zalman King would continue making erotica (including another series, Chromium Blue), throughout the last decade- and while I don’t think that his transferral from counterculture to softcore late-night cable fantasies was necessarily a fall from grace (because let’s be honest, he truly gave people what they paid for and a bit more), all the while I had hoped he would go back to acting one more time (although he did appear in the soft-core horror film Saint Francis in 2007). And while his work behind the camera did capture the dichotomy of 90s culture, it is pity if not a tragedy that he never again acted in anything more mainstream, as much of his resume before the camera represented a specific era whose freewheeling nature would surely be marginalized today.  Still, somewhere on a desert island, we’ll always have Jerry Zipkin.

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