Soon, however, the elder Kinski may be as well known here for his art as for his issue. American screenings of his intense performances in German director Werner Herzog's films—as a mad conquistador in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a vampire in Nosferatu and a victimized soldier in Woyzeck—won him a cult following and several Hollywood roles. Last year he played a quack sex researcher with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Buddy Buddy, and currently he appears both as a wicked silver tycoon in Love and Money and as a kidnapper done in by a deadly mamba snake in the chiller Venom. "It doesn't pretend to be one of the 10 best movies of the year," Kinski says of Venom. "People don't want to take risks themselves, so they watch me do it on the screen."
Kinski's first gamble on U.S. films may have turned up snake eyes (Buddy Buddy flopped and Love and Money isn't doing any better), but he has no regrets. "I've made the most important discovery of my life—America," says Klaus. "It's the only free country in the world. People here give you space. I wondered, 'How could I be so stupid not to come here 20 years ago?' " Now a resident alien, Kinski is putting down roots in L.A.'s exclusive Bel Air, where he rents a glass-and-wood A-frame, and in Marin County north of San Francisco, where he's building a rustic retreat on 30 acres. Says Kinski: "I'd prefer to wash dishes in this country than to make movies in Europe."
Clearly, he has no intention of putting on an apron. In the past, Kinski claims, he rejected offers from such eminent directors as Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Steven Spielberg and Arthur Penn in order to pile up the pasta in lucrative spaghetti Westerns. "The life I live is very expensive," says Kinski. "I need a quarter million just for living, so I have to have another $250,000 to do something with. The best movie in the world I wouldn't do without money."
Given his childhood, Kinski's passion for pfennigs is understandable. "I always felt life tried to cheat me," he recalls of his youth. (His often dramatic memories, incidentally, are challenged by his family.) Born Nikolaus Nakszynski in Sopot, Poland, he grew up in Germany, where his pharmacist father moved during the Depression. Klaus says he had to steal food for himself and three siblings. "We did not eat even bread for three days at a time," says Kinski. "People don't believe it now." (His brothers deny this story.)
In 1943 the 16-year-old Kinski and his high school classmates were given Nazi uniforms and sent to fight in Holland. Wounded in the arm on his second day in combat, he deserted and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in England, where he learned to act. In 1945 he found out that his father had died during the war and that his mother had been killed in the street during an attack by Allied fighter planes.
Klaus spent the first winter after the war living In an unheated theater in Berlin. His first performances were readings of poetry by Villon, Rimbaud and Shakespeare, which he rewrote at will. In the early '50s he made his first picture, and soon, Kinski recalls, "I was in 10 movies a year, but I wasn't happy. There was a time I didn't read scripts at all—I just counted my lines and how much they were going to pay me. I found out on the set what it was about." The money rolled in. "Everyone had champagne for breakfast. One year I bought seven Rolls-Royces and nine Ferraris. Then I woke up and said, Rolls-Royces are shit. Ferraris are shit." Daughter Nastassia recalls of those years, "There were times we had Rolls-Royces and times we had nothing at all. It gave us a sense of reality."
One casualty of Kinski's mood swings was his early first marriage to one of two women he got pregnant the same year. The union ended after three years. "I was like an animal who has to run away," he says. His second marriage, to Nastassia's mother, lasted—turbulently—through most of the '60s. "Nobody ever sold as many newspapers in Germany as I did," remembers Kinski, who made a specialty of insulting his interviewers.
Souring on Germany ("I was always wrong in that country"), he lived for some years a moneyed gypsy life in the capitals of Europe. (Besides German and English, he speaks fluent French, Italian and Spanish.) Before his move to America, his home was Paris, where he wed a Vietnamese woman half his age named Minhoi. That marriage has ended, and last year she left with their son, Nanhoi, now 5, on a voyage of "self-discovery" to Nepal. "Not being able to see my son," Kinski says, "is the most terrible thing that's ever happened to me." He hopes he and the boy will be reunited in California when school starts in September.
His other family relationships are strained, and the itinerant nature of his craft means that meetings are few. His daughter from his first marriage, Pola, is an actress in Berlin, but he has never seen her work. As for Nastassia, things seem to be better than they were. Last month, they sat down over lunch in New York to talk about their work. "He told me that what is important about the choices you make is not what is right or wrong in the public eye, but what's right or wrong for you," Nastassia reports. "He's not the kind of person who stays happy," she adds. "He's a pain sometimes, but the good outweighs it."
At last count, Klaus Kinski, 55, had made some 180 European films, but until this year it looked as if his only claim to fame in America would be his daughter, Nastassia. She's the precocious beauty who, at 15, turned a love affair with director Roman Polanski into the title role in Tess and now, at 21, stars in Francis Coppola's One From the Heart. Klaus' relationship with Nastassia ended abruptly when he left her mother 12 years ago, and her prominence has only focused attention on him as a cad who deserted his family.