TWENTY YEARS AGO, SHORTLY AFTER they moved into their sprawling, two-story, white stucco house in artsy Venice, Calif., Zalman King, then one of prime time's first Jewish heartthrobs (in 1970-7l's The Young Lawyers), and his wife, Patricia Louisiana Knop, an aspiring writer and sculptor, learned from neighbors that the place had once been a brothel.

Nowadays, Knop and King, both 51, are themselves no strangers to notoriety. Although their 26-year-old marriage appears proper and conventional, the couple has coproduced and written such low-budget, controversial soft-core hits as 1986's study in sadomasochism, 9½ Weeks (which, starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke, has grossed well over $100 million worldwide) and Wild Orchid (more than $80 million), a King-directed, steam-driven 1990 sexcapade best known for a climactic love scene in which Rourke and Carré Otis supposedly weren't acting. Now comes Red Shoe Diaries, a steamy anthology series (also directed by King and cowritten by him and Knop) debuting this month on cable's Showtime.

While King's latest big-screen romp, Wild Orchid II: Two Shades of Blue is set in a brothel, the couple's Venice home is definitely not that kind of house anymore. What Knop calls "a little Garden of Eden" is crammed with antique toys, including the horses from a dismantled carousel and Patricia's eerily lifelike clay sculptures of real people—most prominently Zalman and herself (both 20 years younger) as Adam and Eve, dressed for the part and reclining before the living room fireplace.

"We were so thrilled with [the sculptures], we decided to take them to an art fair," Knop recalls. "Zalman and I sat there all day, and everyone simply walked on by. I kept saying, 'This is impossible!' I think those pieces are a lot like the work we're doing right now." Indeed, her husband ruefully remembers a preview screening of 9½ Weeks. Of the 1,000 people who attended, he says, "900 got up and left. They hated it." So did critics, who were also unkind to the couple's subsequent films. The Los Angeles Times' Michael Wilmington called Wild Orchid "so silly it gives sex a bad name."

Both King and Knop seem genuinely puzzled by their bad notices. "Our stories are so sincere," says Zalman. Adds Pat: "They are complex dramas about loving."

Certainly a lot of drama goes into making them. Actress Brigitte Bako, who starred in the Red Shoe Diaries pilot, calls King "the most difficult person I've ever worked with. He's so intense. He can be absolutely brutal. You're there to carry out his orders. I was in tears more off-camera than on." But whenever Pat walked onto the set, says Bako, Zalman "would turn into a little puppy. She just has this incredible loving energy."

"My mother draws people in like a magnet," says the couple's daughter Chloe, 26, a budding screenwriter whose sister, Gillian, 23, is a photographer and painter. "My father is a bit more introverted."

It was on a 150-foot schooner, The Polynesian, bound for the Caribbean and West Indies in 1961, that these opposites were first attracted to each other. Zalman, who grew up in Trenton, N.J., the youngest of three children of Fred Lefkowitz, an oral surgeon, and his wife, Sarah, a homemaker, at first set his sights on anthropology. But after two years at Grinnell College in Iowa, he went overboard for scuba diving and surfaced on The Polynesian as an electrician's mate.

Among his crewmates was Pat, then 20, an artist and writer who had succumbed to wanderlust and dropped out of Michigan State. The sight of a scuba-gear-clad Zalman clambering on deck left her love struck. "Well, just don't stand there," he said. "Help me unzip my wetsuit." She immediately wrote home to her parents, Albert Knop, a Muskegon, Mich., factory worker and his wife, Alice, a supermarket employee. "I told them I had met the man I was going to marry," she says.

She did—after five years of crisscrossing the country in Zalman's MG and taking odd jobs (she as a governess, both as cherry pickers). No sooner had they wed, in 1966, than Zalman plunged into acting. Studying with teacher Stella Adler in New York City, he later built a Hollywood TV career in Bonanza, Gunsmoke and other series. In the '80s, King went behind the camera as a producer of such low-budget Hicks as Roadies and Endangered Species.

Pat, meanwhile, was quietly honing her own artistic talents. She earned her first screen credit for The Silence of the North, a 1981 Ellen Burstyn film set in the Canadian wilds. Now scripting the sequel to 9½ Weeks (titled Four Days in February), she recently collaborated with King on a screen bio of jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, which their friend Martin Sheen hopes to direct.

King and Knop have other Hollywood pals (including Barbra Streisand), but they remain each other's best friend. "I don't think they've ever spent more than a week apart," says Chloe. "They're an incredibly committed couple." The family often escape to a New Mexico hideaway, where Zalman and Pat write and garden. But they're not alone in this Eden: Jane Fonda and her husband, TNT mogul Ted Turner, just moved in down the dirt road. That made Pat's mother very happy. "She said, 'Oh, good,' " says Pat. " 'Now we can get cable.' "

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
SUE CARSWELL in Venice

  • Contributors:
  • Sue Carswell.