BBC News 09.09.2004


Hanks to make film about 'Red Elvis'

He was an American rock star adored by millions of people worldwide, but you may have never heard of him.

BBC 09.09.2004

Dean Reed made his name not in Hollywood or at Woodstock, but in East Germany and the Soviet Union.

An idealist who defected to the Communist bloc in the 1970s, he died under mysterious circumstances in 1986.

Now Tom Hanks is going to make a film about him.

"Hanks said he'd make a fair movie. I'm curious to see it," says Victor Grossman, another American defector who was Reed's interpreter.

"He was very sincere in his views. He was not, as they say he was, misused by the GDR. He had his own opinions and he expressed them."

Massive hit

With boyish good looks and American glamour, Reed was a breath of fresh air in the stultified world of the Communist bloc.

His left-wing views made him the darling of the party bosses.

He acquired his ideals after witnessing poverty while touring in Latin America, and first came to East Germany to present a film about the workers' movement in Chile.

"I'd met lots of left-wing Americans, being one myself," says Grossman, "but not such a cowboy from Colorado and rock'n'roll-type singer."

Reed soon became a massive hit across the Eastern Bloc, particularly in the then Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

As well as singing, he also wrote screenplays, directing and starring in the films.

"He was popular because he was playing Elvis and Beatles songs when no-one else was playing that stuff in the East," says Stefan Ernsting, who has written a biography of Reed.

"But in the West, his material was outdated by the 1970s. He wouldn't have had a chance in the US."

Hidden note

It was the growing realisation of this, coupled with marital problems, that led Reed to drown himself in a lake near Berlin in 1986.

The Communists, fearing a huge Cold War propaganda embarrassment, said it was accidental death.

Reed's suicide note was found scrawled in German on the back of a screenplay in his car, but it remained hidden until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"Erich Honecker, the East German leader, made the decision personally, that the letter should disappear forever in an Interior Ministry safe," says Eberhard Fensch, the GDR's propaganda chief.

Fensch was also the man the letter was addressed to.

"The reason was to spare his wife's feelings. There was no other reason. The letter even contained a greeting to Erich Honecker. Why would we cover that up?"

'Never heard of him'

The letter recently resurfaced.

Published by the German tabloid Bild, it accused his wife Renate of pushing him to suicide.

But the paradox of Reed is that he continues to fascinate some people, while being totally unheard of for the majority.

"Dean Reed, who's that? I've heard of Lou Reed," said a commuter at Berlin's Friedrichstrasse railway station, once a crossing point between East and West.

"Never heard of him," added another bemused passer-by.

Out of 10 people we asked, only two had any idea who he was.

Perhaps Tom Hanks will change this.

But for now, Reed's fate is a tale of idealism, disappointment and suicide that has become a forgotten footnote of the Cold War.

Ray Furlong
BBC correspondent in Berlin

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