The Boston Globe 08.09.2002
Years after death, a US East-bloc rocker may have revival
BERLIN - In his day, he was known as "Red Elvis," the most popular American entertainer from East Berlin to Vladivostok. Now, 30 years after he took the communist world by storm, mention of Dean Reed in central Europe evokes little more than snickers or shrugs.
Die-hard fans might find hope in persistent rumors that Tom Hanks is planning to rescue the Reed story from obscurity by producing and perhaps starring in a film about Reed's life. For now, that story still ends in 1986, when Reed, age 47, was found dead in a lake not far from East Berlin. Reed rose to Soviet superstardom as a curiosity: He was portrayed as the archetypal sunshine boy from the American West, infused with a dose of radical politics that had him singing the praises of the international proletariat. Adored in the East bloc in the 1970s but increasingly irrelevant in the '80s, Reed, in life and death, foreshadowed the decline and eventual demise of communism in Europe.
From the moment he arrived in East Germany in the early 1970s, he stood out for his good looks and American ways.
"He was a very handsome, hip rock-'n'-roll type singer from Colorado," Victor Grossman, who as a GI defected to East Germany in 1952 and who still lives in Berlin, said in a recent interview. The two disaffected Americans became friends; Grossman initially worked as Reed's interpreter.
"He was a showman but very sincerely a leftist. It was a very interesting mixture," Grossman said. "He rapidly became a celebrity."
It was a long way from a chicken farm in the Rocky Mountains to the relative limelight of East-bloc show biz.
Born in 1938, Reed grew up on the outskirts of Denver. He dropped out of college and tried his luck in Hollywood, where he scored a recording contract with Capitol Records at age 20. Reed's pop song "Our Summer Romance" went gold in Chile, and in 1962 he traveled to South America for the first time.
His encounter with the poverty of Latin America led to his radicalization, Grossman said. Reed also had been influenced by Paton Price, an acting coach at Warner Brothers and an outspoken leftist.
Reed would later campaign for Salvador Allende, the leftist Chilean leader. Once the singer washed the American flag outside the US Embassy in Santiago to protest the war in Vietnam.
Many American artists at the time joined the protest against war, racism, and poverty. But Reed went further, embracing Soviet-style communism. His fervor prompted Americans to brand him "Red Elvis" and the "Johnny Cash of Communism."
After acting in a number of spaghetti westerns, Reed found his way to East Germany in 1971, attending a documentary film festival in Leipzig.
"He made a hit everywhere. Women fell for him by scores," Grossman remembered.
One of these women would become Reed's second wife, Wiebke. After they married in 1972, Reed settled in East Berlin, where they built a house. (Citing unsympathetic media treatment of her late husband, Wiebke Reed declined to be interviewed.)
In the Cold War, Reed was the kind of American that communist regimes could warmly endorse. His body language, smile, and music were unmistakably American. But his message could have come from the desk drawer of a Kremlin propagandist.
Reed recorded albums on the Soviet Melodiya and Czechoslovak Supraphon labels, appeared in East German films, and toured the Soviet Union and the rest of the East bloc. By most accounts his artistic endeavors were mediocre.
"He was an eccentric fellow, very emotional, impulsive and out of touch with reality. He believed he commanded more respect as an artist in East Germany than he really did," said Wolf-Dietrich Fruck, a former product manager for the East Berlin label Amiga.
What made Reed popular was his presence, Grossman said. "He had real charm, and that came across on stage."
But with time, attitudes changed.
"At the beginning he was a hero to a lot of young people here," Grossman said. "But in the '80s - and after some movies that were not as good as they might have been - more people oriented to the West."
Young East Berliners were interested in authentic American stars like Bruce Springsteen, and Reed began to look increasingly phony with his close ties to the unpopular communist regime.
"I disapprove of the opinion that he was a blind follower or puppet," Grossman said. "Dean was skeptical of the leadership, despairing of the direction, but not straying from his ideals."
Others were less charitable. Gojko Mitic, a Yugoslav-born star of East German film, acted in a 1975 western with Reed. "He was always looking for contact with the political elite," Mitic said.
While they were shooting the film, Mitic said, Reed tried to persuade him to go into politics. "I told him that I didn't want to hold up the East German flag."
Reed retained his US citizenship and by all accounts began planning a professional comeback in the West. In 1985, he traveled to the United States for the last time to promote "American Rebel," a documentary on his life.
When he returned to East Berlin, Reed counted on new publicity in a "60 Minutes" interview and his ambitious film project on the 1975 standoff between the FBI and Native Americans at Wounded Knee, S. D., to be filmed in the Soviet Union.
But the show with Mike Wallace, titled "The Defector," ended as a PR fiasco, with Reed defending the Berlin Wall and seemingly equating Ronald Reagan with Stalin.
In the spring of 1986, Grossman said, it began to seem likely that Reed's film project wouldn't get off the ground.
In June that year Reed was found drowned in a lake near his home in East Berlin. Conspiracy theorists still say that the Stasi, the CIA, or other intelligence agencies were responsible for his death, the Stasi for his desire to leave East Germany and the Americans for his apparent treason.
But Grossman, who said he saw a 14-page suicide note, said that he is convinced that Reed took his own life. Professional problems and a disillusionment with politics played a role. Grossman also said Reed was in disagreement with Renate Blume, his third wife, as she opposed his plans to return to the United States.
Published reports have said that DreamWorks is planning a film project on Reed. Michael Vollman, a marketing executive for the studio, would say only: "We have nothing in production right now."
Yet some fans expressed doubt that such a movie could capture Reed.
"We don't expect much of it," said Norbert Diener, founder of www.deanreed.de, a German Web site that gives Reed an overall sympathetic treatment. "It's a Hollywood production, and wouldn't reflect his true life. Movies are made for profit."
Lucian Kim, Globe Correspondent