Rolling Stock 12/1986
Unfinished Obituary for a Famous Unknown American
The Memorial Service for Dean Reed was Standing Room Only in East Berlin this past June 24th. Hundreds crowded the doorway and flowed into the garden. Inside, covered with hundred of pink roses and surrounded by thousands of flowers was the coffin which it was claimed held the body of Dean Reed. In the audience were some of the most important people in the Eastern bloc: filmmakers, musicians, people in the Arts and Government. Also in the audience were the three women who had been his wives; his children, his mother, and friends from around the world. In all that holds unusually heavy silence, the service brought two standing ovations. It was Dean Reed's last non-appearance.
Who was Dean Reed? Few Americans could be expected to know that this Internationalist, born near Denver, Colorado in 1938, was one of the most important and prolific artists in the Eastern Bloc. Fewer still know that he studied meteorology at the University of Colorado before going to Hollywood in the late fifties; that in 1961 he was more popular than Elvis Presley in the South American hit parade; that in 1966 4 million copies of his album were sold in the Soviet Union; that he was a filmmaker, actor and writer, or that his films were the biggest box office hits behind the Iron Curtain.
For 25 years Dean Reed traveled around the world, giving concerts and speaking on behalf of World Peace (he was fluent in Spanish, Italian and German). But if Americans hadn't heard of him, the State Department certainly followed his career. Dean Reed confused and amused them, and they were no doubt intrigued that no one ever figured out a way to make a profit off him in the West. Hence an American bord superstar has remained practically unknown in his homeland for a quarter of a century.
Dean Reed was born on September 22nd, 1938, on a chicken farm on the outskirts of Denver, to Cyril and Ruth Anna Hanson Reed. "He was a normal American boy," his father told me. Who could have imagined that he would grow up to become the only American ever to receive the Order of Lenin for Art and Literature, or to be the first to introduce rock 'n' roll to the Eastern Bloc? And he was also a maverick in the American sense of the world. Perceiving himself as a country boy and a cowboy, he became a superstar in Chile, Argentina and Italy, and was then banned from all three. He battled for the poor and underprivileged against what he considered were oppressive governments. Although he advocated democratic socialism, he was not a member of any political party. He moved to East Germany from Italy in 1972 because he fell in love with a woman.
I met Dean Reed in 1980. I had been invited to the Moscow International Film Festival. I was walking through Red Square when I noticed a man being mobbed by hundreds of people for his autograph. "Oh my God!" said my interpreter, "that's Dean Reed! He's the most famous American in the whole world!" I spent the next five years working on a documentary about his life, accompanying him to his trips across the world, watching him come out unscathed from the crowds of admirers, and from the machine guns of military police. Then, when he was safely at home, it was announced that he was dead.
I went to Berlin to be with his family. I heard the police report, interviewed he coroner, and viewed what was claimed to be the body of Dean Reed. Meanwhile speculation was beginning to run wild through the international press: there were reports of a swimming accident, a boating accident, that he had hung himself, or that he had been murdered by eastern or western security apparatus. If few people have the facts about life, even fewer have the facts about his death or disappearance.
According to the police, Dean Reed's body was found in the lake near his home on June 17th at 10:30 a.m. According to his family and friends he had left his home on the evening of June 12th to meet with a friend he was working with on the $4 million Soviet/GDR co-production, Bloody Heart, about the 1973 Indian uprising at Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge reservation. Reed was directing and starring in it, along with his wife Renate Blume, and it was to start shooting in the Crimea four days later. But Dean never arrived at his friend's. He was reported missing, and five days later his fully clothed body was found in the lake, Zeuthener See.
The police said that they were 100% positive that no crime had been committed because there was no evidence of a crime. The coroner said the cause of death was by drowning. There was no trace of alcohol in his body. Personally I do not believe the official report of "accident" or the unofficial speculation that it was suicide. So what is left?
I was advised against seeing the body but felt I must. The body I saw - behind glass - was disfigured and darkened but it was not swollen and bloated as a coroner in Ohio told me later it should have been after 5 days in the water. I was also not completely convinced that it was the body of Dean Reed. The body was in the hands of DEFA films and as a filmmaker I can imagine any number of scenarios. I wonder if Dean Reed is alive somewhere and whether the body claiming the identity of Dean Reed was not the manifestation of some dark scenario.
Month have passed since he was last seen alive. Although I mourn the death of my dear friend, the world has lost more. Some will say that Dean Reed was not a great singer, but he was a good singer. Some will say that he was not a great musician, but he was a good musician. Nor perhaps was ha a great actor or a great writer, but he was a man who was good at so many things in so many places that I suspect that in the final analysis he may be one of the greatest cross-cultural revolutionary artists of our time.