Arts and Entertainment

The love affair between Germany and David Hasselhoff started at the Berlin Wall

The actor’s pop credentials are almost unknown in the States. In parts of Europe, he’s a star.

David Hasselhoff has been famous for decades, ever since he beefcaked through four seasons with a talking Trans Am on “Knight Rider” and served as the bare-chested voice of reason on “Baywatch” alongside a slew of swimsuited Playmates posing as lifeguards. Those shows were so popular in the 1980s and ’90s, when weekly audience estimates reached 1.1 billion worldwide, that Hasselhoff still holds the Guinness World Record for “most watched man on television.”

But Berlin, for him, is about more than fame. Or, more specifically, it’s about a different kind of fame. It’s about a moment that cast a TV star with a piano scarf as an unexpected cultural ambassador.

On New Year’s Eve 1989, Hasselhoff hovered in a bucket crane over a crowd of thousands who had gathered to celebrate the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He had come there to sing his German pop hit, “Looking for Freedom.” He wasn’t expecting to become an enduring part of the city’s history.

Today, a framed photo of his performance hangs at the city’s Checkpoint Charlie Museum, next to images of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The moment is why he’s revered here. And it’s why, on a Thursday night in October, Hasselhoff still packs Max Schmeling Hall with more than 5,000 fans delirious over the chance to hear him in concert.

David Hasselhoff hovers in the cage of a hoisting crane above the celebrating people on the Berlin Wall and sings “Looking for Freedom” on New Year's Eve in 1989. (Wšstmann/Picture Alliance/Getty Images)

Hasselhoff singing is something you rarely see in the United States. At home, he’s narrowly defined as a TV actor whose pop credentials, if they’re even known, are a ready punchline. Here, he’s a star.

The 13-show “Freedom! The Journey Continues” tour takes the actor and singer across Germany, Austria and Switzerland before wrapping in late October. The Berlin show is particularly special, taking place on German Unity Day, Oct. 3, the national celebration that annually marks the collapse of the Wall.

For Hasselhoff, that historic event marked more than a shift in world politics. When he sang outside Brandenburg Gate, he graduated from pop and TV star to a kind of folk hero. Those who were there remember it vividly and were eager to talk about it outside the concert at Schmeling Hall.

“It was a really touching moment,” says Julie Iwanow, 39, a fan who grew up in East Berlin and recalls watching Hasselhoff that night. “Everybody knew him from TV and to us, it was a little bit like when Kennedy was here and Reagan came to the Wall and Hoff came to the Wall. We felt like they were supporting us.”

Hasselhoff’s road to Berlin began with a doorbell ring.

It was 1987, and “Knight Rider” had just been canceled. The star was struggling, worried about getting a new gig, drinking too much and depressed by the collapse of his first marriage to actress Catherine Hickland. A young Austrian woman stood at his door in Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles with a copy of the teen-focused music magazine Rennbahn Express. She asked for an autograph. She also told him he had hit No. 1 in Austria with “Night Rocker,” a synth-soaked album that flopped in the States at the height of Michael Knight mania in 1985.

Hasselhoff didn’t hesitate; he called his record label’s Austrian representative and organized a tour. He also brought along a black Trans Am to stand in for talking “KITT.” The show began with Hasselhoff, microphone in hand, sliding down the car to begin singing.

Marcus Barone, a pianist and producer who became one of Hasselhoff’s longtime musical collaborators, saw Prince at the Los Angeles Coliseum during the “Purple Rain” tour in 1985. That’s what the crowd in Austria reminded him of.

Tourists, fans and passersby surround David Hasselhoff at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Oct. 4. (Verena Bruening for The Washington Post)

“Just screaming,” says Barone. “He couldn’t walk down the street in Vienna.”

Hasselhoff isn’t the first American entertainer to be appreciated more abroad than at home. When comedian Jerry Lewis died in 2017, the French newspaper Libération proclaimed him a genius in a front-page headline. But at least Lewis was a successful comic in the States. Hasselhoff has never had an American hit as a singer.

What struck Barone is how hard his friend worked. In the pre-Internet era, when stars couldn’t connect through Instagram or YouTube, he watched Hasselhoff charming fans at meet-and-greets.

“It was a socialist country,” Barone says of Austria. “I remember women with straw brooms were sweeping in the streets. There weren’t even stores. It was a Cold War city, and here comes this guy talking to a car.”

David Hasselhoff played Michael Knight in the 1980s television show “Knight Rider.” (Universal TV; Courtesy of Everett Collection)
From left, “Baywatch's” Nicole Eggert, David Hasselhoff, Alexandra Paul, David Charvet and Pamela Anderson from Season 3 of the show. (Courtesy of Everette Collection)
LEFT: David Hasselhoff played Michael Knight in the 1980s television show “Knight Rider.” (Universal TV; Courtesy of Everett Collection) RIGHT: From left, “Baywatch's” Nicole Eggert, David Hasselhoff, Alexandra Paul, David Charvet and Pamela Anderson from Season 3 of the show. (Courtesy of Everette Collection)

By 1989, Hasselhoff had regained his television footing, becoming Mitch Buchannon on “Baywatch.” The show would be popular in the United States but even bigger internationally, eventually broadcast in 144 countries. Hasselhoff’s single, “Looking for Freedom,” went to No. 1 in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The song has as much to do with geopolitics as Yasmine Bleeth. It’s about a young man who wants to make it on his own rather than depend on his wealthy family. But that November, Germans learned that the Berlin Wall would fall. And Hasselhoff, never one to overlook a good hook, decided that his song — it had the word “freedom”! — should become an anthem for the coming revolution.

In that spirit, he balked when the producers of Germany’s “Silvester Show” asked him to perform “Freedom” from inside a hotel on New Year’s Eve.

“I said, ‘Only if I could sing on the Wall,’ and I laughed because I never thought they would say yes,” Hasselhoff says. “The next thing I know, I’m in a crane above a million people, singing.”

David Hasselhoff at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin on Oct. 4. (Verena Bruening for The Washington Post)

The clip is a master class in Hoffian charm. Flashing a perfect smile, he shouts hello with such exuberance that the microphone distorts. Turning back to the TV lens, he stares it down, eyes widened, and points over his shoulder at the bedlam behind him. He’s simultaneously saying, “What am I doing here?” and “This moment is mine.” His right hand then slips into the leather jacket originally wired up for a televised Osmond family special, and Hasselhoff flicks a switch. Tiny waves of light rise across bulbs implanted in the material. He sings.

“One morning in June some 20 years ago, I was born a rich man’s son. I had everything that money could buy, but freedom I had none.”

At one point, a bottle rocket blasts by, barely missing Hasselhoff’s head. He’s oblivious.

“It was amazing,” he says now. “They were free. It was the first time on New Year’s Eve that they could actually celebrate together. In 25 years. And I knew it was the highlight of my career. [I] would never get anything more significant than that.”

David Hasselhoff onstage at Max Schmeling Hall in Berlin on Oct. 3. (Verena Bruening for The Washington Post)

Thirty years later, the lights go down in Max Schmeling Hall, and Hasselhoff, shrouded in an overcoat, scurries to his hiding place.

He waits in the dark on a cherry picker near the sound board, about 100 feet from the stage. A roadie — a double meant to fake out the crowd — goes on first as a medley plays over the arena. Then the band kicks into a cover of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” and the real Hasselhoff rises.

He’s high above everyone, on that platform, just as he was 30 years ago at the Wall. He’s shed the coat, revealing a golden jacket as he croons the hair metal classic.

On this night, Hasselhoff’s set stretches from his ’80s work to “Open Your Eyes,” an eclectic and strong batch of covers released in late August. As he plays, fans mouth the words, dance in the concourses and eventually snake through the arena in a giant conga line that refuses to die even after the lights go up.

“I designed everything so it would happen tonight,” Hasselhoff says afterward. “So I was on fire.”

It is not 1989. He knows that. His fame, in the States and in Germany, has abated some.

David Hasselhoff performs at Max Schmeling Hall in Berlin on Oct. 3. (Verena Bruening for The Washington Post)
David Hasselhoff performs on Oct. 3. (Verena Bruening for The Washington Post)
LEFT: David Hasselhoff performs at Max Schmeling Hall in Berlin on Oct. 3. (Verena Bruening for The Washington Post) RIGHT: David Hasselhoff performs on Oct. 3. (Verena Bruening for The Washington Post)

The bushy-haired boyishness also is gone. At 67, Hasselhoff is a kind of waxy handsome. He is 6-foot-4, wears his shirt unbuttoned enough to show off his chest hair and moves well for a man who, not long ago, couldn’t walk because of an injured knee.

Then there’s that smile. There are times, even during a breakfast interview, that Hasselhoff will gaze into the distance, pause and reset his smile, as if he’s about to shoot a spot for “Entertainment Tonight.” Except there are no cameras anywhere.

For someone so used to the spotlight, it can be startling what he lets slip. Like how much bitterness still lingers from the ugly collapse of his second marriage, to Pamela Bach, which found the two battling in court and in the tabloids. In addition to his knee troubles, he has faced a more serious health threat known as trigeminal neuralgia, a painful nerve condition that required head surgery to alleviate.

“They call it the suicide disease,” Hasselhoff says bluntly. “It means you have so many shocks in your face that you want to jump out of the f---ing window.”

And then there’s the drinking. He documented his struggles in disturbing detail in 2006’s “Don’t Hassel the Hoff: The Autobiography,” which led to his lowest public moment, the infamous cheeseburger video leaked the following year. It is a sad, messy clip captured by his then-teenage daughter Taylor-Ann to ostensibly scare her father sober. He is drunk, shirtless and trying to negotiate a Carl’s Jr. burger while lying on the floor. Hasselhoff says his ex-wife Bach released the video to hurt him. She, in turn, denies that. “All I can say is, why didn’t he sue?” Bach says, when asked to comment.

Hasselhoff still gets angry when it pops up online, and will send a demand that it be taken down. But he also uses the unfortunate chapter to his advantage. There’s a scene in the British-produced 2015 mock reality show “Hoff the Record.”

“I had a bad night, right?” Hasselhoff snaps at the camera. “I had a hamburger and I had a bunch of beers. And you know what? Tonight, I’m going to have beers and burgers, I’m going to take off my shirt and I’m going to have a lie-down. And, guess what? You can’t film it! Because it’s a private moment!”

That gets to a special Hoff quality: a gift for taking what he does very seriously, without taking himself too seriously. That attitude has helped him deal with setbacks over the years and also make peace with those who don’t give him respect.

David Hasselhoff in Berlin on Oct. 4. (Verena Bruening for The Washington Post)

In early 1990, Hasselhoff went to the sales convention for BMG, then his record company. He watched the lauding of Lisa Stansfield, Rick Astley and Clint Black, wondering why he wasn’t at least as celebrated. Instead, his success abroad struck some as so absurd that it became a recurring bit on “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update, with fake news anchor Norm Macdonald regularly offering his non-sequitur, “Which once again proves my old theory: Germans love David Hasselhoff.”

Eventually, Hasselhoff realized that the best response to the joke was to laugh along. To laugh even if it meant laughing, in a way, at himself. He appeared on SNL with Macdonald.

That gift, even if it also served as a coping mechanism, struck Alexandra Paul, who played Stephanie Holden on “Baywatch.” She remembers a crushed Hasselhoff returning to the set after the ratings bust of his 1994 pay-per-view concert at Trump Castle in Atlantic City.

He joked about the timing. It aired June 17, the same night as O.J. Simpson’s mesmerizing flight in a white Bronco being chased by police. The easy, self-parodying self would go into creating that unmockable, pop-culture superhero known as “The Hoff,” a branding dream and also a sort of armor.

“Maybe that’s how you want to bring it up,” Paul says. “You make a point about your own vulnerability first, so nobody can do it to you.”

People surround David Hasselhoff at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Oct. 4. (Verena Bruening for The Washington Post)

“He’s not unaware of anything,” says Tyler Bates, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” film composer and former Marilyn Manson guitarist who collaborated with Hasselhoff on the version of “Heroes” that’s on “Open Your Eyes.” “He likes to provide joy and he takes joy in doing that more than he cares about whatever a hipster or critic thinks.”

None of which means that Hasselhoff has surrendered his dreams.

In Los Angeles last month, after his German tour wrapped, he showed off the house he shares with his third wife, Hayley Roberts. It features a wall of platinum records and a mounted 13-foot, 750-pound model of the actor from the 2004 “SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.”

He was heading to London to play the nasty boss during a Christmas run of “9 to 5: The Musical.” He was eager to talk about other potential projects. The makers of the German-produced web drama “Dogs of Berlin” would come to London for a meeting. Hasselhoff had visited executives at Netflix, though they seemed mainly interested in a “Knight Rider” movie. Just recently, Hasselhoff fired his longtime manager, Larry Thompson, because he felt he wasn’t doing enough to get him a new TV gig.

Reached by phone, the manager took his dismissal in stride. Hasselhoff, he said, has always been underappreciated.

“He can act, sing and perform,” Thompson says. “He’s a multithreat. He’s going through a period where he’s not on television. He will rise again. All champions live to run again.”

Editing by Janice Page. Copy editing by Rachael Bolek. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Video by Erin Patrick O'Connor. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

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