Dean Reed (1938-1986) was an American actor and singer who was better known behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany than in his homeland.
Born in Denver, Colorado in 1938, Dean Reed died in a lake on the outskirts of East Berlin in 1986. In the nearly 48 years between those two events Reed led a very unusual life that made him famous in Latin America, the Soviet Union, and East Germany – but virtually unknown in the US.
Reed came to be reviled as a communist traitor by most of the few people in the United States who knew of his existence, but he never gave up his US citizenship or joined the East German socialist (SED) party. Although he could sometimes be naive about politics, Reed was a very public opponent of the Vietnam War long before it was a popular position in his home country.
He became better known in the USA, if not in a popular way, after being interviewed on the CBS TV show “60 Minutes” in 1986, but he did not live long after that. Today very few people have ever heard of him.
Tom Hanks and COMRADE ROCKSTAR
For many years, rumors were floating around that Tom Hanks wants to make a Hollywood movie about the life of Dean Reed. In Comrade Rockstar, her biography of Reed, author Reggie Nadelson writes that Hanks acquired the film rights to her book, and later a script was supposedly written by Sacha Gervasi (The Terminal). In 2004 Hanks even flew to Berlin to meet Reed’s widow and others associated with the late star. However, it seems this project is headed in the same direction as Jodie Foster’s Leni Riefenstahl biopic — nowhere. – See a list of actual films and books about Dean Reed below.
Growing up in Colorado, California, Utah
Born in Denver when it was still a cowtown, Dean Cyril Reed spent his early years in nearby Wheatland, which was even more rural in the 1930s and ’40s. (Many years later, in East Germany, Reed often wore cowboy boots and a hat to project a Western image.) Cyril Reed, his father, was a teacher. His mother, Ruth Anna Reed (née Brown), was a housewife. Dean Reed had two brothers, Vern and Dale. His family moved around a lot, living for a while in California and Utah, but eventually returning to Colorado, where Reed attended college.
Having picked up guitar and being a passable singer, Reed soon dropped out of college to head farther west to Hollywood and start a career as an entertainer. After making a demo recording, he actually got a contract with Capitol Records in 1958. Two years later he appeared in an episode of the TV series Bachelor Father (“Bentley and the Majorette,” 1960). Although he recorded a few modest hit singles with Capitol, when he realized his career was stalled in the US, he left for South America, where his music was much more popular. In a 1961 Latino teen magazine poll, Dean Reed’s name was at the very top of a list that included Elvis Presley and Paul Anka (ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively). A virtual nobody in the US, in Chile he was greeted by crowds of screaming teenage girls.
During his years in Latin America in the 1960s, while his musical career was flourishing, Reed often showed sympathy for the underdog, the poor, and those oppressed by dictators. His increasingly leftist political views would soon get him in trouble, but in the meantime he wrote and sang songs in Spanish, in addition to American folk songs, and seemed to have a talent for learning languages that would later also come in handy in East Germany. After a South American tour, he settled in Argentina. He acted in films, sang in concerts, made recordings, and even had his own television show. He also voiced strong opposition to nuclear weapons and US foreign policy.
By 1966 Reed had worn out his welcome in South America. He was deported from Argentina by Juan Perón’s right-wing government and soon thereafter began a new career making “spaghetti westerns” in Rome. He also began doing rock tours in the Soviet Union, where he became a sensation as “the All-American boy who brought rock ‘n’ roll to the Soviet Union” (Nadelson). The Soviets loved having a red-blooded American supporter who claimed to be a Marxist. Reed’s continuing peacenik protests, his support for Salvador Allende in Chile, and a meeting with Fidel Castro did not make him popular with the US Department of State.
In 1973 Reed moved to East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic, where he would live for the rest of his life. In East Germany he was able to live as a privileged person, who unlike most East Germans, could travel abroad and enjoy certain freedoms, not to mention his lakeside villa home. He was able to honeymoon in Rome, Paris, and London, something that was impossible for the average citizen of the GDR.
But Reed’s personal life was far from ideal, and his public and private personas were very different. First married and divorced in the US, in East Germany Reed was married twice. He did not treat his wives very well, and he ignored both of the daughters he fathered, one each with Patty Hobbs and Wiebke Schmidt. (He kicked Wiebke and daughter out of his house when they divorced.) Reed was on the road a lot, and not always faithful to the woman who was his wife at the time. He had a longtime affair with Estonian actress Eve Kivi, a relationship that lasted until his mysterious death. His last wife, Renate Blume, was an actress he had worked with and known for seven years before they married.
Over time Reed recognized the contradictions between his idealistic world views and the reality of life in East Germany, but he didn’t know what to do about them. As the years passed, he also saw his fame and star power fade. A new generation barely knew who he was. People who knew him well have said he longed to return to the US, but his socialistic, Marxist views and actions would have made it impossible for him to make a living in the land of his birth – especially after his 1986 appearance on 60 Minutes. Only six weeks after that TV interview his body was pulled out of Lake Zeuthen (Zeuthener See) near his home at the southern tip of East Berlin.
There has been much speculation about Dean Reed’s death. Was it a suicide (as most of his East German friends and family think), a strange accident, or was it something more sinister? We may never know, but he was known to be very depressed and suicidal in the weeks before his death. Dean Reed was caught between two worlds, between two countries, in a trap of his own making.
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- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Famous Graves in Germany – Where are they buried?
- Also see The German-Hollywood Connection
ON THE WEB
- DeanReed.de (German and some English)
- NPR: Book excerpt from Comrade Rock Star by Reggie Nadelson.
- “My Side of the Dean Reed Story” – A good article by Ron Holloway about Reed and his career from movingpicturesmagazine.com (no longer online)
- Comrade Rockstar: The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed, the All-American Boy Who Brought Rock ‘n’ Roll to the Soviet Union by Reggie Nadelson
- Rock ‘n’ Roll Radical: The Life & Mysterious Death of Dean Reed by Chuck Laszewski
- American Rebel: The Dean Reed Story – Updated 1985 Reed documentary by Will Roberts
- Der rote Elvis – The Red Elvis is a German documentary by Leopold Grün about Reed (PAL Region 2 DVD in German) – Based on Stefan Ersting’s 2006 biography Der rote Elvis.
- Dean Reed: Seine Amiga-Erfolge [Import CD]
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