WATCH: The 30-year love affair between Germany and David Hasselhoff
Berlin - 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.
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.
"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."
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."
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."
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.
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."The Washington Post