German TV personality and actor Dieter Thomas Heck died today aged 80. Here is a video obituary with many clips, courtesy of ZDF. Unfortunately, there is no English language obituary anywhere (honestly, Deutsche Welle, that’s your job), so I had to write one myself.
If you grew up in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, Dieter Thomas Heck was part of your life, because he was always on your TV screen (unless you were one of those poor kids whose parents did not have a TV, that is). Dieter Thomas Heck hosted quiz shows, game shows, music shows, always recognizable by his hairstyle, his glasses, his mannerisms and his unique motormouth voice.
If you’re my age, you probably first encountered Dieter Thomas Heck via the show ZDF Hitparade, which he hosted from 1969 to 1984. Hitparade was your typical music program. Several popular songs – all of them sung in German, international hits need not apply – were performed live in front of a studio audience and later a winner was determined, first via mailed postcards and later via televoting, as Heck himself explains in this clip. The winner would then compete again in the next show. It was a simple concept, but one that worked. Dieter Thomas Heck was a large part of the reason why the show worked so well – and it’s telling that it floundered after he left, though it held on until 2000. His fast talking presentation, combined with the ultra-conservative look of the car salesman he used to be, were a large part of what made the show. Hitparade has no conventional scrolling end credits BTW. Instead, Dieter Thomas Heck spoke the end credits in superfast mode. What makes Dieter Thomas Heck’s fast talking even more amazing is that Heck actually had a speech impediment, a stutter that was caused by the trauma of being trapped under rubble during a WWII bombing as a small child. Singing and acting helped young Dieter Thomas Heck, still named Carl Dieter Heckscher then, overcome his stutter and paved the way for his radio and TV career.
If Hitparade ever was cool, it was not in my lifetime. Hitparade was always the dreaded family viewing, something intended for audiences from 3 to 90. Nonetheless, we all watched it. In a world with only three TV channels, it wasn’t as if there was much competition, after all. Not that there weren’t other, more exciting music programs. But Musikladen, still the crown jewel of German music television, where you could see all the big international stars live on TV, aired in a late evening slot. Too late, if you were a kid. Hitparade, however, aired in an early evening slot – half past seven to quarter past eight – on Saturday nights, and being allowed to watch Hitparade before being sent to bed was the highlight of the week in my early childhood. There was also disco with Ilja Richter, which alternated with Hitparade in its Saturday night slot for a while. disco had international stars, though not nearly as many as the name would suggest. Most of disco‘s line-up was the same old German Schlager music that you could also hear on Hitparade. Besides, disco also included a lot of skits featuring host Ilja Richter, while Hitparade was only music. Which show was better was a huge playground debate in kindergarten and primary school. I tended a bit towards Hitparade, because it was just music and no stupid skits. Though disco did have Blondie perform, while Hitparade just had Heino and the like.
But change eventually came even to the good old Hitparade. It arrived in the early 1980s in the form of the Neue Deutsche Welle and strange bands and singers in strange outfits who invaded the staid Hitparade literally like aliens from a distant galaxy. Instead of Heino, Roland Kaiser, Rex Gildo, Costa Cordalis, Lena Valaitis, Katja Ebstein and the rest of them, you suddenly had the sheer absurdity of Trio performing “Da-Da-Da” (still one of the very few genuine world hits from Germany) or Hubert Kah singing “Sternenhimmel” (who actually got booed, when they won) or DÖF performing “Codo” (basically a science fiction epic in the form of a pop song) or the Spider Murphy Gang performing “Skandal im Sperrbezirk” (no Hitparade clip, though they must have been there, cause everybody was) and “Peep Peep”, which taught a generation about phone sex (Me aged 9: “And people pay for that?”) and peep shows (Me aged 9: “And people pay for that, too?”). Coincidentally, the Munich phone number mentioned in “Skandal im Sperrbezirk” is still blocked 36 years later, because everybody who winds up with that phone number finds themselves inundated with calls from people looking for Rosi and her phone sex line.
Dieter Thomas Heck obviously was no fan of the Neue Deutsche Welle songs that gradually took over his program, though he did play them. Though looking back, the difference between some of the softer Neue Deutsche welle songs like “Kleine Taschenlampe brenn” by Markus (okay, so I just wanted to post that clip) and the sappier Schlager songs of the same era isn’t all that great. Interestingly, one of the very few songs that Heck did not want to play and only very coolly announced was “Bruttosozialproduct” by Geier Sturzflug, the song that taught a generation what a gros national product was. Honestly, one of these days I’m going to write a book entitled “Everything I needed to know I learned from the Neue Deutsche Welle”. I’ve never quite understood why Heck disliked “Bruttosozialprodukt” so much and yet happily played the much bawdier Spider Murphy Gang songs. Supposedly, he disliked the song because it lampooned the economic growth politics of the early Kohl era. Because in real life, Heck was as conservative as his TV persona and actually campaigned for the conservative CDU at a time when celebrities involving themselves in election campaigns was still considered extremely gauche and a big no-no.
Dieter Thomas Heck left the Hitparade behind not long after the Neue Deutsche Welle invasion. I suspect the fact that German language music had changed away from what he was comfortable with had much to do with his exit after fifteen years. The Hitparade limped on until 2000 under a series of successors and even opened its stage for English language songs, provided the singers and/or producers were German, but it had long lost its must watch status by then. In fact, I stopped watching Hitparade not long after Heck left, but then I was rapidly aging out of the Hitparade demographic by then and had found better places to see better music.
But reducing Dieter Thomas Heck’s life merely to the fifteen years of Hitparade would be wrong, because he did so much more. He hosted quiz shows like Die Pyramide, sport programs like Das aktuelle Sportstudio, other music programs like Musik liegt in der Luft or the bane of my teen years, Melodien für Millionen (Melodies for Millions) or as we nicknamed it, “Melodien für Melonen” (Melodies for Melons). Melodien für Melonen was a terribly sappy program where usually elderly people talked about their lost lovers, parents, siblings or whatever, then a song that was important to them was played and then the lost person would come on stage for a tearful reunion. Melodien für Melonen lasted from 1985 to 2007, when Dieter Thomas Heck retired from TV. Heck was also extremely active in collecting donations for various charitable causes, usually via hosting charity galas and extravaganzas.
Dieter Thomas Heck was one of the last of the great entertainers and presenters of German TV, so his death is in many ways the end of an era. Most of his contemporaries – Hans Joachim Kuhlenkampf, Hans Rosenthal, Heinz Schenk, Peter Frankenfeld, Robert Lemke. Kurt Felix – have already gone to that great TV studio in the sky. Frank Elstner is the only one who’s still around as well as Thomas Gottschalk who belongs to the next generation of German TV entertainers. As for Dieter Thomas Heck, I knew that he was ill, because I occasionally saw headlines like “Dieter Thomas Heck – Death Drama” on the covers of the celebrity gossip mags in the supermarket. However, at least half of those headlines are wholly imaginary and the rest usually refer to some celebrities third cousin being ill, so I did not pay a whole lot of attention.
But though Dieter Thomas Heck is best remembered as a TV presenter, he also was an actor. For some reason, he often played villains or at least deeply unlikable characters. I guess screenwriters and perhaps even Heck himself wanted to subvert his conservative Dad image.
And then there is my all-time favourite Dieter Thomas Heck peformance, which combines his TV presentation and his acting skills. For in 1970, Dieter Thomas Heck played the host of the fictional TV show in Das Millionenspiel (The Million Game), an SF film about a reality TV show where contestants are hunted by professional killers, competing for a prize of one million deutschmark. Das Millionenspiel was based on a short story by Robert Sheckley (for which the ZDF neglected to license the rights from Sheckley, instead licensing them from Sheckley’s German publisher, so Sheckley never saw a dime). Even 48 years later, Das Millionenspiel is still a brilliant bit of television that caused a scandal upon first airing, because many people mistook the fictional TV program for a real show and wrote in to protest the inhumanity of the whole thing, apply as contestants or in a handful of cases as hunters.
Though not the star of the film, Dieter Thomas Heck is a large part of the reason why it is so brilliant. Because he played the fictional host of a fictional TV show in a dystopian world just like he hosted Hitparade every week. What is more, the fictional show looks just like a real 1970s game show, complete with live studio audience and weird musical interludes and performances by the TV ballet, which makes it incredibly creepy. The fake ad breaks full of fake ads for fake products reinforce this feeling, though German TV did not have ad breaks during evening programs in the 1970s. Rewatching Das Millionenspiel today feels eerily like watching a TV show from a parallel universe.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. The entire film is on YouTube and you can watch it below. Heck first appears at the 8 minute mark BTW. So in memory of Dieter Thomas Heck I give you his finest hour in Das Millionenspiel: