Why former 'Baywatch' star David Hasselhoff is big in Germany

The love affair between David Hasselhoff and the Germanic people has, for three decades now, been one of the great riddles of global pop culture.

Why, of all American entertainers, does the 64-year-old Baywatch and Knight Rider star so entrance the citizens of Deutschland? And not so much as an actor but as a singer? There's even a joke about it in the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie: Chris Pratt's character remembers how as a child he used to fantasize that his father was David Hasselhoff, but he never saw him because he was always — cue rimshot — touring in Germany.

"One time I was in a sauna in Sweden," Hasselhoff tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Two guys were in there with me. 'We're Germans! I'm from East Berlin and he's from West Berlin. You are a legend in our country. We had nothing, and this man, an American who drove a talking car and sang about freedom, became our hero."

Actually, the hero worship began not in Germany but neighboring Austria, where, in 1985, Hasselhoff's debut album, Night Rocker, unexpectedly shot to #1 on the local charts. "I said, 'That's impossible,'" Hasselhoff recalls his surprise at having an Austrian hit. "It sold seven copies here in America and I bought five and my mom bought the two."

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David Hasselhoff out and about
GOOD MORNING AMERICA - Green Day performs live as part of the GMA Summer Concert Series on 'Good Morning America,' Friday, May 19, 2017, airing on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Heidi Gutman/ABC via Getty Images) DAVID HASSELHOFF
MIAMI, FL - MAY 13: David Hasselhoff and Zac Efron attend the world premiere of Paramount Pictures film 'Baywatch' at South Beach on May 13, 2017 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by John Parra/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 19: Hayley Roberts and David Hasselhoff attend the premiere of 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2' at Dolby Theatre on April 19, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
THE TWINS: HAPPILY EVER AFTER? - 'Hoff and Running...' - As things look rocky ahead when an opportunity falls through, the twins meet David Hasselhoff who swoops in with a great job for them, on an all-new episode of The Bachelor spin-off The Twins: Happily Ever After?, airing MONDAY, APRIL 24 (9:02 10:03 p.m. EDT), on Freeform. (Michael Yada/Freeform via Getty Images) HALEY FERGUSON, EMILY FERGUSON, DAVID HASSELHOFF
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 07: Actor David Hasselhoff attends The Hollywood Radio And Television Society Presents The Newsmaker Luncheon Series: A Moment In Time: Must See TV at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on February 7, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 04: Actor David Hasselhoff attends the 69th annual Directors Guild of America Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 4, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 25: David Hasselhoff and a British Airways pilot drive around the streets of Munich in a uBA London taxi during a competition to launch the British Airways London for Less Sale on November 25, 2016 in Munich, Germany. Customers can be taken to work in the Taxi, or win a British Airways flight to London. (Photo by Isa Foltin/Getty Images for British Airways)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 22: David Hasselhoff attends a basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on November 22, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images,)
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 31: David Hasselhoff and Hayley Roberts attend the Pride Of Britain Awards at The Grosvenor House Hotel on October 31, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 02: David Hasselhoff (L) and Ernie Hudson arrive to the Television Academy's 70th Anniversary Gala on June 2, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic)
DUBLIN, IRELAND. MAY 01 2016 - David Hasselhoff counts down to the start of the first leg of the Gumball 3000 to Budapest.
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 02: (L-R) Hayley Roberts and David Hasselhoff pose for photographers as Gumball Rally closes down Regent Street at Regent Street on May 3, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 19: Actor David Hasselhoff arrives at the Premiere Of Disney And Marvel's 'Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2' at Dolby Theatre on April 19, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage)
HONG KONG - APRIL 07: In this handout photo provided by British Airways, American actor David Hasselhoff attends the airline's VIP gala at Hong Kong's Liang Yi museum to mark the 80th anniversary of British Airways flights to Hong Kong on April 7,2016 in Hong Kong. (Photo by British Airways via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 29: David Hasselhoff visits at SiriusXM Studio on March 29, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 29: David Hasselhoff visits 'Extra' at their New York studios at H&M in Times Square on March 29, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Extra)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 24: David Hasselhoff attends the Chicago Bulls vs New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on March 24, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/GC Images)

The German invasion didn't happen till three years later, around the time the Berlin Wall fell, when the first privately-owned TV network, RTL, began broadcasting American programs, including Knight Rider, Hasselhoff's action series about a detective with a talking car. Even though Hasselhoff is of German descent — there's a village named Hasselhoff outside Frankfurt — it wasn't his ethnic connection that resonated. "I think Germans rather like the American-ness about him," says Hanna Pilarczyk, a culture writer for Der Spiegel. "Also, his music is very simple and it's something to clap along to. Germans like to clap along to very straightforward rhythms."

Hasselhoff, for his part, was smart about exploiting his German popularity. Seizing the end of the cold war as a creative opportunity, he reconfigured a hit German song from the 1970s, "On the Road to the South," as "Looking for Freedom," which became a #1 single on the West German charts for eight weeks. When Hasselhoff sang the song on The Sylvester Show — the German equivalent of Dick Clark's Rockin' Eve — at the Brandenburg Gate on New Year's Eve 1989, it was a touchstone moment for the whole nation. Crowd size was estimated at a million.

"I think you can compare the situation back in 1989 to a huge party where everyone was drunk," says Pilarczyk. "And you start making out with that guy who was attractive and available but then you forgot about it. But years after the party, people still keep reminding you, 'Remember that night you made out with David Hasselhoff?' What can we say? It happened."

It's still happening, with the make-out session continuing for nearly 30 years. Hasselhoff has released 10 albums in Germany and has had nine Top 30 songs in Austria. He's appeared on the German version of Celebrity Big Brother and interviewed East Berliners who tried to cross into the West during the Cold War for a National Geographic documentary (Hasselhoff vs. the Berlin Wall).

To this day, he's still appearing in concert on German soil, often with acts like Iron Maiden and Green Day, and Germans still clearly adore the American with the talking car who sang about freedom. "At one concert recently, there were 100,000 people," Hasselhoff says. "After the previous act ended at 1:30 in the morning, I thought maybe 70,000 would leave. But everyone stayed for my set and chanted, 'Hoff! Hoff! Hoff!'"

Read more: 'Baywatch' First Episode: THR's 1989 Review

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