Historical Figures

Heinz Erhardt - The actor with the rogue in the neck

The humorist, actor, composer, cabaret artist and poet Heinz Erhardt said about himself that he had the rogue on his neck. He lived in Hamburg for almost 35 years.

by Carina Werner

"How much spirit does a person have to have to be able to behave so stupidly," said a spectator once after a performance by Heinz Erhardt. Erhardt meticulously worked out this "stupidity", this clumsy, clumsy, even conservative part of his roles - and yet he improvised on stage like no other. The great humorist spent almost 35 years of his restless life in Hamburg. He died there on June 5, 1979.

Heinz Erhardt spends a turbulent childhood

Heinz Erhardt was born on February 20, 1909 in Riga to Baltic German parents. They split up shortly after he was born. The mother moves to the Russian city of Petrograd, today St. Petersburg, the father goes to Hanover and travels throughout Germany as a famous conductor. Both change partners several times. "Well, I couldn't complain:I gradually had three fathers and just as many mothers," Erhardt later sums up.

He grew up with his grandparents, who ran a large music shop in Riga. But the boy is "kidnapped" from his hometown several times:sometimes he lives with his mother in Russia, then with his father in Germany. With the change of location comes the change of school. One of the few constants in his childhood is the piano. He received his first lessons at the age of four and began composing classical pieces as a teenager.

Erhardt:solo entertainer with humorous poems

At the request of his grandfather, 17-year-old Erhardt began a traineeship at a music shop in Leipzig. At the same time - and with greater passion - he studies piano and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory.

After two years he has to go back to Riga to get into his grandfather's music business. But Erhardt can't do much with this:"In reality, it doesn't really matter whether you deal in cheese or music:you always buy cheap in order to sell high." He hires himself out listlessly as a music dealer, but with passion he appears as a solo entertainer:he has his first appearances with humorous stories, poems and songs, to which he accompanies himself on the piano.

For years he commuted back and forth between the music shop and the stage and met his future wife Gilda Zanetti, with whom he remained together until the end of his life. She becomes his manager, his engine. It is also she who encourages him to try his luck in Berlin.

Erhardt's rise begins in the Third Reich

In 1938 Erhardt traveled to Berlin and introduced himself to an artist agency. Since the cabaret artist Peter Igelhoff is currently ill, Erhardt is sent to the theater in Breslau as a "substitute Igelhoff", where he is booed by the audience. Erhardt is so disappointed that he only presents his program with a sad expression, helpless, frustrated - and suddenly people are entranced. The sad, helpless face becomes his "scam". Back in Berlin, he gets an engagement in the "Cabaret of Comedians" and makes a name for himself there. His wife, daughter and mother-in-law moved to Berlin with him in 1939. The cabaret artist tours the German Reich alongside the famous dancer La Jana.

Erhardt sees himself as an apolitical person. He rarely addresses the crimes of the Nazis and the war. The goal of advancing his career takes him completely. But in November 1941 he could no longer avoid war:he was drafted and placed as a piano player in the music corps of the Stralsund Navy. Erhardt was later transferred to Kiel. His family manages to find accommodation on a farm not far from him in Schleswig-Holstein.

The first years in Hamburg

"Heinz Erhardt please come to Hamburg immediately - stop - important production - stop." In the summer of 1945, a few months after the end of the war, Erhardt received a telegram from the actress Grethe Weiser. The production didn't materialize, but instead Erhardt made contact with the NWDR in Hamburg, the first radio station to be granted a broadcasting license by the English occupying power.

Heinz Erhardt - here in front of his house in Hamburg - lived in the Hanseatic city from 1948 until his death.

There Erhardt begins to moderate the radio series "So was Dummes". The show is a big hit with audiences, even the British like to listen:"You're the only German we can laugh at without understanding a word."

In 1947, Erhardt made his breakthrough as an actor with the comedy "Dear rich, but happy". From then on he acts in comedies and comedies, but also continues to appear solo, in cabarets and variety shows. In 1948 he and his family moved into a small house in Wellingsbüttel in the north of Hamburg, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Heinz Erhardt on the screen

Erhardt begins to act in cinema and television films. He had his first leading role in 1957 in "Dertired Theodor", in which he played a jam manufacturer. With comedies like "Widower with 5 Daughters" or "Father, Mother and 9 Children", in which he portrays charming, clumsy fathers, he becomes a star. In the 1960s he made up to three films a year, films like "Mimi never goes to bed without a crime story" or "Three Men in a Boat".

An Erhardt fan writes him an open letter in the newspaper:"Please don't play any more of these fussy, mediocre films", and:"Dear one, you sensitive humorist, what should we stick to when you yourself are against the terror of the 'Audience Impact' forfeit?" Whether on stage or on screen, Erhardt usually embodies the same type, the goofy, lovable man from the street. He would like to play a murderer, but his wife talks him out of it.

Erhardt "in real"

In reality, Erhardt cannot live up to the role of the caring family father, which he plays in many films:Due to his many tours and commitments, he is rarely at home with his four children.

Erhardt was a workaholic, spending time with his family was the exception.

"I was never a good man or father," he writes in his memoir. Erhardt is a workaholic, he actually works all the time, partly out of fear that his success might dwindle. As late as 1971 he noted:"I work almost non-stop. Not to earn money, oddly enough I often don't even think about it, but because I have to work. Because in no other job is one forgotten as quickly as in mine. So I can't think of one Allow holidays and above all, I must not get sick."

A stroke forces him to retire

At the end of the 1960s, pain and signs of exhaustion increased, which Erhardt ignored. In December 1971 he suffered a stroke. He survives, but is now paralyzed on one side. Initially confined to a wheelchair, he learned to walk again over the years. But what hits him even harder:the language center in his brain is damaged, he does not speak a single word until his death. "These seven and a half years were hell for him," writes his daughter Grit.

After death, Heinz Erhardt becomes a cult figure

He is not forgotten by his fans, he receives more than 15,000 letters. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, he was awarded the Grand Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. A few days later, on June 5, 1979, he died. He is buried in the Hamburg-Ohlsdorf cemetery. He wrote his parting words himself:

"You were a musician and a poet
a painter and a rabbit breeder
yet it was not in you to
survive your own death."

But his fame survived his death:in the 1980s, Erhardt became a cult figure, especially among young people. Even today its popularity is unbroken.