Monday, February 20, 2017

Born Today February 20: Heinz Erhardt


Though known for being a German comedian, entertainer, actor and writer, Erhardt was actually born in the town of Riga, in what was at the time the Russian Empire to Baltic German parents (Riga is now the capital of Latvia).  In fact, he spent most of his childhood there; living with his grandparents.  He maternal grandfather owned a theater and taught young Heinz how to play the piano.  After WWI, his father, now divorced from his mother and remarried, emigrated to Germany.  Heinz followed him to Hanover, eventually studying at the Leipzig Conservatory, with the intention of becoming a concert pianist.  With his grandparents disapproving of this career path, he returned to Riga to work as a merchant and got married.  While doing this, he got involved in live cabaret acts at various coffeehouses in Riga.  By the late 1930's he was working in German radio broadcasting, and returned to Germany permanently.  In Berlin, he again returned to the cabaret stage.  Though Erhardt wore heavy spectacles and could not swim, that didn't stop his being drafted into the German Navy during World War II.  He spent most of his time playing piano in the Marine orchestra and never saw active combat.  After the war, he moved to Hamburg; there he became a very popular radio personality and was known for his pun poetry.  In regards to the silent era, he made an appearance in one silent film in 1928: Idle Eyes; an American film which was a vehicle for Ben Turpin, for which Erhardt provided the German narration after the film was apparently reworked for sound upon export to the Europe.  It would not be until after World War II that he would go on to have great success in films written especially for him in what had become West Germany.  He became a much beloved comedian in the post-war era there, providing a biting kind of comedy that soothed the pains of recovery from the war.  He tired of the only finding work as a comedy actor, though, and in 1961 he founded his own television production studio to escape the type-casting.  The company, however, only lasted two years, and Erhardt accepted that he would not be able to shake the genre of comedy.  He kept working in films for both the big and small screen regularly through the 1960's.  In 1971, however, he suffered a massive normal type stroke that paralyzed him and he lost the ability to speak properly.  Though he would live another eight years, he career was basically ended by the stroke.  Prior to his death, he was awarded The Federal Cross of Merit, the highest award one could receive in West Germany at the time.  Erhardt succumbed to his ill health on the 5th of June in 1979 in Hamburg; he was 70 years of age.  He is buried there in the cemetery Ohlsdorfer Friedhof, along with his wife of many years. 

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