Unlikely Action Star Erdogan Atalay Looks Back on 15 Years on German Hit Series 'Alarm for Cobra 11'
As Autobahn Detective Semir Gerkhan on RTL's long-running series, the German-Turkish actor has become a quiet symbol of European multi-culturism.
COLOGNE, Germany - Erdogan Atalay is not your typical German action hero. When the diminutive (5'3") German-Turkish actor was cast as Detective Semir Gerkhan in episode 2 of action comedy series Alarm for Cobra 11, he stood out about the blue-eyed, blond Teutons that then dominated (and to a certain extent still do dominate) German TV.
"In America, you wouldn't have to explain why you have an Asian or black cop, but in Germany back then (1996), it was unusual to have a Turk as a police officer," Atalay recalls. "They thought people would be confused, wonder 'what's he doing there'?"
Initially, the network wanted Atalay, who was born in Hannover and whose mother is German, to play a stereotype.
"The wanted me to speak in broken German, with an accent," he says. "I said no way. This guy should be like me: born in Germany with a German passport."
From the start, Atalay's character Semir was the cute little Turk partnered with a hunky German womanizer. That pattern hasn't changed - Atalay's current Cobra co-star is the smoldering Tom Beck - but while the German detectives have come and gone, the cute little Turk has stayed - a constant over Cobra's 15 years and 17 seasons on air .
"He's the heart of the show," says Cobra showrunner Stefan Retzbach. "His partner is the womanizer, the wild guy, but Semir is the one who, at the end of the day, goes back to his wife and kids. He's our normal guy, the one the audience identifies with."
Semir's devotion to his family is one of the few typically Turkish things about the character. His partner is the macho man, Semir the sensitive one. He flirts occasionally but the audience knows he'd never cheat on his wife. And while Semir is a Muslim, his religion is rarely mentioned.
"He doesn't eat pork and he knows his way around the Koran but you don't see him praying," says Atalay. "It's not something we play up."
The actor plays down his own function as a role model for Germany's ethnic Turkish community, as a symbol of "integration" - a term he hates.
"People have said that to me and maybe it's true that, over the years, I've become a role model for some, but that's not how I see it myself," he says. "Now it's nothing unusual to have actors of different colors and ethnicities on German TV. It's normal now. But for me, it was always normal. The way it used it be on TV was what was strange."