Dieter Laser, German Star of 'The Human Centipede,' Dies at 78

Six Entertainment
'The Human Centipede'

The veteran performer was an acclaimed theater and film actor in Germany, but was most famous internationally for playing the evil Dr. Heiter in the Dutch shock-schlock horror franchise.

Dieter Laser, a veteran German actor best known to international audiences for playing the evil Dr. Heiter in cult horror film The Human Centipede, has died. He was 78.

Laser's wife Inge told media on Friday that her husband had died in Berlin on Feb. 29.

Laser appeared in more than 60 films and TV series, starring alongside Bruno Ganz in a TV production of Peer Gynt, with Glenn Close in István Szabó's Meeting Venus (1991) and with John Malkovich in Volker Schlöndorff's The Orge (1995). But international audiences knew him best for roles in schlocky cult hits, playing the insect human machine Mantrid in the sci-fi comedy series Lexx or, most famously, the evil Dr. Heiter in Tom Six's The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009).

"This is his 63rd acting role, but, poor guy, is seemingly the one he was born to play," wrote Roger Ebert in his review of the film, in which Laser plays a deranged German surgeon who kidnaps three tourists and joins them surgically, mouth to anus. The role won Laser the best actor honor at the Austin Fantastic Fest and a nomination for best villain at horror film honors the Screen Awards.

More infamous than successful — "it's hard to say whether [The Human Centipede] is more appropriately reviewed by a critic or therapist," The Hollywood Reporter wrote at the timeThe Human Centipede became a pop culture phenomenon and a touchstone for bad taste. It spawned two low-budget sequels. Despite initial creative differences with the director, Laser appeared in the third and final Centipede film, 2015's The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence), this time as "Bill Boss," the warden of a notorious prison who is inspired by the first two films to create a 500-person human centipede.

Born Feb. 17, 1942 in Kiel, northern Germany, Laser was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household where the Bible was the only reading material allowed. He left home at 16 and began work in the theater, first as a stage hand and extra at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, later as a performer. In interviews he would later claim he had been so "brainwashed" by his family's beliefs that, in his mind, he struck a "pact with the devil" to become an actor, even though it would condemn his soul to damnation. "I will become an actor and I'll pay later on — in hell," he said.

He began formal training but dropped out of acting school after less than a year. Working as an extra in Hamburg he was discovered by acclaimed German theater director Gustaf Gründgens who gave him his first proper roles. He later became a favorite of director Peter Stein and worked with him during Stein's time at the Berliner Schaubühne, one of the most cutting-edge and acclaimed theaters in Europe in the 1970s. Among his stand-out performances was the title role in Stein's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, a play Stein would later recreate in a five-hour production for German TV, with Laser co-starring alongside Bruno Ganz (Downfall).

Laser won the German Film Award for best actor for his first leading role in Ulf Miehe's John Glückstadt (1975). He played the slimy tabloid journalist Werner Tötges in New German Cinema classic The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum (1975), a role that earned him a German Film Award nomination for best supporting actor.

Laser appeared in dozens of German films, made-for-TV movies and television series, typically playing a villain, murderer or sex fiend.

He featured alongside Greta Scacchi, Donald Sutherland and fellow German actor Jürgen Prochnow in the forgettable thriller Baltic Storm (2003) and had a supporting role in Rainer Sarnet's 2017 fantasy horror November, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and was well-received by critics. 

To the end, Laser remained true to the stage. His last performance, in 2019, was in a German theater production of Franz Kafka's The Trial.