Why Former 'Baywatch' Star David Hasselhoff Is Big in Germany

David Hasselhoff Knight Rider - H -  1980s

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 No. 1 on the local charts. “I said, ‘That’s impossible,’” Hasselhoff recalls. “It sold seven copies here in America, and I bought five and my mom bought the other two.”

The German invasion didn’t happen till three years later, around the time the Berlin Wall fell, when the country's first privately owned TV network, RTL, began broadcasting American programs, including Knight Rider, Hasselhoff’s action series about a detective who drives a talking car. Even though Hasselhoff is of German descent — there’s a village named Hasselhof 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 the No. 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 New Years 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 1 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!’”