Dean Reed is a paradox of fame abroad, obscurity in U.S.
By Collin Covert/Staff writer
He'd probably never agree to join, but Dean Reed would be a natural addition to the roster of semi-obscure celebreties in American Express credit card commercials.
Open on a tall, ruggedly handsome folk singer strumming a guitar in his studio. On the background wall are a framed portrait of Karl Marx and an East German flag.
"Do you know me? I left the United States 25 years ago, and today I'm a superstar in a third of the globe. But although I'm a household name in the socialist world, back home in America I'm almost unknown. So whenever I return, I carry this card. Don't leave your homeland without it."
Dean Reed is a paradox of fame and obscurity. A folk singer, filmmaker and celebrity in the Soviet bloc, he is by all accounts one of the best-known Americans in Eastern Europe and one of the most popular. His concert performances draw large and enthusiastic crowds, his record albums go gold, and his movies set box-office records. Yet after starring in 18 films and recording 13 albums, this contemporary of Neil Sedaka and Paul Anka is best remembered here for his role in a 1978 Wright County power-line protest.
Reed's last promotional tour in Minnesota resulted in a brief jail term when he joined a group of activists seeking arrest to dramatize their opposition to rural power-line construction.
He was one of 19 people arrested for trespassing and his 11-day incarceration while awaiting trial drew international attention and pleas for his release from hundreds of supporters in the Soviet bloc. The group was found not guilty.
He returned to Minneapolis this week to sing and speak at a showing of "American Rebel," a 94-minute documentary about his life by independent filmmaker Will Roberts. The film will be shown Thursday at 7 p.m. at Willey Hall on the University of Minnesota's West Bank.
Reed, 47, described his unlikely path from a concervative Colorado home to Eastern bloc adoration in accented and slightly rusty English. His late father was an ardent Barry Goldwater supporter, a distant, difficult man who rarely praised his son, Reed said. "I gained my independence (from his view) step by step," he added.
After two years as a meteorology student at the University of Colorado, Reed went to Hollywood in 1958. A spur-of-the-moment audition won him a seven-year contract with Capitol Records Co. His carreer never took off in the United States, he said, but his song, "Our Summer Romance" became a sensation in South America. "I was the Elvis Presley of South America," he recalled with pride. But his delight in his new-found acclaim was short-lived. A 1961 concert tour of the continent left a profound impression on Reed.
"I changed because of what I saw there," he said. In many of the countries he visited, he encountered widespread poverty and hunger and many people who "never see a doctor in their lives, they never see a dentist, their children never go to school. And on the other side are the people who have all the economic control, all the political control. I decided my fame only had value to the extent I dedicated it to the cause of trying to correct that kind of injustice."
As a result Reed began a carreer as an itinerant protest singer and actor in South America.
"I decided it would be hypocritical to sit in a nice home and write songs or films or books that would inspire other people to go into the streets and risk their lives, their jobs, their happiness without doing it myself," he said.
His message was not popular with everyone. In 1966, Argentina's military regime declared Reed an undesirable and had him expelled. After several years as an actor in Italian spaghetti Westerns, and a singing tour of the Soviet Union, he took up residence in East Germany.
Since that time he has become a socialist superstar. The New York Times dubbed him "the Johnny Cash of communism."
Though he lives in East Berlin with his wife, East German actress Renate Blume, Reed retains his U.S. citizenship. He lives abroad partly to dramatize his disappointment with America's political climate and partly for carreer reasons, he said.
An influential figure in the state-run film industry, he makes movies with a degree of control Hollywood stars can scarely imagine. He will be the author, co-director and star of his next film, a political drama about the siege of the Pine Ridge reservation in 1973. "Marlon Brando has said for a long time he would like to make a film about the condition of the American Indian but he can't find the financial backing," Reed noted.
Reed keeps up with events in the United States through subscriptions to U.S. news magazines, Armed Forces Radio broadcasts from West Berlin, and occasional return visits. He feels the nation's political climate has deteriorated alarmingly in the 25 years he's been away.
"Every ship that's launched, every missile that's built is money stolen from people who're unemployed, from the 30 million people living below the poverty line, from everyone who's cold and doesn't have a jacket. Because of (President Reagan) America is feared. And I don't think we should be feared. We should be respected because of our moral principles and not feared because we have the big guns," he said.
As an U.S. resident in Eastern Europe, he feels torn by the current antagonism between the superpowers. "It's true there are differences between the two systems, but they're not differences we ought to go to war over. Let them be settled peacefully. Let them compete economically, spiritually, morally."
Reed said that despite his political misgivings he misses the United States. "You can take the boy out of the country but never the country out of the boy," he laughed.
But he became thoughtful when he reflected on the years he had spent away from his family. He occasionally sees a teen-age daughter from a previous marriage who lives in Los Angeles, he said, but he went without speaking to his late father for long periods. His last message to Reed was an interview filmed for the documentary in 1983, shortly before he committed suicide.
"It's a very moving episode for me to see my father speaking in the film. My father never did come to grips with my views. We had a very difficult relationship for years and one of the greatest regrets of my life is that he never did say I respect you, I accept you. I think he almost felt I was a traitor."
"But in the film I think you can see that he admired me and respected me. He doesn't say it in so many words, but it comes through," Reed said quietly. "I'm sorry we were never able to say that to each other."