The Daily Camera 11.04.2002
'Red Elvis' Dean Reed back in spotlight
Hollywood may soon breathe some new life into the story of Dean Reed — a Denver-born singer and actor who, despite being virtually unknown in his home country, went on to become a rock 'n' roll sensation and big screen icon in the former Soviet Union, Europe and South America.
Reed, who died under mysterious circumstances in East Germany in 1986, starred in dozens of foreign-language spaghetti westerns and routinely drew crowds of thousands to his performances. Reed's curious tale of overseas success was first profiled in filmmaker Will Roberts' 1985 documentary "American Rebel: The Dean Reed Story."
And while the film, which will be screened tonight at the Boulder Public Library, has made the rounds for more than a decade, there's a new hook to the story. Megastar Tom Hanks apparently is interested in producing (and perhaps even starring in) a feature movie on Reed, tentatively entitled "Comrade Rockstar." Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks Studio has given the project the green light, with a tentative release date in May 2003.
Roberts, who is back in Colorado helping a University of Denver student complete a new book on Reed's life, said he's excited to hear that two of Hollywood's biggest figures may help give Reed's story some long-deserved attention.
"I had never actually heard of him myself until I was a delegate at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1979," Roberts said. "I remember walking through Red Square with my translator and seeing a man being mobbed by fans, and I asked who it was. And he said, "Oh my God, it's Dean Reed — the most famous American in the world!'"
Dubbed "the Red Elvis," Reed helped popularize rock 'n' roll music in the Eastern Bloc and throughout South America in the 1960s and '70s. Roberts said Reed's mixture of good looks and his long-standing leftist sympathies helped earn him a spot in Soviet popular culture. He was frequently pictured in freedom fighter mode, toting a gun in the jungle or singing pop songs during a meeting with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.
"Reed was a socialist folk singer — they called him Mr. Simpatico in South America, because he spent so much of his time performing in prisons, stadiums and later in refugee camps," Roberts said. "He was even invited to the World Peace Conference in Helsinki in 1965, where he got everyone to hold hands and sing folk songs with him."
Reed's leanings found him reviled by many in his home country — talk show host Peter Boyles threw him off his show after a heated debate in 1985, and a 1986 profile on "60 Minutes" called him "The Defector" — and even his mysterious drowning death makes some speculate the involvement of East German secret police.
But Reed had some tangible local roots. Before heading off to Hollywood in 1961 (and eventually south of the Equator) to become a guitar-slinging folk hero, he'd attended the University of Colorado and was known for his local folk performances. Reed's story came full circle when his mother moved his remains to Green Mountain Cemetery after his death in 1986.
Roberts said he hopes to have some role in the "Comrade Rockstar" project, although he's not sure of the timeline of the movie — a writer has yet to be hired to pen the script.
Joel Haertling, head of the library's film program, said that Roberts' movie provides a concise look at the guitar-slinging protest singer.
"You have to imagine a guy who grows up in Lakewood and goes on to superstardom ... he becomes the best-known American in the Eastern Block, bigger than Elvis and the Beatles combined," Haertling said.
By Andy Stonehouse