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June 26, 2011

GERMANY: "Das Boot" Legend Jürgen Prochnow Turns 70

BERLIN, Germany / GermanyInfo / June 24, 2011

Jürgen Prochnow is one of the few German actors to have really "made it" in Hollywood

Like all good captains, his first allegiance was to his ship. Jürgen Prochnow was a German stage actor who emerged from relative international obscurity at age 40 to lead a group of enlisted maritime men in Wolfgang Peterson's 1981 blockbuster "Das Boot".

Jürgen Prochnow (2011) The film catapulted both Peterson and Prochnow into Hollywood, where they have found steady work ever since. Today, Prochnow is still going strong at 70.

"Das Boot", set largely inside the claustrophic innards of a WWII-era German U-Boot, has been lauded by critics as the best submarine movie ever made. And Prochnow, with his scrappy masculinity and icy blue-eyed intensity, seemed to fit the bill perfectly to play Capt.-Lt. Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, aka Der Alte (The Old Man) or Kaleu (short for his rank of Kaptänleutnant).

Jürgen Prochnow (2011) © picture-alliance/dpa

As media reports have recently pointed out in looking back on Prochnow's career since then, he is one of the few German actors to have really "made it" in Hollywood. 
But his international fame also came, at least according to some critics, at a price: He was often cast in classic teutonic "bad guy" parts, the kind of roles many male German actors have generally sought to avoid since 1945 lest they be pigeonholed as the wartime Nazi officer or "mad scientist" with a "scary" accent. One recent German media commentary even went so far as to brand Prochnow a "prisoner of his own fame".
Of course Hollywood always needs tough guys, and some of them also happen to be pretty cool (think Steve McQueen) or pretty crazy (think Dennis Hopper). In the classic mold of cinematic evildoers, Prochnow played a mad Russian general in Air Force One (1997), a brutal Nazi officer in The English Patient (1996), a corrupt judge in the Sylvester Stallone action vehicle Judge Dredd (1995), and a violent racist in the anti-apartheid classic A Dry White Season (1989). He has also appeared as the leader of an eastern European crime ring on the hit US television series 24, and taken a few turns on NCIS Los Angeles and the long-running German detective series Tatort.

Jürgen Prochnow (1980s)  Jürgen Prochnow (1980s) © picture-alliance/dpa

Yet even while playing such nasty characters, he has always exuded movie-star-level magnetic appeal. Prochnow has managed to cover Hollywoods's macho "badass" needs, while remaining pretty easy on the eyes to many (female) viewers - even his pockmarked cheeks (partially the result of facial burns he suffered on a 1980s movie set) are part of his trademark look, which can be quite elegant in a disarmingly "old world" way.

This may be why David Lynch tapped him to play a duke in Dune (1984) and why his haunting gaze in the role of a latter-day messiah is the most memorable thing in the apocalyptic Demi Moore showcase The Seventh Sign (1988). He also scrubbed up well in a suit in The Da Vinci Code (2006), even if the French character he played in that film also had a dark side.

Prochnow has said he made the switch to Hollywood after Das Boot because he was subsequently offered less meaty roles in Germany. He seems to have few regrets about his decision to go global.

"Man, (David) Lynch, you have to imagine that - you simply cannot say no to that (kind of an offer)," he has been quoted as saying in looking back on his Hollywood career.

The Berlin-born, Düsseldorf-raised Prochnow, who now resides in Santa Monica, California, said before his June 10th birthday that he would be celebrating it quietly on vacation with his second wife, German actress Birgit Stein. He reportedly makes more time for his personal life these days. His first marriage to Isabel Goslar, which produced a son and a daughter, ended after 16 years amid his many obligations as an actor traveling from set to set.

Stein (born in 1971), meanwhile, might help Prochnow display a "lighter side" late in a long career - she has directed him in a new movie called Ohne Gnade (Merciless), which is due to be released in German movie theaters by late 2011.

As Prochnow (born in 1941) enters his 70th year of life Das Boot will be feted on its 30th anniversary via special screenings on both sides of the Atlantic. A remastered director's cut was released in 1997 to wide critical acclaim. Now celebrated as one of the best German films ever made, it clearly launched both director Peterson and his leading man Prochnow into Hollywood's hallowed orbit.

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