LOS ANGELES / / You've never heard of Thomas Gottschalk? You don't recognize the tall blond with the long curls nursing a venti in a crowded Malibu Starbucks or striding alone across the Music Center plaza on opera night?
That's exactly the point.
Thomas Gottschalk is probably the most famous German entertainer ever. An irreverent, mile-a-minute talker who describes himself as "a Disney version of Howard Stern," Gottschalk hosts a variety show on German television seen throughout much of Europe on which ordinary folks do goofy stunts for an audience. The show nearly always includes an American movie star or two, a rapper or a sports idol.
Wetten, dass...?, which translates loosely as Wanna Bet?, draws an average audience of 16 million and has reached as high as 18 million -- a record either way for European television. This month, Gottschalk celebrated the show's 25th year and his 20th as host -- also records. Tom Cruise was one of the guests, riding a motorcycle around the set as Gottschalk hammed it up as a "bad guy" on a tricycle.
Gottschalk gets mobbed in European airports. His face, his family and his mock lizard-skin suits are tabloid staples there. Fans shove their cell phones at him, begging him to "say hi to my mom." Cabdrivers who ferry him often radio their dispatchers in gulping, excited whispers.
Think J. Lo, Brad and Angelina, or George Clooney. That kind of fame.
But in Southern California, where he and his wife of 30 years have raised their two sons, Gottschalk hides in plain sight. The paparazzi craning for a shot of Britney Spears and baby Sean Preston take no notice when he hits the local mini-mart for a carton of milk. The lanky 55-year-old looks like just another middle-aged surfer dude.
Gottschalk says he likes it that way. And after more than a decade in Southern California, he has a unique perspective on American culture and the will-o'-the-wisp nature of fame.
"If everybody loves you, then you take it for granted," he said during an interview in his Malibu home, set among avocado trees, a koi pond and a killer canyon view.
In Germany, he sees "what a gift it is to be appreciated by the audience." Yet, "It's nice to switch it off when I come here."
Or is it?
"I had to ask a carwash guy I know to get me a good table at Nobu," the entertainer said, since until recently the maitre d' at one of Malibu's most popular sushi bars didn't recognize him.
When Catherine Zeta-Jones invited Gottschalk to the premiere of her 1998 movie The Mask of Zorro after her guest appearance on Wetten, dass...?, he instinctively headed for the red carpet only to be rerouted to the non-celebrity entrance. That wasn't the first time, he said.
"I realize I can't have it both ways, but doesn't at least somebody know me here?" he said, smiling.
Frances Schoenberger, a Los Angeles correspondent for German magazines, said it is hard for Americans to appreciate the extent of Gottschalk's fame.
"He's like an institution," she said, counting Gottschalk, former tennis star Boris Becker and Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, as the three most famous living Germans.
Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder wanted Gottschalk on hand last year to lighten the mood when he met with President Bush in Mainz to smooth tensions after the two leaders fell out over the Iraq war. In a photograph from that summit, one of dozens hanging in his house, a grinning 6-foot-4 Gottschalk towers above both men.
"Bush liked my cowboy boots," he recalled of the event. "He thought they were from Texas, but they were Gucci. I didn't correct him."
A native of Bamberg, Germany, he intended to become a Latin and German teacher. But in the 1970s, while a student at the University of Munich, he and some friends auditioned for a new show on a Bavarian radio station aimed at young people. He won the DJ spot.
Gottschalk grew up listening to American DJs Charlie Tuna, Wolfman Jack and Casey Kasem on Armed Forces Radio and called German radio "boring" in comparison.
"But I spoke normal language. I wasn't suffering every day like every German intellectual."
His nonstop patter, sense of humor and reverence for things American made him an instant star. His radio success led to an invitation in 1986 to host Wetten, dass...?, a then five-year-old program faltering under another host.
The 2 1 / 2 -hour show runs once a month -- the telecast is live, unscripted and, since German television bunches commercials at the beginning and end of each show, uninterrupted.
Gottschalk insists, "I'm not a clown or comedian." But his ability to ad-lib for 150 minutes while juggling a stage full of celebrities, nervous contestants and a studio audience have made him a Saturday-night staple.
Shows, which telecast from a different German city each time and sometimes from out of the country, have featured a contestant who claimed he could identify any Beatles song from a half-second of music, and a man with a full beard who bet he could skydive from a plane with two friends and be clean-shaven by the time he hit the ground. Each won his wager.
Gottschalk typically asks the celebrity guests to bet on the outcome. If they lose, they suffer a prearranged consequence. "Pierce Brosnan had to kiss 25 German housewives," Gottschalk recalled.
This madness is in service of a mission that Gottschalk explained is "to bring some California sunshine and fight that bad German mood."
Wetten, dass...? runs from October into April, and during those months, Gottschalk jets to Germany every two weeks.
His back-and-forth life has led to observations about the two cultures he straddles.
"Americans want to have fun always," he said. "Germans have to be told things aren't so bad. This is why the German economy has problems.
"Germany is always a mirror of American TV," he continued, "but you guys don't take things seriously. Germans do."
Attention span is another difference. Michael Eisner wanted to create an American version of Wetten, dass...? after he appeared on the show some years ago, Gottschalk said, but eventually decided that American audiences wouldn't sit still long enough. However, a Chinese version that debuted in 2004 has been a success.
Gottschalk has concluded that his talents don't translate to America. He had a small role as a German priest opposite Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2. But he says his looks and accent make him "a German stereotype."
However, a passion for music, especially opera, has attracted attention, landing him on the board of the Los Angeles Opera. The opera's chief operating officer, Edgar Baitzel, said he recognized Gottschalk's name among the subscriber rolls when he and general director Placido Domingo arrived in Los Angeles six years ago, and they invited him to join the board.
"I consider him our cultural ambassador in German-speaking countries," Baitzel said. "He talks highly about the Los Angeles Opera on his show and when he travels.
"There are people on the board who saw this tall, blond German person but can't imagine what kind of celebrity he is in Germany," Baitzel continued. "Then a group of board members went to Bayreuth, [Germany], and ... they saw the thousands of flashbulbs."
In Malibu, Gottschalk likes to quote a Latin proverb that he translates as, "where I feel good, there is my home. That's how I feel in California," he said.
Molly Selvin writes for the Los Angeles Times.