11 Astonishing Facts About Freaks

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

In 1931, fresh off the success of his horror hit Dracula, director Tod Browning finally got the go-ahead to pursue a longtime passion project of his: a revenge tale centered around sideshow performers in a traveling circus. Eager to produce their own horror films that could rival Dracula, MGM let Browning make Freaks, one of the most ambitious and gutsy filmmaking efforts in Hollywood at the time. Though today many regard it as a classic, or at least a cult favorite, Freaks did not have the same reception in the early 1930s. Its title character faced scrutiny and revulsion on the MGM backlot, and the film itself faced scandalized audiences nationwide.

Now, nearly 90 years after its initial release, Freaks remains a unique work in Hollywood history. Here are 11 facts about how it got there, from the original idea to its unlikely revival.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO BE A LON CHANEY VEHICLE.

The story of Freaks as a film project apparently dates back to at least 1925, and the MGM silent drama The Unholy Three, which was directed by Browning and starred “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney. The film was based on a short story by Tod Robbins, and co-starred eventual Freaks star Harry Earles as a dwarf criminal who pulled scams by posing as a baby. The story goes that Earles, eager to find more film roles, brought Robbins’s short story “Spurs”—the tale of a pair of circus performers (part of a bareback riding act in the story) who take advantage of a wealthy dwarf—to Browning.

Browning, himself a former sideshow and vaudeville performer, took an interest in the story and convinced MGM to purchase the rights. The original plan, according to Browning biographer and historian David J. Skal, was to make the film another Chaney vehicle, but the film never got off the ground during the silent era. Chaney died in 1930, shortly after again co-starring with Earles in a talkie remake of The Unholy Three, but Browning never lost interest in the story.

2. MGM WANTED IT TO RIVAL DRACULA AS A HORROR FILM.

Though there were certainly monstrous characters populating various silent films (particularly those portrayed by Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera and London After Midnight), the horror film as a genre didn’t really take off until the era of talkies began. Shortly after Chaney’s death due to complications from lung cancer, Browning was off at Universal Pictures, helping to lead the horror wave with his now-classic adaptation of Dracula. When Browning returned to MGM in the wake of Dracula’s success, head of production Irving Thalberg wanted to capitalize on the horror boom. The hope was that, with the director of Dracula back at the studio, MGM could best Universal with something even more horrifying, and so Browning was finally given the go-ahead to make Freaks, which had remained a pet project of his for years.

According to Skal, it became a classic lesson for Thalberg in being careful what you wish for: The story goes that after he was presented with the screenplay for the film, Thalberg reportedly hung his head and said, “Well, I asked for something horrible, and I guess I got it.”

3. CASTING THE "FREAKS" WAS AN INTENSE PROCESS.

Olga Baclanova and Harry Earles in 'Freaks' (1932)
Harry Earles and Olga Baclanova in Freaks (1932)
Warner Home Video

Aiming for authenticity, Browning sought real sideshow attractions and performers to play the “freaks” at the heart of the story instead of relying on movie magic (as he so often had with Chaney) to portray them. Earles, who brought “Spurs” to Browning in the first place, naturally came on board to play the wealthy dwarf Hans, and enlisted his sister Daisy to play Hans’s dwarf fiancée Frieda.

For the rest of the characters, casting director Ben Piazza put out a call for photographs and on-camera tests for various sideshow performers, and apparently spent nearly a month traveling the country to scout out various acts. This exhaustive search paid off, leading to the casting of memorable performers like the “Half Boy” Johnny Eck, the “Living Torso” Prince Randian, Angelo Rossitto (who continued to work in films for more than five decades after Freaks), and Schlitzie (spelled Schlitze in the film), who in many ways became the performer most identified with the film.

4. MYRNA LOY AND JEAN HARLOW WERE ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED AS CO-STARS.

Casting the other characters in Freaks may not have required as much of an outside-the-studio effort, but it was nonetheless met with a few challenges. When casting the scheming trapeze artist Cleopatra, Thalberg apparently wanted Myrna Loy, who was then a rising star recently signed to an MGM contract. According to Skal, Loy was “absolutely horrified” by the script, and begged Thalberg not to make her do the film. Thalberg relented, and the role went to Olga Baclanova, a former Moscow Art Theatre performer who left the company during a U.S. tour in 1925 and went on to co-star in The Man Who Laughs in 1928, alongside Conrad Veidt. For the seal trainer Venus, Browning wanted Jean Harlow, who was apparently announced to the press as one of the film’s stars near the start of production. Thalberg eventually nixed that idea too, and the role went to Leila Hyams.

5. TOD BROWNING HAD NIGHTMARES ABOUT THE PERFORMERS DURING PRODUCTION.

Browning’s insistence on casting real sideshow performers in Freaks paid off visually, resulting in an unforgettable film experience that also managed to humanize the various real people behind the story. When those casting decisions were applied to the practical process of shooting a film, though, things were sometimes less rewarding. Though many of them were seasoned performers, the “freaks” were not necessarily trained actors, and some of them required special care and patience due to impairments. The stress of working with them took a toll on Browning, which led to some unusual dreams during the making of the film.

"It got to the point where I had nightmares. I mean it. I scarcely could sleep at all. There was one terrible dream in which I was trying to shoot a difficult scene,” Browning later recalled. “Every time I started, Johnny Eck, the half-boy, and one of the pinheads would start bringing a cow in backwards through a door. I'd tell them to stop but the next take they'd do it all over again. Three times that night I got up and smoked a cigarette but when I went back to bed I'd pick up the dream again." 

6. THE "FREAKS" WERE OSTRACIZED BY STUDIO EMPLOYEES.

Browning’s practical difficulties in shooting the film aside, the performers in Freaks also faced resistance from various MGM employees who were reportedly disgusted by their presence on the studio lot. Studio head Louis B. Mayer was apparently so shocked by the performers that he wanted to shut the picture down. Thalberg was able to keep Mayer at bay, but other employees also raised objections after see the “freaks” in the MGM commissary.

To keep tempers from flaring, Thalberg arranged a compromise: Though the more “normal” looking cast members—including Harry and Daisy Earles and the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton—were allowed to remain in the commissary, the rest of the cast was relegated to a tent erected outside, which served as their mess hall. This perhaps still didn’t stop certain reactions, though. According to one possibly apocryphal story, F. Scott Fitzgerald—who was doing some screenwriting work for MGM at the time—walked into the commissary one day and was so shocked by the sight of the Hilton sisters that he fled the room to go vomit. Fitzgerald later worked what seems to be a version of this encounter into his short story “Crazy Sunday,” which is about a Hollywood screenwriter.

7. AUDIENCES WERE SCANDALIZED BY IT.

Freaks finally held its first previews in San Diego in January of 1932, where the audience reaction was swift and brutal. One woman ran screaming from the theater during the movie, while another apparently threatened to sue the studio, claiming that the film was so horrific it had caused her to suffer a miscarriage (it remains unclear whether or not these stories were actually publicity stunts cooked up by MGM to play up the film’s horror elements). One review from a critic who saw the film’s first cut called it "rather gruesomely dramatized for the edification (or education) of those morbid persons who enjoy gazing upon unfortunate, misshapen, cruelly deformed humanity." Fearing further disaster, Thalberg decided to act.

8. THE STUDIO CUT THE MOVIE SHORT.

After the disastrous preview screenings of Freaks, Thalberg decided changes needed to be made, and moved the film’s wider release from January 30 to February 20 of 1932. Without Browning’s input, Thalberg trimmed the film from a length of 90 minutes to only about 60, cutting both footage that depicted the attack on Hercules and Cleopatra in greater detail and some scenes that further humanized the “freaks” through small character moments (the scene in which Prince Randian lights his own cigarette using only his mouth, for example, also originally included footage of him rolling the cigarette). Thalberg also cut an epilogue sequence that depicted a London museum opened by Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione) and replaced it with a framing device featuring a carnival barker who showed off the mutilated Cleopatra to a crowd. Thalberg also added a different epilogue in which Venus and Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) bring Frieda to Hans’s mansion for a reunion and reconciliation.

The uncut version of Freaks still played at the film’s world premiere at San Diego’s Fox Theatre on January 28, and ironically it ended up finding success there. The film set a house record during its run for the theater, which capitalized by advertising itself as the only place where audiences could ever see the “uncensored” version of Freaks.

9. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE FAILURE.

Roscoe Ates, Daisy Hilton, and Violet Hilton in 'Freaks' (1932)
Roscoe Ates, Daisy Hilton, and Violet Hilton in Freaks (1932)
Warner Home Video

Though both initial audience and critical reactions were rather negative, Freaks continued to march through its release across the country in the early months of 1932. Along the way it found box office success in some major cities, and even some positive reviews, but the horrified responses to the film drowned out any sense that Freaks could ever become a box office success. The film’s New York engagement was delayed for months, and when it finally arrived in the summer of 1932 the writing was on the wall. The studio pulled Freaks from circulation and reported a loss of $164,000 against its $316,000 budget.

The next year, in an effort to recoup some of the money lost during the initial theatrical run, Thalberg re-released the film, without the MGM logo, under the new title Nature’s Mistakes. The new release was accompanied by an ad campaign that asked questions like "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?" and "What Sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman?"

10. IT DERAILED BROWNING’S CAREER.

Before Freaks, Browning was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, and his success had earned him enough clout to get the ambitious and gutsy film made after Dracula hit big at Universal. After Freaks, he never quite recovered. According to Skal, this was not just due to that film’s failure, but due to Browning’s continued discomfort with the change in the filmmaking process that came from the rise of talkies. That discomfort, coupled with an increasing inability to get more personal projects approved by the studios in the wake of Freaks, led to his decline in the 1930s.

Browning directed just four more films (two of them uncredited), with his final directing credit coming on the MGM mystery Miracles for Sale in 1939. He retired with enough savings from his directorial successes to live comfortably in a pair of homes in Beverly Hills and Malibu, and died in 1962.

11. IT FOUND A NEW AUDIENCE IN THE 1960S.

After its critical and commercial failure in the United States, Freaks faded into the background as a kind of Hollywood curiosity, and was banned in several countries (including the United Kingdom) for decades. The film was licensed by distributor Dwain Esper in the late 1940s, and played on the grindhouse circuit at various independent theaters, but it wasn’t until the 1962 Cannes Film Festival that the film’s revival really began. After screening there, it was heralded as a kind of forgotten classic. Noted film collector and archivist Raymond Rohauer picked up the baton from there, landing the rights to Freaks and showing it as a cult film. It gained prominence on the midnight movie circuit, and found particular success with members of the 1960s counterculture movement, who saw kindred spirits in its cast.

Additional Sources:
“Tod Browning’s Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema” (Warner Home Video, 2004)

50 Fun Facts About Sesame Street

Getty Images
Getty Images

On November 10, 1969, television audiences were introduced to Sesame Street. In the 50 years since, the series has become one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids.

1. The idea for Sesame Street came from one very simple question.

Publicity still of the Sesame Street Muppets taken to promote their record album, 'Sesame Country,' July 1, 1981
Children's Television Workshop, Courtesy of Getty Images

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the original idea for Sesame Street came about during a 1966 dinner party hosted by Joan Ganz Cooney, who was a producer at New York City's Channel 13, a public television station. Lloyd Morrisett, an experimental educator at the Carnegie Corporation, was one of Cooney's guests and asked her the question: "Do you think [television] can teach anything?" That query was a all it took to get the ball rolling on what would become Sesame Street.

2. Sesame Street almost wasn't Sesame Street at all.

When the idea for Sesame Street was first being talked about, the original title being discussed was 123 Avenue B. Eventually, that title was nixed for both being a real location in New York City that would place the show right across from Tompkins Square Park, and also for being too specific to New York City.

3. Kermit the Frog was an original cast member.

Kermit the Frog
PictureLake/iStock via Getty Images

Before he became the star of The Muppet Show (and the various Muppet movies), Kermit the Frog got his start as a main character on Sesame Street.

4. Kermit was very similar to his creator.

Most people considered Kermit the Frog to be an alter ego of creator Jim Henson.

5. Carol Burnett appeared on Sesame Street's first episode.


BY CBS TELEVISION - EBAY, PUBLIC DOMAIN, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Guest stars have always been a part of the Sesame Street recipe, beginning with the very first episode. "I didn't know anything about [Sesame Street] when they asked me to be on," Carol Burnett told The Hollywood Reporter. "All I knew was that Jim Henson was involved and I thought he was a genius—I'd have gone skydiving with him if he'd asked. But it was a marvelous show. I kept going back for more. I think one time I was an asparagus."

6. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange.

Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two. How did the show explain the color change? Oscar said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

7. Cookie Monster isn't Cookie Monster's real name.

During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

8. C-3P0 and R2-D2 paid a memorable visit to Sesame Street.

In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

9. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name.

It's Aloysius. Aloysius Snuffleupagus.

10. Ralph Nader appeared in an episode.

Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

11. Oscar the Grouch is partly modeled after a taxi driver.

A scene from 'Sesame Street'
Zach Hyman, HBO

Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

12. In 1970, Ernie became a music star.

In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

13. Count von Count isn't the only Count on Sesame Street.

One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

14. Afghanistan has its own version of Sesame Street.

Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover, and Elmo are involved.

15. Cultural taboos prevented Oscar and the Count from being a major part of Baghch-e-Simsim.

According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

16. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul's Gus Fring played Big Bird's camp counselor.

Giancarlo Esposito in 'Breaking Bad'
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

17. The big in Bird Bird's name isn't a misnomer.

How big is Big Bird? 8'2".

18. Being that big of a bird requires a lot of feathers.

Sesame Street Characters (L-R) Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Abby Cadabby attend HBO Premiere of Sesame Street's The Magical Wand Chase at the Metrograph on November 9, 2017 in New York City
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images for HBO

In order to craft Big Bird's iconic yellow suit, approximately 4000 feathers are needed.

19. Cookie Monster has an British cousin.

His name, appropriately, is Biscuit Monster.

20. South Africa's version of Sesame Street features an HIV-positive Muppet.

In 2002, the South African version of Sesame Street (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

21. Kami has caused some political discord.

Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS's funding.

22. "Guy Smiley" is just a stage name.

Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

23. The Count is really, really old.

The Count was born on October 9, 1,830,653 BCE—making him nearly 2 million years old. Try putting that many candles on a birthday cake!

24. Bert and Ernie have spent years explaining, and defending, their relationship.

Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmire, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay."

A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

25. Sesame Street's first season had a few superhero guest stars.

In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what to watch on TV. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

26. Originally, only Big Bird could see Snuffy.

In Sesame Street's third season, audiences were introduced to Mr. Snuffleupagus, Big Bird's BFF. There was only one problem: Big Bird (and, by extension, the audience) were the only people who were able to see Snuffy, leading the show's human stars to believe that Snuffy was an imaginary friend. It was a running joke that went on for nearly 15 years.

27. The decision to stage an episode where everyone finally met Snuffy came from a somewhat dark place.


Sesame Workshop

After 14 years of nobody but Big Bird being able to see Snuffy, Sesame Street's producers were confronted with some rather surprising information: There was a growing concern that the adult humans on the show not believing Snuffy existed might lead some children to believe that adults, in general, didn't always believe kids. This was particularly concerning to the show's producers when it came to cases of child abuse, where kids might be afraid that telling their parents would solve nothing. And so, Snuffy was finally introduced to the world!

28. Telly wasn't always Telly.

Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

29. Sesame Street is home to the only non-human who has testified before Congress.

Photo of Elmo from 'Sesame Street'
iStock

According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

30. Rumors once circulated that Sesame Street was planning to kill off Ernie.

In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

31. The Count wasn't always so nice.

Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

32. Most Muppets only have four fingers.

According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

33. The episode featuring Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day for a very particular reason.

The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

34. Big Bird offered a gut-wrenching tribute to Jim Henson at the Sesame Street creator's memorial service.

Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

35. Israel's version of Sesame Street has its own version of Oscar the Grouch.

Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Cookie Monster evolved from a different snack-obsessed character.

Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

37. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster isn't into cookies at all.

Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

38. Roosevelt Franklin was disliked by some parents, so was fired from Sesame Street.

Sesame Street's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

39. Roosevelt Franklin wasn't the only Muppet to get the boot.

Roosevelt Franklin isn't the only Muppet living on Abandoned Muppet Island. Harvey Kneeslapper, Professor Hastings, Don Music, and Bruno the Trashman are a few of the others who didn't make the cut.

40. Don Music's head-banging tendencies led to some at-home injuries.

The aforementioned Don Music was a frustrated composer who never seemed satisfied with the tunes he composed. As such, his musical sessions often ended with him banging his head on his piano keys in frustration. "The character, played by Richard Hunt, was abandoned because of complaints about his alarming tendencies toward self-inflicted punishment," author David Borgenicht wrote in his book, Sesame Street Unpaved. "Apparently, kids were imitating his head-banging at home."

41. The puppeteers have a few standard rules.

Because Sesame Street's puppeteers work in very close quarters throughout much of the day, Carmen Osbahr—who operates Rosita—told The Hollywood Reporter that "We have a few rules here: Always deodorant, never onions."

42. Puppeteering can be a dangerous job.

Sesame Street puppeteer Caroll Spinney operates Big Bird
Robert Furhing, via Tribeca Film

Legendary puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who operated both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from 1969 to 2018, has shared a couple of war stories about what it's like for the folks standing behind the boards. In a 2015 interview with Bullseye, he revealed that he cannot see out of Big Bird's costume (he has a monitor he watches instead). He also shared some tales about the one time he almost caught on fire ... and the other time he did. He explained:

"Suddenly I'm looking down inside [the costume] and I said, 'Something feels hot!' I looked down and I see an orange flame and it started getting long enough to go inside the suit, and I was like, 'Oh, my God.' I said, 'Hey, I'm on fire' ... One of the cameramen, Richie King, he saved my life. He went over and he patted the flame out with his hand."

43. The show has regularly tackled some touchy issues.

While Mr. Hooper's death is probably the most memorable incident of Sesame Street tackling a challenging issue for kids, it's hardly the only time. Over the years, the series has taught kids about racism, AIDS, and 9/11.

44. Sesame Street has inspired a lot of bizarre fan theories.

Sesame Street Muppets.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Kids are a curious sort, so it was only a matter of time before they started to ask questions about their favorite Sesame Street residents—like what kind of bird is Big Bird anyway? The invention of the internet, of course, has helped some of the more bizarre fan theories gain widespread interest and popularity. Like the rumor that the Count likes to snack on children.

45. There were never any plans to turn Cookie Monster into Veggie Monster.

In 2005, Sesame Street made healthy eating one of its main themes for the season—which led to some speculation that Cookie Monster might be trading in his cookies for something a bit more green and healthy. But these rumors were just that: rumors!

46. The show has racked up a ton of awards over the years.

Given the show's half-century of popularity, it's hardly surprising to learn that Sesame Street has racked up dozens of awards over the years. So far, it has earned 193 Emmy Awards, 10 Grammy Awards, and five Peabody Awards—and shows no signs of stopping there.

47. It's one of the America's longest-running scripted series.


Children's Television Workshop, Getty Images

At 50 years old, Sesame Street is one of the longest-running scripted series on television. Its main competition comes from soap operas like Guiding Light (which ran for 57 years before calling it quits in 2009), General Hospital (which has been on the air for 56 years, and counting), Days of Our Lives (55 years so far), and As the World Turns (which ended its 54-year run in 2010)

48. There are versions of Sesame Street all over the world.

According to Sesame Workshop, there are currently more than 150 different version of Sesame Street—in 70 different languages—being produced around the world.

49. Sesame Street is about to make history at the Kennedy Center Honors.

In December 2019, Sesame Street will receive a Kennedy Center Honor—making it the first TV show ever to earn the distinction.

50. Sesame Street is now a real street in New York City.

'Sesame Street' Muppets under a street sign that reads '123 Sesame Street'
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

In early 2019, Sesame Street finally became a place in the real world. In honor of the show's 50th anniversary, and its impact on New York City in particular, the intersection of West 63rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan was rechristened as "Sesame Street."

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

David Hasselhoff's Strange Connection to the Fall of the Berlin Wall

re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Americans might know David Hasselhoff best as the star of pre-peak television series Knight Rider and Baywatch. But in Germany, he’s been a popular singing attraction since 1985, when his album Night Rocker became a sensation. In June 1989 Hasselhoff released Looking for Freedom, an album with a title track that seemed to speak directly to citizens in European countries seeking democracy. That track had been playing since 1988 in anticipation of the album’s release.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Was it coincidence, or did Hasselhoff help incite a revolution?

In a new interview with Time, Hasselhoff takes no credit for that seismic change in Germany, despite the fact that some of the actor's fans have knitted the two memories—his popularity and the dissolution of the wall—together, leading some to believe he was partly responsible. Some of the same people who began chipping away at the wall dividing East and West Germany had been humming the song for months prior. Some have even told Hasselhoff his music helped inspire change. Others held up signs thanking him for the fall of the wall.

“You’re the man who sings of freedom,” a woman once told Hasselhoff, before asking for his autograph.

The wall, of course, came down rather abruptly, shortly after a premature announcement that East Germans could take advantage of relaxed travel restrictions, and Hasselhoff demurs when asked if he played a role. “I never ever said I had anything to do with bringing down the wall,” he told Time. “I never ever said those words ... There was the guy from Knight Rider singing a song about freedom. Knight Rider was sacred to everyone and hopefully we’ll bring it back as a movie. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right song. I was just a man who sang a song about freedom.”

After the wall fell, Hasselhoff was invited to sing on a crane hovering over its remains on New Year’s Eve in 1989, which you can witness in the video above. Hasselhoff recently returned to Berlin for another series of concerts to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the wall being torn down.

[h/t Time]

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