Johannes Heesters, the world’s oldest actor who performed with over 108 years, has died early Saturday in a hospital in Starnberg, Bavaria.
The tenor Heesters made his debut on the big stage at the Volksoper in Vienna, Austria in 1934. Subsequently his career took off in Berlin where, starting in 1935, he became a crowd favorite at the Komische Oper and Admiralspalast. He also had roles in popular movies, most notably he played the lead in “Bel Ami”.
Despite his popularity in the Third Reich, Heesters was never accused of being a propagandist or anything other than an artist willing to perform for the Nazis and during their regime. His popularity as an artist and the interest by the regime in him haunted him his whole life.
After the war he said, that he is a Dutch boy, who is “apolitical” and not interested in politics, just wanted to perform. “What did I do wrong? Sure, I acted in films in the Third Reich, entertainment films, which distracted countless people inside and outside Germany from daily life during war. Through no fault of my own, Adolf Hitler was one of the fans of my art.” The Allies allowed him to continue his career after the war, when he took Austrian citizenship.
Johannes “Jopi” Heesters continued to be a popular performer in Germany well into his old age, making regular appearances on television and on stage. His best-known role, as Count Danilo in Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow,” he played 1,600 times the Honore in the musical “Gigi.” 750 times.
At age 98, he put health problems such as knee and appendix operations behind him to perform in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” At 105 he played in a musical comedy in Hamburg.
Heesters entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1997 as the world’s oldest stage actor. The same year he received Germany’s Bambi Television Prize.
He collected countless prizes and his latest film “Ten” premiered in Munich end of November 2011. He missed the premiere due to a hospital stay, but sent a text from his cell phone to the film team that read:
“Dear Ten Team, I wish you a great evening and very good luck. It’s a shame that I can’t be there with you. Maybe next time. Yours, ‘Jopie’.” He already had another film based on Chekov in the works.
On stage he played the eternal dandy, in private he was married for 53 years until his first wife’s death and married to his second wife until his death.
“To have nothing to do, to sit there waiting for little aches and pains, is fundamentally wrong. Life has to be lived.”