“Even as a first-grader he may not have been the
most studious one, but always the funniest one.”
— Thomas Gottschalk’s mother, Rutila (1922-2004)
Finding Refuge in California
Unless you live in German-speaking Europe, Thomas “Thommy” Gottschalk is the host of the most famous TV show you’ve never heard of. Although he has appeared in a handful of German and Hollywood movies (Sister Act 2), Gottschalk is best known as the moderator and “Showmaster” of Europe’s most successful television show of all time. (But learn about his 2011 retirement below.) Each airing of Wetten, dass...? (“Wanna bet?”) draws as many as 15 million viewers when it is broadcast from various German and European cities. But the famous TV star got his start in radio.
Thomas Johannes Gottschalk was born into a middle-class, conservative, Catholic family on May 18, 1950 in the Bavarian/Franconian town of Bamberg. His father, Hans, was a lawyer. His mother, Rutila (nee Kossorz), was a full-time housewife. He and his younger siblings, Christoph and Raphaela, grew up in Kulmbach. When Thomas was only 14, he lost his father to stomach cancer. His mother would die of heart failure at age 82 in 2004. (Gottschalk flew from America with his family to be by her side just before she died.) Even as a teenager in Kulmbach, Thomas was known for his bizarre atire: colorful sports jackets, loud shirts, and unusual pants. To this day, Gottschalk is notorious for the rumpled, sometimes bizarre outfits that he likes to wear.
Though never an outstanding student, Gottschalk completed teacher training, but then decided he didn’t really want to become a high-school teacher (German, history). In the early 1970s he began a modest career as a disc jockey and radio announcer at Bayrischer Rundfunk (BR3), the Bavarian public broadcast network. Later moving to the European commercial station Radio Luxembourg (RTL), he became popular as “Mr. Morning” for the German program.
In 1976 he broke into television at BR as the host of a music-video show later known as “Pop Stop.” A year later he became the host of the regional television call-in quiz show “Telespiele,” which later went nationwide. Gottschalk appeared in his first movie (Piratensender Powerplay) in 1982, and co-wrote the script for his next film with co-star Mike Krüger. Die Supernasen (“The Super Noses,” 1983), a comedy about two bumbling private detectives, became a German box-office success, and a couple of semi-sequels soon followed. Gottschalk’s wife, Thea, whom he married in 1976, played the role of Princess Fatima in Supernasen.
But Gottschalk’s true fame would begin on the fateful evening of September 26, 1987. His friend and colleague Frank Elstner had been the host of “Wetten, dass..?” since inventing the show in 1981. Ready to retire from TV, Elstner asked Gottschalk to take over as host of the popular show. Except for a two-year pause, Gottschalk has been the host of “Wetten, dass...?” since his first broadcast in September 1987. With over 100 broadcasts behind him, Gottschalk is now the undisputed “Mr. ‘Wetten, dass.’”
The 30-year-old show (which Gottschalk has hosted for 24 years), broadcast on Germany’s ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) public TV network seven times per year, is seen in all of the German-speaking countries. “Wetten, dass..?” is a major European TV phenomenon, consistently drawing very high ratings. As the show’s host, Gottschalk has welcomed not only famous German entertainers and prominent politicians, but many international celebrities, including Madonna, Elton John, Shania Twain, Michael Jackson, and Green Day. His two-hour show, broadcast from a different city each time, is a sort of combination of “The Tonight Show” and “Beat the Clock.” There is nothing remotely like it on American TV, yet many American stars (Cameron Diaz, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kevin Costner, Faith Hill, Carlos Santana) have appeared on “Wetten, dass..?”
Contestants on the show try to pull off various odd feats, while some celebrity guests, called “bet sponsors” (Wettpaten), bet on whether a contestant can actually do it or not. If a Wettpate loses the bet, he or she has to do some stunt—usually some kind of minor public humiliation—that has been agreed on in advance. Other celebrities appear on the show merely as performers. Non-German-speaking guests hear a simultaneous English or other translation via an earpiece, since the show is produced in German. Gottschalk is fluent in English, but rarely speaks it during the broadcast of “Wetten, dass..?”
The “Wetten, dass..?” shock
With such record-breaking TV fame, it was a major shock when Gottschalk announced in February 2011 his retirement as host of “Wetten, dass..?” Following an accident that seriously injured a contestant during a car stunt, Gottschalk said there was now a shadow cast over the show that meant he could no longer merely play the cheerful host, as before. The summer broadcast from Mallorca on June 18, 2011 was his last regular show. He will host three special retrospective broadcasts in the fall of 2011 that will feature highlights from the 30-year history of “Wetten, dass..?”
Their home is their castle
In November 2004 Gottschalk purchased Schloss Marienfels, a castle on the Rhine in the famous town of Remagen near Cologne, for 3.5 million euros (about $4 million US). The family’s new 18-room residence is intended to help end wife Thea’s homesickness for Germany. In 2006 the Gottschalks moved into their new German residence, but they continue to maintain their home away from home in Malibu, California.
See the next page for Gottschalk’s Hollywood films and more about his German-Hollywood connections.
NEXT > Gottschalk on Film and TV
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- The German-Hollywood Connection
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