Obituary: Willy Millowitsch

NO EUROPEAN city is so closely associated with an annual extravaganza of organised hilarity as Cologne with its carnival. Famous and notorious in equal measure, the event divides Germans into those who revel in the costumes, hearty humour, and beer on offer, and those who regard it as irredeemably vulgar and indicative of everything that is wrong with German popular culture. The one person who has been seen as an embodiment of this cocky cheeriness was the comic actor Willy Millowitsch.

Millowitsch was born in Cologne in 1909 and came from a long theatrical tradition: his great-grandfather sang popular ballads and his father acted in dialect plays. His mother came from Vienna, thus imparting to the boy the heritage of both cities and two of the most famous comic traditions in German-speaking Europe. He grew up in the theatre, and his first role was at the age of five, as a goblin.

A self-taught actor, Millowitsch led a Cologne theatre and spent the Second World War entertaining the German soldiers. His big break in the then nascent medium of television came in 1953, when his company had to substitute at short notice for a sports programme which could not be screened. He chose to appear in one of his staple roles, in the play Etappenhasen, which he went on to perform more than a thousand times in front of an adoring public.

A string of farces followed, usually written and directed by him, and starring him as well. They were hugely popular, though never masterpieces of refinement. Their titles ("Auntie Jutta from Calcutta", for example) said it all. Millowitsch led the theatre until 1996, when he passed it on to his son.

While he never abandoned the stage, his theatre would not have survived without the hugely popular broadcasts, which reached a peak viewing rate of 88 per cent in 1962 and remained one of the mainstays of the broadcasting station WDR long thereafter.

The secret of his success was in his open display of the famous joie de vivre of his Catholic home town, which he brought on to the stage quite naturally, and in the workaday nature of his characters. He himself said that he had never attempted to act, it just came quite naturally to him. "I always play the same," he admitted once, "I just have it in my blood." With these often tumultuous performances, Millowitsch formed the image of Cologne in the minds of many Germans, who still identify the city more with him than with its other famous son, Konrad Adenauer.

At the age of 80, Millowitsch, who had been honoured by his home city with a bronze statue, had a second lease of life on television as the protagonist in a detective series, Kommissar Klefisch. Cologne the modern media metropolis had outgrown his antics, however, and the actor saw himself betrayed when it was decided not to continue the series. He was far from forgotten, though. His 90th birthday, earlier this year, became a media spectacle. Demand for the 18,000 tickets for the arena in Cologne where the celebrations took place, were said to outstrip that for the ever-elusive tickets for the Bayreuth Festival.

A hero of popular entertainment to some, Millowitsch's ever-cheerful demeanour and indestructible folksy exuberance became a subject of great aversion to others, a symbol of the coarse orchestrated merriment of the Cologne Carnival. Millowitsch himself was indifferent towards his critics. He never changed his acting style or the nature of his performance. As far as he was concerned, those who did not like it could stay at home.

Willy Millowitsch, actor: born Cologne, Germany 8 January 1909; married (one son, one daughter); died Cologne 20 September 1999.

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