The public loved him as an entertaining presenter of talk shows. Roger Willemsen also wrote best-sellers, loved football and was one of Germany’s best-known intellectuals. He has died at just 60 years old.
Roger Willemsen was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his 60th birthday in August. The busy journalist and cultural commentator immediately canceled all his forthcoming appointments and engagements, including his appearance at this year's lit.Cologne festival, where in the past his sparkling wit when presenting the big opening ceremony had provided great moments of entertainment.
In addition to his work as a successful television presenter - his show "Willemsens Woche" ("Willemsen's Week") was broadcast on the public TV channel ZDF - and essayist for the supplements of all the major newspapers, Willemsen traveled a great deal. Broadening horizons, getting to know other cultures, constantly questioning one's own narrowly European view of the world, all this was important to him. His travel books made it onto the German best-seller lists. Willemsen's last, very personal book about the German parliament ("Das hohe Haus," or "The Upper House") also made it to No. 1 in 2014.
Willemsen was born in Bonn on August 15, 1955. His father was an art historian and conservator, his mother an expert in East Asian art. Willemsen studied first in Bonn, then elsewhere: Florence, Munich and Vienna provided him with wholly new cultural impressions. While studying he often took jobs as a night watchman, tour guide and museum guard. He loved to quietly observe his contemporaries.
In 1984 Willemsen gained his Ph.D. in philosophy, but he eventually abandoned his planned postdoctoral thesis on suicide in literature, preferring to work as a freelance translator and author. In 1988 he spent three years in London as a cultural correspondent, and while there he translated authors such as Umberto Eco and Thomas Moore.
Meteoric television career
In 1991 his TV career began when the Hamburg pay broadcaster Premiere engaged him to present the interview magazine "0137," named after the telephone prefix that the public would call to participate in the live program. A talented culture journalist, Willemson could talk about any topic, from tabloid stories to hard politics. German newspapers described it as a "talkshow with no taboos."
His guest list ranged from the Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Willemsen always aimed to be precise; this, together with his distinctive conversational technique, quickly made him one of the best-known talk-show hosts on German television. Prizes and accolades followed: In 1993 he received the gold Grimme Award, one of the most prestigious awards in German television.
The switch to the public channel ZDF in 1994 put him in a different league. He got his own program, "Willemsens Woche", gaining entry to the Olympus of the most important German opinion-makers. The respected daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, described his show as "intelligent, even intellectual entertainment."
Multitalented creative artist
Roger Willemsen wasn't content with the rapid success of his talk shows. From 1993 onwards he also produced his own television documentaries, interviews, portraits, and programs looking at particular topics in depth. In the ZDF series "Willemsens Zeitgenossen" ("Willemsen's Contemporaries") he interviewed celebrities such as fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, the actors Michel Piccoli and John Malkovich, the musician and producer Quincy Jones, and the star designer Philippe Starck.
Willemsen also made a name for himself as a sought-after columnist for the weekly Die Zeit and other newspapers. He wrote books and articles, and was always talking to interesting people. As a creative mastermind for the Expo 2000, he created a ten-hour video installation for the German pavilion called "Welcome Home: Artists See Germany," which today might be regarded as iconic.
In October 2001 the TV star announced his surprise departure from the television screen, a departure intended to be final. However, his self-imposed abstinence didn't last long: He clearly enjoyed presenting the book program "Literaturclub" for Swiss television from 2004 to 2006. Nor could he resist the lure of the stage. In 2005, Roger Willemsen created a very successful cabaret program, the title of which translates as "I Give You My Word! The World History of the Lie" along with Dieter Hildebrandt, a "master of the well-directed punchline." The two of them toured the show for a considerable time.
An honorary professorship at Berlin's Humboldt University in 2010 was a worthy conclusion for his unprecedented career. Finally, in 2015, he collaborated with comedian Anke Engelke on a very funny audio book about the "wonderful world of the personal ad." In addition to his passion for language, literature and travel, football too was a topic very close to his heart.
Roger Willemsen succumbed to cancer on February 7. He died at his home near Hamburg.