The French actor Pierre Brice has died. Much of Europe is in mourning; few Americans have ever heard his name.
Brice, who was 86, starred as Winnetou, the Apache chief who was the hero of a series of movies shot in the 1960s based on the wild west stories of Karl May, the German hack writer who died in 1912 and never set foot in the American west but who thrilled the Old Continent with his tales.
I fell in love with Brice, like (almost) every other girl in central Europe, when as a teenager I spent the summer of 1966 in Prague and saw my first Winnetou movie. It was called “Old Shatterhand” and also starred the American actor Lex Barker as Winnetou’s blood brother, the German adventurer Charlie, AKA Old Shatterhand.
My then-10-year-old little brother and I went to see a 10 a.m. showing at the Sevastopol movie theatre in downtown Prague. After that I was obsessed. I bought a postcard of Brice in his Winnetou costume — darkened skin and long black locks held by a head band — and I cut out photos of him from Czech magazines.
As I wrote in an article about Karl May festivals more than a decade ago:
With his long hair and good looks, Brice set the mold for how a stage Winnetou should look and act, just as the late American actor Lex Barker, the original Old Shatterhand in the movies, set the standard for that role with his rugged features and trademark fringed buckskins.
I regret that I never got to interview Brice for my ongoing Imaginary Wild West project.
But Dana Weber and I did interview another Winnetou — Gojko Mitic, a Yugoslav-born actor who won fame during the Communist era playing Native Americans in East German-made Westerns, Mitic played Winnetou at the oldest and biggest summer Karl May festival, that in Bad Segeberg, Germany, where Brice himself had long been associated.