He will probably be best remembered by the vast majority of viewers as “The Old Man.” That is what he, as lieutenant captain, is called by the loyal crew of the German submarine U-96 in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 war epic Das Boot

The film, which shows the submarine setting sail from the French Atlantic coast for a dangerous war mission in 1941, was a huge success around the world and catapulted German actor Jürgen Prochnow to Hollywood fame. 

One film, one man, one role — that is what has imprinted itself in viewers’ memories when it comes to Prochnow. He played the role as a tough, yet sympathetic submarine commander. The film was so successful, it was also turned into a television series

Black-and-white portrait of Jürgen Prochnow in the 1970s.

Jürgen Prochnow in his younger years: a photograph from 1975

Born in Berlin on June 10, 1941, Jürgen Prochnow may owe his fame mostly to his work with German director Petersen, but he also performed for directors David Lynch, Anthony Minghella, John Frankenheimer and Michael Mann. And in between his Hollywood productions, the charismatic actor also worked in television films and movies in his home country.

Yet his overwhelming success in Das Boot and his subsequent career in Hollywood largely overshadowed earlier accomplishments.

Scandal and success: Die Konsequenz

In the 1970s, the actor with the distinctively angular and pockmarked face came to be seen as an exciting representative of the New German Cinema movement, working with outstanding directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Reinhard Hauff and Volker Schlöndorff.

His performance in Die Konsequenz (The Consequence), an early film by Wolfgang Petersen, stimulated a public debate in Germany on homosexuality.

Jürgen Prochnow with Evelyn Hamann, who is holding a wooden spoon.

Prochnow has also been good at comedy: here, he is shown with German actress Evelyn Hamann

Watching one of Prochnow’s early films is an interesting experience, as he exudes an amazing mixture of masculinity and rigor, sensitivity and vulnerability.

A successful German star in Hollywood

As Prochnow celebrates his 80th birthday on June 10, he can look back on a career with many ups and downs, as one of only a handful of post-war German actors to have become a Hollywood star.

Jürgen Prochnow holding up a birthday candle.

A birthday candle for Jürgen Prochnow: Here, he is shown in the 1990 film ‘Kill Cruise’

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