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Now emperor, now ruthless murderer on screen, generous benefactor in real life. Throughout his long and prolific career, Karlheinz Böhm did not only lend his face to Franz Joseph I of Austria. On the contrary, after the success of the Marischka trilogy, the actor tried throughout his life to distance himself from those films that had made him world-famous, often even playing characters that were decidedly antithetical to those he initially used to play.

Theatre, film, his Africa

Many will remember the smiling, reassuring face of a Franz Joseph I who was very much in love with his Sissi in the famous trilogy directed by Ernst Marischka in the 1950s, dedicated to the Empress of Austria. And although, on this occasion, both the figures of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth of Austria themselves have been rather fictionalised, the actor Karlheinz Böhm, together, of course, with the great Romy Schneider, managed to enter the hearts of the audience from the very first moments he appeared on screen.

Yet throughout his long and prolific career, Karlheinz Böhm did not only lend his face to the famous emperor. On the contrary, after the success of the Marischka trilogy, the actor tried throughout his life to distance himself from those films that had made him world-famous, often even playing characters that were decidedly antithetical to those he initially used to play.

And although certain choices have not always been appreciated by audiences and critics alike, time has proved this versatile Austrian actor right and some of the feature films he has starred in are considered cult movies today.

But that’ s not all. If, in fact, over the years, we have come to appreciate his acting qualities, few will know that he has always been active in the humanitarian field. In 1981, Karlheinz Böhm founded the charity association ‘Menschen für Menschen’, which operates mainly in Ethiopia, where Böhm himself was awarded honorary citizenship in 2003.

A life, his, then, rich in adventures and unexpected twists and turns. A life that began in Darmstadt – in Germany – on March 16, 1928. Karlheinz was, in fact, a child of art. His father, Karl, was a conductor from Graz, while his mother, Thea Linhard, was an opera singer. Initially growing up in Germany, Böhm soon moved with his family to Graz, his father’s hometown, and was initially encouraged by his father to study Anglistics and Germanistics. This choice, however, did not suit his passion and the young Karlheinz soon abandoned his studies.

His dream was to become a pianist, but apparently he was not talented enough to pursue this path. Yet, the art world – probably also thanks to the influence of his parents – had always fascinated him. And so, having moved to Vienna, he began taking acting lessons at the Burgtheater from actors Albin Skoda and Helmuth Knauss, while at the same time he began working as an assistant director with film director Karl Hartl.

And it was precisely with Karl Hartl that he made his film debut. The excellent The Angel with the Trumpet, based on the novel of the same name by Ernst Lothar, was made, in fact, in 1948. But if in this film Karlheinz Böhm played a very marginal role (which, by the way, did not even exist in the original novel), it was in the theatre that he initially achieved the greatest success and people began to notice him. After his first successes at the Burgtheater (with a debut in 1948 with the play Ein Herr von vierzig Jahren), Böhm joined the permanent company of the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna from 1949 to 1953, and then continued to act in Munich, Zurich, Berlin and Frankfurt.

Then, finally, came the mid-fifties. And it was in 1955 that Ernst Marischka cast him in the film that would make him world famous: Sissi. The character of a young, loving, open-minded and quite different emperor from how one usually imagined him, definitively won the hearts of the audience. And the successful feature film was joined by Sissi – The Young Empress (1956) and Sissi – Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), all directed by Marischka.

Actually, a fourth film should have been added to these three, but it was Romy Schneider herself – no longer wishing to be identified with Elisabeth of Austria – who opposed its production. With Romy Schneider, however, Karlheinz Böhm maintained a good friendship that lasted until her death in 1982, and over the years he also became her precious confidant (to him, for example, Schneider would often turn during her crises and when she was tired of being identified with Sissi).

If, however, with Marischka’s films both actors risked being “imprisoned” in their characters forever, at the same time, thanks to their great success, many other doors were opened.

Thus it was that Karlheinz Böhm’s career finally took a turn and the actor left for the United States. Just a few years later – in 1960 to be precise – came one of the most significant roles of his entire career: that of the maniacal killer Mark Lewis in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. A film, this one, which today is considered a true milestone in the film history, but which was completely panned by critics at the time. And this, of course, did not help Böhm’s career either.

After signing a contract with Metro Goldwin Mayer, Karlheinz Böhm took part in a few more feature films – including Terence Young’s Too Hot to Handle (1960), Georg Tressler’s The Magnificent Rebel (1962) and Vincente Minnelli’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) – without, however, achieving the success he had hoped for. Perhaps, unfortunately, Hollywood did not seem to be the right path for him either. So, after a few years, he returned to Europe, where things, despite everything, seemed to start getting better and better.

In fact, among the most important feature films in which Karlheinz Böhm took part, one must include Martha (1974), Fox and His Friends (1975) and Mother Küsters’ Trip to Heaven (1975), all directed by the great Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And it was precisely Fassbinder’s genius that finally boosted his career, making it take off, both in terms of the roles he played and the undisputed quality of the films themselves.

In spite of a life already full of adventures and changes, the moment that would give a definitive turn to his existence had yet to come. And that was in 1976, to be precise, when Böhm – in order to undergo treatment for bronchitis – was sent by his doctor to spend time at a high-class sanatorium in Kenya. There, however, he was impressed by the poverty of the locals and decided it was time to take action himself.

Back in Germany, then, during the TV programme Wetten, dass…? (the German correspondent of the format You Bet!), Karlheinz Böhm made a bet by stating that, in his opinion, no one would be willing to donate even one mark for humanitarian purposes and, in case of losing, he would personally travel to Africa to do something good with the money raised. This is how he managed to raise 1,700,000 marks and founded the humanitarian organisation Menschen für Menschen in Ethiopia.

And so, for the rest of his life, he lived between Germany and Ethiopia, pursuing his campaigns and gaining numerous moral rewards in return. Perfect crowning glory to a life of successes as well as professional failures. A life that came to an end on May 29, 2014, due to Alzheimer’s disease. A life during which he was married three times, during which he had no less than seven children, including the actresses Kristina and Katharina Böhm (the latter is best known in Italy for playing the role of Livia in Inspector Montalbano). A life that culminated in him being awarded the Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood among Peoples in 2007. A life perfectly worthy of a man with a heart of gold, whose reassuring smile will remain forever impressed in the hearts of millions of spectators.

Info: the page of Karlheinz Böhm on www.menschenfuermenschen.de; the page of Karlheinz Böhm on iMDb