Eight American celebrities with surprising German roots

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Eight American celebrities with surprising German roots
Many celebrities have German roots, and some can even speak the language. Photos: DPA/EPA/AP

While they may have found fame in the English-speaking world, many celebrities have roots elsewhere. Here are eight household names whose ties to Germany may surprise you.


Sandra Bullock 

Bullock speaks fluent German and has dual US-German citizenship. Photo: DPA

Sandra Bullock is more widely known for her Academy Award win in The Blind Side and further nominations, as well as a successful producing career. 

Few, however, know that she is the daughter of Helga Mathilde Meyer, an opera singer and voice coach from Germany who married John W. Bullock, an army employee from Alabama.


The two met when Bullock’s father was stationed in Nuremberg, where Bullock would live between stints in Vienna and Salzburg, Austria, for the first twelve years of her life. 

She speaks fluent German, but has been reluctant to give a longer German-language interview due to her allegedly bad grammar.

Bullock’s cousin, Susanne, is now married to Peter Ramsauer, a prominent politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU sister party. 

The German connection doesn’t stop there though: she also applied for dual US-German citizenship in 2009 along with her sister.

Billy Joel

Billy is open about his German roots and has performed several times in the country. Photo: EPA/Hayden Roger

The famous singer may have been born and raised in New York, but his father and grandparents are originally from Nuremberg, Germany. 

His grandfather, Karl Amson Joel, was a successful textile merchant of Jewish descent. Increasingly hostile anti-Semitic laws in Nazi Germany forced him to sell his business at a fraction of the value and escape with his family to Switzerland. 

They later emigrated to the United States via Cuba, where his son Howard Joel met his wife and had a child, Billy, in 1949. 

Howard later divorced his wife and returned to Europe, where he settled in Vienna, Austria and remarried. His second son, Alexander (Billy’s half brother) is now a famous classical conductor in Europe and speaks fluent German. 

A documentary on Joel's family history can be found here.

Bruce Willis 

Much like Bullock, Willis' parents met while his father was stationed in Germany. Photo: EPA

‘Die Hard’ Star Bruce Willis is a Hollywood icon in the States, but he was actually born in the West German town of Idar-Oberstein in Rhineland-Palatinate.

His American father met his German mother whilst he was stationed in Germany as a soldier, and Bruce spent the first two years of his life in the country. 

Although German is technically his mother tongue, he admits that his skills in the language are practically non-existent as he moved to the US before he could talk. 

Forty eight years later, however, he returned to his roots, turning up outside the door to his childhood home (much to the surprise of its current owners) and asking to take photos of the rooms inside.

Nicole Simpson

Simpson only lived in Germany for the early years of her life. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nicole Brown Simpson was married to former professional NFL player O.J. Simpson, and her murder in June 1994 resulted in a controversial and widely publicised trial. 

She was born in Frankfurt in 1959. Her German mother Juditha and American father Louis met while he was stationed in the US as a correspondent for the American military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

The family lived in Frankfurt for the first years of Nicole’s life before later relocating to the US.

Meryl Streep

Streep learned to speak some German for her award winning performance in Sophie's Choice. Photo: ANSA/DPA

Hailed by many as the greatest actress of her time, record Academy award-winning Meryl Streep has some clear links to Germany.

Her father was of German and Swiss-German descent. Streep’s great-great-grandfather, Gottfried Streeb, immigrated from Loffenau, Baden-Württemberg, to the United States. The surname ‘Streeb’ was later changed to ‘Streep’. Her mother is also of partly German heritage.

In 1978, Streep travelled to both Germany and Austria to film the 1978 miniseries Holocaust, in which she played the German wife of a Jewish artist in Nazi Germany.



Streep later won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as a Polish immigrant in Sophie’s Choice (1982). She speaks German in the film as well as Polish and English.

In 2012, Streep was awarded the coveted Golden Bear lifetime achievement prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.

READ ALSO: Meryl Streep wins Golden Bear for life work

Donald Trump

Trump denied his links to Germany for many decades. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/DPA

US president Donald Trump’s links to Germany have been shrouded in some controversy. 

His grandfather, Friedrich Trump, immigrated to the United States in 1885 when he was just 16 to escape compulsory military service.

He later attempted to return to Germany with the money he had earned, but he was stripped of his German citizenship for avoiding military service and forced to remain in the States. 

There, he married a woman from his hometown Kallstadt and had three children. The middle child, Fred Trump, is Donald Trump’s father. 

President Trump denied his German roots for most of his career, insisting in his book “The Art of the Deal” that his grandfather came from Sweden. 

According to his cousin John Walter, Trump kept his German heritage secret for the sake of his father, a realtor who wanted to avoid upsetting his Jewish clients. 

Doris Day

Day anglicised her German surname as it was deemed to be too long. Photo: PA Wire/DPA

American cultural icon Doris Day was actually born as Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff. 

Although she grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, her grandparents on both sides were German. Her paternal grandfather, Franz Joseph Wilhelm Kappelhoff, came as an immigrant to the US in the late 19th century.

When Doris was 17, she was advised to adopt the stage surname ‘Day’ to help advance her career, as it was felt that Kappelhoff was simply too long. 

Kirsten Dunst 

Dunst dreams of being able to star in a German film one day. Photo: DPA

American movie star Kirsten Dunst doesn’t just have German roots - as of 2011, she officially has dual German and American citizenship. 

Although the actress was born in New Jersey, her father Klaus Dunst comes from Hamburg.


She attained German citizenship to make filming in Europe easier, and enjoys spending time in the country’s capital, Berlin. 

Dunst admits that she can only speak German “at a child’s level”, but hopes that one day she can go back to her roots by starring in a German language film.



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