Eight American celebrities with surprising German roots

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.

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

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.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


10 of the best festivals around Germany in 2023

From Stuttgart's Cannstatter Volksfest to the Bremen Freimarkt, there are plenty of local festivals around Germany to check out. Here are some key dates to keep in mind this year.

10 of the best festivals around Germany in 2023

What is a Volkfest?

Volksfeste or folk festivals are regional celebrations and events in Germany that usually have a long history. They are often based on local culture and the seasons as well as holidays like Easter and Whitsun can play a role. Depending on the region, folk festivals can also be called “Kirchweih”, “Kerbe”, “Messe”, “Jahrmarkt”, “Schützenfest” or “Kirmes”.

Germany’s biggest and most famous Volksfest is Oktoberfest (which takes place in Munich from September 16th to October 3rd this year). But there are plenty of other local celebrations to check out. Here’s a look at some of the best folk festivals across Germany. 

Kiel: Kieler Woche (Kiel Week or Kiel Regatta)

From June 17th to 25th, the Kieler Woche, billed as the largest sailing event in the world, will take place. In 2019, 3.5 million people attended the event, which is based in venues spread all over the city. At the Olympic Centre Schilksee, international regattas are planned, while the Willer Balloon Sail on the Nordmarksportfeld sees colourful hot-air balloons take to the skies.

For concerts and theatre, crowds head to the open-air stage at Krusenkoppel and the Fördebühne at Bernhard-Harms-Weg. And in the Scandinavian fishing village on the Reventlou Loop, a market with northern European charm and a lighthouse attract visitors.

READ ALSO: Eight unmissable events in January in 2023

Hamburg: Hamburger Dom

Hamburg’s famous funfair takes place on the city’s Heiligengeistfeld, St Pauli three times a year. Visitors to the festival get to experience a mix of carousels, lottery stalls, snack bars, sweet stands, bars and rides.  In total, there are over 230 different attractions, and the Volksfest dates back over 700 years. In 2023, the Spring Dom is planned from March 24th to April 23rd, the Summer Dom from July 21st to August 20th and the Winter Dom will be in place from November 10th to December 10th. 


Winterdom in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Georg Wendt

Hamburg: Hafengeburtstag (Harbour Birthday)

The city’s Hafengeburtstag is a street festival taking place on the banks of the river Elbe. It involves boating traditions and offers people the chance to stroll, hang out and feast along the harbour mile. Check out the fireworks on Saturday night at the Landungsbrücken. The festival takes place from May 5th to 7th.

Bremen: Freimarkt (Free Market)

Founded way back in 1035, the Bremen Freimarkt is one of the oldest folk festivals in Germany. It attracted 4.4 million guests in 2019, making it one of the biggest in Germany. Its name derives from the fact that here – in contrast to the usual weekly markets – non-local and local merchants were both free to sell goods. Otherwise only members of other Bremen guilds were allowed to trade. It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that it became solely an amusement festival complete with a rollercoaster, ferris wheel, ghost train and almost 50 other rides. It takes place at the Bürgerweide near the main railway station.

Things are a bit more tranquil at Bremen’s market square at the “Kleiner Freimarkt”, with doughnuts, roasted almonds, liquorice and nostalgic carousels. In the nearby market village dating back to 1382, blacksmiths, glassblowers and stonemasons will be demonstrating crafts, while jugglers and singers will provide entertainment. The whole fest is taking place for the 987th time from October 13th to 29th.

Paderborn: Libori

Expect culture and fun activities at the nine-day Libori Festival. The town hall square becomes a concert mile and dance floor, the Franz-Stock-Platz a “place of the arts” with acrobatics, comedy, theatre and puppet shows. Another tradition is the beer fountain, where barley juice flows instead of water. The festival originated in 836 when the holy relics of St Liborius were brought back from Le Mans to the episcopal city of Paderborn. The next Liborifest is set to take place from July 22nd to 30th.

Soest: Allerheiligenkirmes (All Saints’ Fair)

Europe’s largest old town funfair, which has clocked up almost 700 years of tradition, attracted almost 1.3 million spectators in 2019. Its unique atmosphere is based on the juxtaposition of colourful high-tech fairground rides, historic half-timbered houses and the almost 1,000-year-old cathedral.

In the centre of what was once one of the most important Hanseatic cities, almost 50,000 square metres is reserved for the festival, taking place from November 8th to 12th this year.  A culinary speciality at the North Rhine-Westphalia fair is honey liqueur, served in edible “schnapps glasses” made of chocolate-covered wafers.

Snacks at the Allerheiligenkirmes festival in Soest in 2021.

Snacks at the Allerheiligenkirmes festival in Soest in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Inderlied

Düsseldorf: Größte Kirmes am Rhein (Largest funfair on the Rhine)

The third-largest Volksfest in Germany, the ‘Größte Kirmes am Rhein’ attracted four million people in 2019. Held on the Rhine meadows between the Rheinkniebrücke and Oberkasseler Brücke bridges, the festival is hosted by the St. Sebastianus-Schützenverein.

Among the rides, the Bayern Tower stands out. The world’s tallest maypole, at 90 metres, rotates 73 metres above the ground. Don’t forget to check out the fireworks display. Put these dates in your diary to check it out: 14th to 23rd July.

Herne: Cranger Kirmes

Among the 50 or so rides at this fair in North Rhine-Westphalia, the ferris wheel offers great views and cool experiences: guests can have a picnic, tapas or coffee in the cabins on the ride. The funfair programme includes a horse market, musical performances plus the tapping of the barrel by the mayor as well as a large parade. A fireworks display traditionally forms the finale. The Cranger Kirmes takes place from August 3rd to 13th. 

Nuremberg: Nürnberger Volksfest (Folk Festival)

There are two editions for this festival at the Großer Dutzendteich: the Spring Festival from April 8th to 23rd  and the Autumn Volksfest set for August 25th to September 10th. There are lots of fairground rides for the whole family. The programme includes the samba show Bateria quem é, Punch and Judy in the Frankendorf, a classic car parade and the ‘Night of 1000 Lights’ – a fireworks display over the Dutzendteich. But there are also contemporary events such as ‘apprentice speed dating’ in the Ferris wheel, where major employers from the region try to fill their apprenticeship places (yes, really!). 

Revellers attend the Nuremberg Volksfest in June 2022.

Revellers attend the Nuremberg Volksfest in June 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Löb

Stuttgart: Cannstatter Volksfest/Wasen

The Cannstatter Volksfest is known as the Wasen after its venue in Neckarpark in Stuttgart’s Bad Cannstatt district. It attracted around 3.5 million visitors in 2019 and is celebrated between September and October. A huge number of fairground operators set up in the city. During the parade on the first Sunday of the festival, expect outlandish costumes and music bands from all over Germany marching through the historic streets of Bad Cannstatt to the Wasen.

The spring edition of the festival – a “Wasen light” – is to take place from April 22nd to May 14th. The regular folk festival is scheduled for September 22nd to October 8th.