I can’t have been any older than 13 when it hit me that Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971), which I’d been watching in reruns all my life, was some weird, fucked-up shit. A prison camp in Nazi Germany? With a laugh-track? And the Nazis as these kind of lovable bunglers? Yes, the Guest Starring Officers were always sinister, but the regulars played by Werner Klemperer (Klink) and John Banner (Schultz), all they needed to make them nice was a great big hug! Later, I got some context: the show is clearly inspired by movies like Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963) so it’s not without any kind of precedent. But for a kid who had just gotten the memo about the Holocaust (back when that was still taught at school as a very bad thing-?), it suddenly struck me all at once with full force how deeply perverse it all was. And now that it’s no longer a hit prime time TV show, it again grows stranger with every passing year.
If there was one element of the show that seemed healthy, normal, wholesome, and all-American, it was its star Bob Crane (1928-1978). Hailing from Waterbury, Connecticut, Crane had begun his performing life as a drummer in marching bands and jazz combos before launching his career as a radio disc jockey in 1950. By 1956 he was hosting the most popular show on CBS’s west coast flagship station KNX in Los Angeles. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Can’t you easily picture that voice on the radio, spinning disks, cracking wise, interviewing movie stars?
Things bumped up a notch when Crane had Carl Reiner on his radio show as a guest, which then led to Crane’s 1962 appearance on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which then led to his becoming a regular on The Donna Reed Show in 1963 and 1964. Which led to his getting cast as the unflappable, easy-going Colonel Hogan on Hogan’s Heroes, the cast of which also included the aforementioned Klemperer and Banner, as well as Cockney Richard Dawson, Frenchman Robert Clary, African American Ivan Dixon and odd duck Larry Hovis. Also in the cast was Sigrid Valdis as Fraulein Hilda, whom Crane became romantically involved with and left his wife for. Crane and Valdis (whose real name was Patricia Olson) were married on the Hogan’s Heroes set, literally, in 1970.
Hogan’s Heroes was a long-running hit — six years is a decent run for a TV series. And it was extremely popular in syndication thereafter. The seemingly clean-cut Crane then starred in two Disney movies Superdad (1973) and Gus (1976). He also got a second starring sitcom, the short-lived, MTM-produced The Bob Crane Show (1975) (see some clips of it on Youtube.) And he did the usual guest shots on The Love Boat and so forth.
Then, in 1978, the scales fell from our eyes. Crane was in Scottsdale, Arizona for a live theatre engagement when he was found murdered (brutally bludgeoned to death) in his hotel room. Subsequent investigation uncovered the fact that Crane and a confederate named John Henry Carpenter, a sales rep for Sony Electronics, had teamed up for years to seduce scores of women and videotape their sexual encounters, a sort of limbo realm that might be thought of as either amateur porn, or a kind of proto-sexual selfie. Crane had been a sex addict since his days as a DJ, and made full use of his celebrity status as an aphrodisiac lure. Later, Carpenter was tried for the murder and acquitted. Officially the crime remains unsolved. In 2002, the film Auto Focus, directed by Paul Schrader, chronicled these sordid events, with Greg Kinnear playing Crane. Clearly, Bob Crane was a PRISONER of his own sexual addiction; and was finally EXECUTED in the end. If that seems like inappropriately grim humor, I would counter that that’s nothing compared to the inappropriately light-hearted comedy of Hogan’s Heroes! Hello? Nazis!?