John Banner: The Surprising History of Sgt. Schultz

The day after Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are in the right frame of mind to do a brief tribute to character actor John Banner (Johann Banner, 1910-1973). The central irony about Banner is that, though he’s best known as the bumbling Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971), he was actually a Viennese Jew who fled the Nazis with the coming of the Anschluss in 1938. Many members of his family died in the Holocaust, yet like many actors who’d fled Europe, he wound up playing Nazis himself in the movies.

Upon leaving Austria, Banner acted with a troupe briefly in Switzerland, before coming to Broadway where he appeared with outer refugees in a show called From Vienna (1939). This was followed by a play called Pastoral (1939), and then in 1940 he began getting bit parts in pictures like Tonight We Raid Calais (1943) and They Came to Blow Up America (1943). He served the last couple of years of the war as a supply sergeant in the U.S. army air corps. After the war he did one more Broadway show, The Big Two (1947).

Meanwhile Banner’s movie and TV roles began to gradually get bigger, and so did he. By the time he landed the role that brought him immortality, Banner weight 100 pounds more than his natural weight, making him ideal for Schultz, who was eminently bribable with strudel and other delicacies. The character was also known for his comical cowardice (“I know nothing…noTHING!”), making him the eternal symbol of all bureaucratic buck-passers everywhere. Fellow Hogan’s Heroes cast members Werner Klemperer and Robert Clary were also Jews displaced by the Nazis; Clary had spent time in a concentration camp (he was the only member of his large family to survive).

After Hogan’s Heroes ended its run, Banner played a similar character, Uncle Latzi, on the short-lived The Chicago Teddy Bears (1971), and guested on Alias Smith and Jones, The Doris Day Show, and The Partridge Family. His last role was in a 1973 film called George! After this he moved back to his native Austria, where he died at age 63.