Bob Crane: Velvet Prisoner – Fiction

Bob Crane: Velvet Prisoner

by Dave Liljengren
illustration by Mediocre Concepts Unlimited

I am proud to announce that, on the first day of October, I read an entire magazine article. It had been a year since I was able to do this. My attention span just vanished. I even gave up on newspapers around June or July. This is the start of a recovery, I hope.

The article, from a ‘zine called Hollywood Highball, concerned the life and death of actor Bob Crane. Crane, star of the ’60s sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes, was found bludgeoned in a Phoenix, Arizona hotel room in 1978. The case has defied definitive solution.

In the 1980s there was speculation his death might be connected to the murder of Alan Berg, a controversial, Denver-area radio talk show host. Berg was believed to have been killed by American Nazi sympathizers and creative conspiracy theorists asserted Crane had been also. The connection between the two men was tenuous at best. Berg spoke out against hate groups. Crane had been an actor in a show that poked fun at them. This theory received absurd confirmation when Phoenix detectives received an anonymous tip from a woman claiming she saw Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz – enemies of Crane’s character in the sitcom – running from the scene at the time of the murder. This was impossible as John Banner, the actor who portrayed Schultz, preceded Crane in death by more than a year.

The truth of the crime, if it is ever uncovered, is likely to be a good deal duller than any speculation. A sexual glutton grazing at the buffet that was the 1970s, Crane gave several people a motive to kill him. However, the individual formally accused of killing him seemed to have the weakest motive of the bunch. Despite physical evidence pointing to him, that individual was acquitted at trial.

Running from fall 1965 to spring 1970, Hogan’s Heroes had consistently high ratings. It’s cancellation came as a surprise to the cast. During the final season, Crane married co-star Patti Anderson, who played Hilda, a buxom secretary with whom Hogan would flirt on his way in and out of Klink’s office. For a few years after cancellation, Hogan’s reruns were ubiquitous. The series theme, with its drum intro played over scenes of a roll call with prisoners going out of, or coming into, the camp through an opening under a dog’s kennel, has to be, along with The Andy Griffith Show theme, among the best of all time.

But the show is hard to find in reruns nowadays. In 1965, Americans may have still identified unquestioningly with American Air force officers like Hogan using their cunning to oust Hitler. A great many WWII vets were still alive. Tastemakers in our land perhaps believed we deserved a few yuks at the hands of the Nazis. However, given the enormity of the Holocaust’s human toll, it could not have been long before the humorless aspects of Hogan’s situation became obvious. In addition, by the time of the show’s cancellation in 1971, younger elements in the national fabric, a prime sitcom demographic, began pointing fingers at Air Force pilots and calling them Nazis because they participated in the Vietnam war. Warriors ceased to be heroes for a short while.

Thus, Klink and Hogan, and the comic tension supporting them, could only have existed for a short time in history. Both actors made the most of their roles and the time they were given to do them. Crane was the king of cool as Hogan. I remember watching as a child and, not understanding the fantastical nature of the plots, longed to emulate his slyly conspiratorial leadership style. As I have grown older, I’ve come to realize Werner Klemperer, who played Klink, was the better comic, as he gave a sympathetic spin to a shallow, self-obsessed, prison camp commandant. This couldn’t have been easy.

The most forthcoming interviewee for the Hollywood Highball piece was co-star Klemperer, who, given the high regard in which his family is held in classical music circles, is an unlikely candidate to have ever participated in a show of such borderline taste. Klemperer’s father Otto, was one of Europe’s foremost conductors and young Werner was a gifted violinist. He would seem to have made peace with his past.

Klink is an easy comic target and I have at other times used the contrast between the actor’s heritage and the current un-PCness of the show as an illustration of how mid-’60s popcultural vendors, and presumably actors of the time, were unable to anticipate the rapid changes in public tastes about to hit them. Could the creators of Bewitched, for instance, have had any clue a day would come when the wives of male advertising execs wouldn’t stay home every day and would instead have careers of their own? Did those same program creators foresee a day when Madison Avenue types wouldn’t necessarily end every workday with a martini?

An interesting fact about the show involves Richard Dawson, the actor who played limey card shark, Newkirk. He and Crane apparently hated each other throughout the series’ run. Dawson had originally been cast as Hogan and never got over the demotion. Dawson has not been discussed as a suspect in the murder.

As for Crane, he probably died of the very thing that made his show so popular. Air Force Colonel Robert Hogan was a captive who grew to love his cage. He and his merry men had hours of enforced leisure punctuated with creative tom-foolery and deadly serious sabotage. What more could a teenage viewer want? What is more likely to drive a healthy adult crazy?

No one escaped from Stalag 13, and who would have wanted out anyway? The gang was all there, LeBeau cooked up some good food, and there were occasional visits from the White Russian, a sexpot spy in league with Hogan and his men.

Crane began his show business career as an L.A. DJ in the late ’40s and early ’50s, hosting a show so popular he netted $100,000 a year and became a friend of Sinatra. Crane’s TV career began on The Dick Van Dyke Show as a neighbor of the Petries. He then became a regular on The Donna Reed Show, then Hogan’s. Nice roles all, but not much to go back to when freed from the prison camp.

Crane seldom drank and apparently never did drugs. He was renowned, however, for his dalliances with groupies. He had gotten hold of early home video equipment and frequently recorded these trysts. He interspersed skin footage with Hogan’s reruns, fashioning a tasteless festschrift from his recent past. This made many angry. All those to whom motives have been ascribed in his killing had sexual jealousies of one sort or another involved in their animosity. It is believed Crane had an affair with the wife of a prominent Phoenix mob boss who vowed to have him killed. Crane’s philandering brought his marriage to an angry end. His wife’s name surfaced in the investigation. The individual tried and acquitted of killing him was something of a friend who participated in the videotaped orgies but who had begun acting strangely around the time of the murder. It is likely there were others.

Crane’s few TV appearances after the cancellation of Hogan’s were celebrity roasts and related appearances involving Sinatra. In the early to mid-’70s there was The Bob Crane Show which was cancelled after 13 weeks. By and large, he was content to rest on celebrity laurels earned previously. The public refused to see him as anything other than Col. Hogan and he obliged them by wearing the leather bomber jacket he wore in the show whenever he appeared in public. The network may have released him, but he clearly longed to be back in the clink. Instead of forging on with a career, Crane invested his creative energies in sex and the grainy image it could produce on a screen. In his case, the ease and glamour of life inside TV’s gilded prison may have been a death sentence too tempting to pass on.