Akron Beacon Journal, July 18, 1965
By JACK MAJOR
Playboy magazine, in reviewing Otto Preminger’ World War II film, “In Harm’s Way,” offered this comment: “You loved the war, now see the movie.”
Indeed, we must have loved the war. Just check the box office receipts from all those war movies playing at theaters throughout the country.
But our love may be put to a severe test this fall when CBS introduces the public to a new television series called “Hogan’s Heroes,” a situation comedy set in a German prisoner-of-war camp. That’ right, fun and games in a POW camp.
Its star, Bob Crane, called to talk about a show he described as a cross between “Combat” and “McHale’s Navy,” or a marriage of malarkey and mayhem, precisely the formula Crane thinks will succeed. Its chance of success may be aided by the fact it will be filmed in color.
“Yes, I know,” said Crane, “your first reaction is probably the same as mine: Why the heck put a show like ours in color? What great scenery can you find at a POW camp?
“But let me tell you ... after seeing the programs we’ve already done, I’m really impressed at what color will add to your show.”
What color is expected to add are points to the show’s ratings. NBC, knowing that many color set owners watch almost anything so long as it is in color, will present nearly all of its shows in peacock tones this fall.
The other networks were forced to act. That’s why CBS decided to make the concentration camp’s comedy colorful.
But isn’t it a bit much to make light of a POW camp? “Stalag 17” had its funny moments, but comedy wasn’t the movie’s primary goal. Aren’t viewers likely to think “Hogan’s Heroes” is in poor taste?
Well, consider this:
The Nazi commander in the program is played by Werner Klemperer, who fled Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s.
The doltish camp guard is played by Vienna-born John Banner, who was chased out of Austria for poking fun at Hitler on stage.
Robert Clary, who plays a French prisoner, is a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, where both his parents died.
Another featured player, Richard Dawson, was a British POW.
Obviously the network figures if these people can laugh at the war anyone can.
The person who has the most at stake is Crane because the program represents a big gamble on his part. He has been a successful disc jockey in Los Angeles for several years, though for the past two seasons he had a regular, but secondary role on “The Donna Reed Show.”
“I taped my radio programs during my breaks on the set of Donna’s show,” said Crane, who could have continued to hold both jobs, but decided instead to attempt something bigger.
He was offered “Nightlife,” ABC’s late night show that has struggled since it started.
“The network wanted to move the show to the West Coast,” said Crane, “and they offered me the job of host, but I wanted no part of it.”
“I’ve noticed successful TV hosts such as Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Arthur Godfrey all remained TV hosts. The public wouldn’t accept them as anything else. Suppose they had wanted to become actors? They couldn’t. Have you ever seen Carson act? I’ll bet no one ever gives him the chance.
“Well, I want to be an actor, so I’m not about to jeopardize my chances.”
Crane was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, about 37 years ago. His first ambition was to be a drummer, and he worked with bands for several months until 1950 when he took an announcing job in Hornell, New York.
He bounced up the ladder from Hornell to Bristol, Connecticut, to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Los Angeles and became a Big Wilson-type celebrity on the West Coast for his work on a CBS-owned music station.
[NOTE: Big Wilson was a popular radio personality in Cleveland while I worked in nearby Akron. Wilson's career also took him to Philadelphia, New York and Miami.]
He said he was bitten by the acting bug in 1958 when he and his wife saw the movie “Tunnel of Love,” which featured Doris Day, Richard Widmark and Gig Young.
“My wife told me afterward that Gig Young acted a lot like me. Then she wondered why I hadn’t gone into acting. So I decided to give it a try.
“A few weeks later I did ‘Tunnel of Love’ in a little theater. It really wasn’t acting. It was more like Bob Crane’s impression of Gig Young. But it was a start.”
Since then he has been looking for an opportunity to make a name for himself, something even his good exposure on the Reed show couldn’t do.
“But I kept getting offers to do family comedy shows like ‘Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.’ I wanted no part of shows like that because ... well, before the Reed show I was always cast as a girl chaser. I don’t know why I got such roles, but I discovered they’re fun. For one thing, you can do more with that kind of character. He’s more colorful. He’s not tied down to a wife and kids somewhere in an odor-free suburb.
“Hogan of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ will be a colorful character. He may even get a chance to chase a few girls, too. Yes. Believe it or not, we’ll smuggle a few into our POW camp before too long.
“Listen there are 8 million ways we can go with the show. Actually, our POW camp will be a base for Allied spying operations, which is why I won’t ever try to escape. Oh, we’ll have lots of escapes, but we’ll also have men sneak into the camp so that our population never changes. We wouldn’t want to arouse Nazi suspicion, would we?
“There’s one point during our first episode when I get word someone wants to get into our camp. I say, ‘We can’t do it because there already are 12 guys on the waiting list.’
“And we’ll have gimmicks, too, like an underground barbershop, complete with a female manicurist, who really works for the French resistance forces.”
So it’s not just enough to remember how much we loved the war. Now we’ve got to remember how funny it was.