Hogan's Unsung Hero
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
Nazi P.O.W.s everywhere are no doubt mourning the tragic passing of Colonel Wilhelm Klink, the lovable commandant of Stalag 13. It was his camp, as you recall, that was the secret underground headquarters of Allied Intelligence activities during W.W.II. But did you know that Klink was actually a double agent? His real name was Werner Klemperer. He was so convincing as an enemy officer, that he actually won two emmys for his performances. These are just some of the top secret details from the historic and daring assignment we'll call: Operation Hogan's Heroes!
There are so many funny and fascinating tidbits about this series, that it's difficult to decide where to begin. For starters, the series was produced by Bing Crosby (yes, THAT Bing). What inspired him to think a German concentration camp would make a hilarious location for a comedy is unclear, but he certainly proved the Nazi naysayers wrong. One of the biggest benefactors was none other than Groucho Marx. He helped finance the series and is said to have made a killing. But the playwright of Stalag 17 (a super serious motion picture drama) seemed to believe he owned the concentration camp concept. He sued Crosby Productions for plagiarism and actually won. But even that couldn't stop this series from becoming a hit. It spawned numerous comic books, board games, lunch boxes, and even a gum card set in 1965. The black and white series by Fleer is well sought after by modern collectors. (The complete set of 66 puzzle-backed cards are valued at over $1,000 in Excellent condition!)
Werner was Hogan's co-star. His most famous acting role was as Klink, but he actually accomplished much more. He was a successful Broadway performer up until his recent death from cancer. He was also featured in the classic film, "Judgment at Nuremberg". More recently, he performed the audio reading of the best-selling novel "Fatherland". How ironic then, that this actor who is so commonly associated with Nazis was actually Jewish.
He caught a lot of heat for the Klink role. Even Larry King (another famous Jewish celebrity) confronted him about it on his radio talk show. Werner was unapologetic. He pointed out that German P.O.W. camps had little in common with the forced labor camps that lead so many to an early grave. He also underlined the fact that he never wore a Nazi uniform. The Stalags were run by General Goering's Airforce (the Luftwaffe), and not Himmler's dreaded S.S.. Goering was said to consider his prisoners as fellow soldiers, and ordered they be treated with restraint. The most common complaint among Allied P.O.W.s was their food-- potatoes.
These explanations would probably not satisfy modern day activists, but during the show's run (1965-1971), protesters were more interested in Vietnam than they were picking a fight with Hogan and his chummy German war buddies. The amazing thing is that everyone seemed to focus on Klink for being involved in this somewhat tasteless situation comedy. But Werner's side kick, the bumbling Sergeant Hans Schultz, was also played by a Jewish actor (John Banner). To add insult to injury, Schultz never managed to get though a single episode without uttering a parody of the now famous Nuremberg Defense: "I know nothing!" And if that wasn't too close for comfort, guess who played Lebeau, the French chef who cooked up culinary treats for Schultz? Yet another Jewish actor, Robert Clary-- who (are you sitting down for this?) was a Holocaust survivor from Auschwitz! (Is this getting surreal or what?)
But despite all these dark ironies, audiences kept yucking it up every week as Colonel Robert Hogan (Bob Crane) and his merry band of spymasters outsmarted the Germans right under Hitler's mustache. There were plenty of fine comics who contributed to the success of the show. There was the loud and obnoxious Colonel Crittendon, played by Bernard Fox, who also played Doctor Bombay on "Bewitched". Mr. Fox recently did a cameo in "The Mummy", looking and acting exactly the same as he did over thirty years ago! There was also the fat & sour General Burkhalter (Leon Askin), who always seemed determined to hook Klink up with is equally overweight sister, Frau Linkmyer (Kathleen Freeman). Then there was the snarling Gestapo commander Major Hockstedder (Howard Caine). It always drove him crazy to find Hogan leaning against Clink's desk whenever he visited the camp. ("Vhat is dis Prisoner doing in here?!") Don't forget Sergeant Andrew Carter, the test tube mixing-munitions expert (Larry Hovis). And of course, everyone's favorite rascal, cockney Corporal Newkirk, the slick Brit (played by Richard Dawson). Dawson went on to host game shows like "Family Feud" and "The Running Man".
Another politically incorrect moment in this most un-PC of sitcoms was the treatment of one of Hollywood's token black actors. I can't remember his real name, but you know the one I mean, because there was only one black man in all of Stalag 13. He played Kinch, the radio operator. (I'm sure you can guess which side he was on.) They gave him really dramatic lines that allowed him to expand his talents, lines like "Papa Bear to Mama Bear, come in Mama Bear!" But did you notice they replaced him with Ivan Dixon after the first season? Hollywood apparently thought audiences couldn't tell the difference between black actors, and didn't even bother coming up with a transfer or other explanation for the switch. Perhaps to cover their bases, they started calling him "KinchLOW". What's up with that?
In the series, Hogan always had a way with the ladies. In real life, he apparently had a very strange way with them. (Let's just say he was "kinky" long before it was considered fashionable.) These bizarre sexual interests associated him with a bad crowd. One of his new "friends" brutally beat Crane to death in a hotel room in 1978. You'll be glad to know the murderer was eventually caught and sent to prison (hopefully one with better security than Stalag 13). John Banner died a much more pedestrian death in 1973 of a hemorrhage on his 63rd birthday. And now-- alas-- the allstar trio is joined by Werner himself. Let's hope they're laughing together in the great beyond. Whether you approved of Hogan's Heroes of not, we should salute (not hail) the comic talents of these great comedians. They continue to bring syndicated smiles to audiences thirty-five years after they first appeared on television.
NEWS UPDATE: At the time of writing this article, Bob Crane's killer, an Indian named John Carpenter, was behind bars awaiting trial. He was finally arrested after 12 years of suspicion but lack of evidence (DNA evidence was an unknown science in 1978). Remarkably, his lawyers succeeded in getting him acquitted because the police lost the best evidence (part of Crane's shattered brain matter found in Carpenters's car). So Carpenter was acquitted and basically escaped his Stalag, too. He died four years later of heart failure. You can watch the entire sordid story dramatized in the Greg Kinnear/ Willem Dafoe movie, "Auto Focus."
One other note: Crane died a poor man, working long hours doing dinner theatre to earn money (and score chicks). His 2nd wife (Col. Klink's cute secretary) was divorcing Crane when he died. His death ended that court action. About a decade later, she and her son inherited all of Crane's royalties for Hogan's Heroes, which amounted to over $22 million. As Clink would say: DisssssMissed!
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