Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Bob Crane Case

A Hero Called Hogan

As a concept for a TV situation comedy, it was outrageous. But someone actually proposed setting a sitcom in a Nazi POW camp. The idea could not have been more bizarre. After all, World War II was one of the world's bloodiest, most heartbreaking conflicts in history. Nazism was one of the most terrible scourges to afflict humanity. How could interactions between Nazis and their American soldier prisoners possibly be funny?

Yet they were on Hogan's Heroes. The program zoomed to the top of popularity. It was simply hysterical watching the sly and witty Americans best their bumbling, foolish, German captors.

Part of the appeal of Hogan's Heroes was undoubtedly its star, Bob Crane, a handsome actor with a broad, open face and twinkling eyes.

The show made Bob Crane a household name and brought belly laughs to millions. It remained controversial and was despised by those who thought it made light of one of the 20th century's greatest horrors.

Some Neo-Nazi groups were upset by the way the program lampooned their ideological fathers. Crane said he received threats from such extremist groups.

Some Jews were offended by giving the lovable jerk treatment to the evil that had exterminated some six million of them. However, Crane pointed out that the show had Jewish fans. Indeed, it had Jewish actors — including the two playing the top Nazi characters, Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer) and Sergeant Schultz (John Banner).

Werner Klemperer as Colonel Klink (AP)
Werner Klemperer as
Colonel Klink (AP)

Werner Klemperer was born in Cologne, Germany, on March 22, 1929. He grew up in Berlin. His father, Otto, was Jewish by ethnicity but had converted to Christianity. Such a conversion would not, of course, prevent persecution by the Nazis. In 1933, Otto and his family fled the country. They went to Switzerland, then Austria, then sailed for America in 1935.

As an actor, Klemperer had been in dramatic roles before Hogan's Heroes. He commented that he had been "doing lots of guest shots in TV films in which I played a variety of foreign-born villains." Klemperer knew that his father was still sensitive about the Nazi period and would fly into a rage about it being treated as a comedy. When Otto asked to see the script of the TV show starring his son, Klemperer said, "I didn't dare."

Roly-poly John Banner took the role of the baffled and weak Sergeant Hans Schultz. On the program, the silly sergeant took bribes from Hogan's sly band, thus ensuring his reluctant complicity in their hijinks. Banner was Jewish, and his family had been victimized by Nazism. He was 28 and living in Austria when the Nazis took over. His family died in extermination camps. Banner fled to Switzerland. He headed for America in 1939. He often played Nazis and asked, "Who can play Nazis better than us Jews?" As Sergeant Schultz, he was especially popular with children who loved his trademark statements, "I know NO-thing! I see NO-thing!"

Cast of Hogan's Heroes on the set
Cast of Hogan's Heroes on
the set

Love it or hate it, Hogan's Heroes was a hit. To people familiar with humor as a defense mechanism, its appeal might not be so mysterious. After all, the Nazi horrors were almost a quarter of a century old when the show went on the air in 1965, and the public had a certain distance although the wounds opened by that conflict had not completely healed. Seeing the German officers of that war portrayed as a bunch of vain, dense dolts may have released pent-up feelings of tension. In addition, the Nazis had made much of "Aryan superiority" and their supposed "master race" qualities. The aptly named Colonel Klink and his fellow clods constituted a kind of sly rebuttal to Nazi propaganda and even a peculiar kind of revenge.

The show had a certain sense of propriety: it never laughed at the Nazi death camps.

Many in the program feared offending soldiers who had actually lived through the experience of being prisoners of Germany during World War II. However, as Crane pointed out, many such ex-POWs were fans. "Ex-POWs are our greatest boosters," Crane once proudly noted. "The ex-POWs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have an association. They had a convention and invited me."

During the second season of Hogan's Heroes, lovely, blonde, vivacious Patti Olsen, who used the screen name Sigrid Valdis, got a regular part on the program as Col. Klink's secretary. A romance blossomed between Olsen and Crane that led to the dissolution of Crane's first marriage. He and Olsen were married on the set of Hogan's Heroes on October 16, 1970. It was the first real wedding performed on a sound stage.

Crane was nominated for an Emmy in 1966 and 1967 but did not win. Klemperer won an Emmy in 1967 and in 1968.

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