March 2, 2016

The real Bob Crane: An interview with Carol M. Ford, author of Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography

For Carol M. Ford, a youthful interest in Hogan's Heroes and it's star, Bob Crane, developed over time into a desire to know more about him and, after his murder, a determination to set the record straight regarding the public's perception of his lifestyle and other facets of his personal life. Her "nagging drive," as she puts it, was to find the answer to the question: Who was Bob Crane?

As both a fan of Hogan's Heroes and an admirer of Crane, I was instantly interested in what she had to say, and so I was glad to have the chance recently to talk with this charming lady about these things and more, as we discussed her new book, Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography.



It's About TV: What made you decide to write a biography of Bob Crane? 

Carol Ford: I was just a kid back in the mid-1980s when I first discovered Hogan’s Heroes. Like a lot of people, young and old, I was taken with the show’s star—Bob Crane. He brought Colonel Hogan to life, and as a child, I aspired to be like Hogan. Fearless, funny, charming, cunning, witty, courageous. A leader. I had no idea who Bob Crane was then. I just knew he was Hogan, and I was hooked.

Slowly, I started learning about Bob Crane. There was just something about him that beckoned me to learn more, to keep going, to discover, and to listen to my gut. There was no Internet in 1985, so I researched him the old-fashioned way. I spent my weekends at the library, going through microfilms and microfiches, finding tidbits and tiny little pieces of a grander puzzle.

I kept meticulous notes that I still have to this day. Notes written in my fourteen-year-old bubblegum handwriting and articles Xeroxed from the library, all filed neatly in a folder and organized.

And then, one summer night in 1985, I learned the details of Bob's murder. Very soon after, I learned of his lifestyle, what I now understand as an addiction. I was crushed.

And you reacted the way many people did when they first heard those details.

Sad and angry, all at once, it all hit me on a level I could never explain. I never knew this man in life. How could I be so affected by his death? And yet, I was. After time went by, I came to realize two very important things: 1) a lifestyle such as the one Bob had lived didn’t necessarily make him a bad person, and 2) I wanted to do something to help. At fourteen years of age, I didn’t know what. I didn’t know how. But I knew I wanted to make things right. Underneath it all, that nagging drive was always there. Who was Bob Crane?

How did this lead you to your two co-authors on the book, Linda Groundwater and Dee Young?

In 2005, I made the acquaintance of Linda, an American journalist who had married a man from Australia, and relocated there. Prior to her marriage, she worked as a news reporter for radio stations in New England, doing morning drive and loving every second of it. In 2003, a personal tragedy led her back to watching Hogan’s Heroes reruns as a diversion from her current situation. As she watched, she became intrigued with Bob Crane.

Auto Focus had just been released in 2002, and Bob’s murder and sex life were splashed in headlines everywhere. But the movie failed to detail much of Bob’s life beyond that. She found herself wondering, what about the rest of his life? Linda wanted to find out. She made contact with Bob’s first cousin Jim Senich, who was beyond supportive of her endeavor, and Dee Young of WICC radio in Bridgeport (CT), where Bob had worked prior to moving to Los Angeles and who actually met Bob in 1976 whcn he returned to Bridgeport to help WICC celebrate its 50th anniversary. And a monumental project was born.

When Linda, Dee, and I all joined forces, that’s when the book really took off. Linda had the credentials and experience as a journalist to interview. Dee had far-reaching connections in Connecticut radio and could network from one end of the state to the other. And in addition to my extensive background in publishing, those investigative skills that started in me as a kid in 1985 served me well because I could locate anybody and dig through troves of archives. We earned the trust of Bob’s family and closest friends and colleagues, allowing us access to his life on a level never before granted.

In 2012, Linda handed the author’s pen over to me, and I spent two years writing, officially finishing in February 2015. Linda was instrumental in proofing my writing. Our goal always remained the same: to tell Bob Crane’s honest and complete life story. It’s not a lot to ask, and yet, it is a challenge. The media glare still exists, and it’s not easy breaking past it. I’ve actually been told, “People don’t want what you’re selling. They don’t want a nice book. They want scandal. Good luck with that book because nice doesn’t sell.”

But they’re wrong. Nice does sell, and it sells because it is honest.

You mentioned everything you'd learned about Bob Crane while working on the book. Was there anything that surprised you, or gave you real insight into his character?

When we first started researching Bob’s life we had no idea what we were going to discover. We liked Bob Crane generally from what we saw on Hogan’s Heroes, but I’ll admit, we were quite nervous at first. You never want to hear bad things about a celebrity you like and admire. So we hoped for the best, but because of his preceding reputation, we were prepared for the worst.

And what we learned was how incredibly good Bob was. Time after time, from person after person, and from all different areas and times of his life, we received an outpouring of genuine, heartfelt responses about Bob. There was so much positive and good, it really was amazing.

Carol M. Ford
Obviously you talked to a lot of people to garner this kind of detail and insight.

We talked with about 200 people—family members; friends as far back as grade school; and colleagues in radio, television, theatre, and film. From them, we learned that Bob was kind. He cared about people. He was generous, considerate, charitable, and compassionate. He was funny and could brighten a room just by walking into it.

He loved his music and his drums. It was his first and true love, and he carried his drumsticks with him at all times. He had a drumset with him in his radio booth and in his Hogan’s Heroes dressing room. He even played the drums for the Hogan’s Heroes theme song during the opening and closing credits, and in the ancillary music heard throughout each episode. His drumsticks were with him in his apartment on the night he died.

We learned he was driven, and that he set high goals and worked hard to achieve them. We discovered how he transitioned from radio to acting, and how he took lesser-paying roles so he could hone his acting skills—even turning down The Tonight Show (it then went to Johnny Carson). He took a course by legendary acting instructor Stella Adler. Theatre was important to him, and he thoroughly enjoyed performing before an audience on stage. He began his acting career in theatre in 1959 and worked consistently on stage all the way through until the night of his murder.

Classic TV fans probably remember Bob from The Donna Reed Show, which he was on for a couple of years, but they might not know about his career in radio, which was substantial.

His work in radio was unprecedented, and that was something we had never known much about—nobody has since his death—how devoted he was to broadcasting, and how he changed radio through his innovative style and sampling techniques. Those he worked with him in radio described him as a radio genius.

And he continued it for awhile even after Hogan's started.

At first, he tried to continue his radio job at KNX while also working on Hogan’s. This was during the first year Hogan’s was filmed. It was just too much and exhausting. Roughly, this is what his life was like during the first six months of 1965: Get up at 4:00 a.m., get ready, and drive to KNX in Hollywood from his home in Tarzana; be ready to go on the air at 6:00 a.m.; do his live radio show from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Get off the air and begin prepping for the next day’s show. Head over to Desilu Studios (indoor scenes) or Culver City’s 40 Acre lot (outdoor scenes) to work on/film Hogan’s Heroes. Finish by 7:00 p.m. Go back to KNX to finish prepping for the next day’s show. Get home by about 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. Inhale dinner. Go to bed by midnight, and get up at 4:00 the next morning to do it all over again. There was hardly enough time to eat or sleep let alone do anything else. Bob had actually just signed another contract with KNX in 1965 that would have lasted through 1966, and he had to break it, which KNX consented to without argument. KNX was worried about his health if he kept up that grueling schedule. So that is why he bowed out of radio, despite loving it so much. But for Hogan’s Heroes, he did tons of promos, public appearances, interviews, photo shoots, all to promote the series—and nearly all in the Hogan costume. He wanted that series to be a huge success, and it was, in part, due to his hard work and extra efforts.

Hogan's Heroes is broadcast virtually everywhere, at some time of the day or other, and has been pretty much since it left first run, Why does the show still work?  Why is it still funny after all these years, even though so many critics like to dump on it?

Bob used to say that the theme of the show was, “Look how clever the Allies are!” The setting—World War II—simply works, and no matter how cultures change, the interest in WWII and fascination of Hitler and the Nazis endure. Hogan’s Heroes is basically a story of good verses evil, and you want the good guys to win. Viewers become invested in these characters because you don’t want one of them to die

It showed the hardships of POW camp life and the dangers of disobeying their German captors, but it also showed how they, as prisoners, made life inconvenient for the German guards—the duty of every POW in real life. While their tunnel system was fiction, the day-to-day life as POWs was based on reality. Camp life was portrayed as being harsh. In fact, one of the reasons why it is always winter is to show some of the harsh conditions POWs were forced to endure.

People like Klink and Schultz could never have existed in real life, which makes Hogan’s Heroes a parody along the same lines as Mel Brooks’ The Producers or To Be or Not To Be. However, Hogan’s Heroes also contains elements of realism. It absolutely has to have some realism for it to work. It’s war. War is not funny. There must be tension. And that tension exists in the background, reminding us that at any time, any one of our favorite prisoners can be hauled away to a horrible Fate.

The portrait painted of the cast and crew on Hogan's has generally been a positive one, the "one big happy family," and aside from how the truth is often distorted by memory, was that pretty much the case?

Yes, absolutely. Guest stars celebrated hugely when they were called to work on Hogan’s. There was no animosity among the cast, and no egos existed. The series had that “click,” as director Robert Butler explained. The show was a great success because everyone worked hard and worked together as a team. They were friendly coworkers. They didn’t necessarily socialize a lot outside of work. It wasn’t like they all stayed in the barracks overnight! But while they were at work, it was a pleasant experience, and Hogan’s was definitely a highlight of their careers. Universally, cast and crew credited producer Edward H. Feldman for the show’s success and the happy tenor on the set, but a lot of credit was given to Bob, too. He wasn’t a Prima Donna. He was easy-going. You knew he was the star, but he didn’t impress that upon you.

How did Bob himself feel about Hogan's Heroes? Was he proud of it, did he enjoy reliving it, or did he find it a burden, as many stars do when they're identified with one particular role to the exclusion of the rest of their lives? 

He worked hard at everything he did, and that goes for Hogan’s Heroes. One thing that upset him is that people didn’t think he was acting because he seemed to just “fit” the part. Some have said that Colonel Hogan was the role he was born to play, but it shouldn’t be assumed that he was just being himself. He was an actor, and he performed the role the way the directors and producers wanted him to. He brought Hogan to life, which is a testament to his talents as an actor.

Of course, Bob loved the character of Hogan, and he loved portraying him. Bob was proud of the show, and he often signed his autographs “Best Wishes, From Hogan” above his signature. He loved the whole premise of the show and the infallibility of Hogan. But he was also frustrated by the shadow Colonel Hogan had cast on his career following its cancellation. Actors want to perform, and they want to perform each new character on a clean slate, without the ghosts of other characters haunting them. When an actor is typecast, it hinders that capability.

This plagued Bob during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, when he was trying to break into feature films. Producers and directors and audiences only saw him as Hogan. But by 1978, Bob was getting to that point where enough time had passed where he could break away from always being associated with Hogan. And this was not only with audiences and critics, but with himself. He was developing his acting skills throughout the 1970s, and had he lived on into the 1980s, I think he would have succeeded and found a hit series again.

Through the years there’s always been this element of criticism about the idea of turning a POW camp into the setting for a sitcom? Did Bob ever have any misgivings about this?

Bob was CBS’s Johnny-on-the-Spot, public defender of Hogan’s Heroes. So many people, even to this day, confuse the setting with a concentration camp, and there is no way, not now, not then, not ever, that anyone can make fun of the Holocaust and concentration camps. Bob was always quick to set that straight wherever he could. He also hated the line uttered by Stan Freberg, “If you liked World War II, you’ll love Hogan’s Heroes,” saying it was in very bad taste.

When Bob was first presented with the concept of Hogan’s Heroes, his immediate reaction was, “A comedy about WWII? Are you nuts?!” But then he heard what it was about, and he really liked the idea. He screen tested with Werner Klemperer in December 1964, and they had instant chemistry.

But before Bob signed, he wanted to be sure that the series would not offend veterans and former POWs. Bob’s older brother and other relatives had served during World War II, and he was sensitive to the feelings of veterans. So he insisted that a trailer be made and sent to groups of veterans and former POWs in the Midwest to get their feedback. As it turned out, they loved the show, claiming they would never have survived the war without humor. Bob was sold, and the rest is history.

Bob always used to say that those who were critical of the series were those who never watched it. I’d say that’s accurate. It’s one thing to not like Hogan’s Heroes because it’s just not your thing, but it’s quite another to assume it’s a concentration camp or that it’s insulting to the German people, veterans, or POWs, and feel the need to criticize it for the wrong reasons. When Bob would travel across the country and give talks at different veterans and POW conventions, they would tell him they loved the show, and often told him about their experiences during the war and as POWs. Bob would take those real-life stories back to the writers, and they would be incorporated into the episodes.

All in all, the basic plot of Hogan’s Heroes is mock of authority, and that can be applied to anyone, of any age, in any generation. And you want the good guys to win!

Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane in Auto Focus
Unfortunately, when people think of Bob Crane today, they focus on his sex life and his murder, and it’s often not very flattering. You say it’s more complicated than people think.

We learned that Bob’s “sex life” was an addiction, one with roots in the early 1950s in Connecticut before he even arrived in California. He finally understood it as an addiction shortly before his death and sought help to break free of it. He was serious about seeking help, but he was murdered before he got the chance to follow through with any sort of treatment.

It’s not that Bob was perfect. He wasn’t. But he tried to be a good man. And he tried hard. He was human, and like all humans, he fell short of perfection. That doesn’t mean he was a “bad person.” If so, then we’re all in trouble because we all fall short.

Bob was—by so many accounts—a good, kind-hearted person who recognized his weaknesses and sought positive change. While that alone didn’t necessarily surprise us, we were thrilled at how many people from the beginning to the end of his life reiterated that to us. As so many people from his life told us, he was a ray of sunshine and a person of light and love.

Media focus is so intent on Bob’s amateur pornography, to the exclusion of nearly all else, and the information the public has received is quite distorted. Consensual, casual sex with adult women (nothing deviant) was just a part of Bob’s whole life, so like everything else, he chronicled it by filming or photographing it (again, all consensual). In reality, his pornography was just a small portion of a larger whole of recording everything that comprised his life. When you look at it from the proper perspective, his pornography is not at all sensational. And once people get past the glare of the “sex scandal,” they can be open to learning more about the individual Bob Crane really was.

His murder in 1978 remains wrapped in mystery. Do you think there will ever be closure?

Our book concentrates on Bob’s life, so not much about his murder is in there except that it happened, how it happened, and how it affected some of those who loved him. We do not discuss theories in the book and will not discuss theories in interviews. The crime is officially unsolved. That means there was not enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt to convict John Henry Carpenter (different from the film director), the man arrested and tried for the murder. In addition to Carpenter, countless other theories have emerged over the decades. My personal stance on all of them is that if there is irrefutable evidence that can be proven in a court of law, then those with that proof should notify the authorities. And that’s it. I want the crime to be solved very badly and the murderer brought to justice. But it’s not my place or the place of my coauthors to theorize or endorse any existing theories; nor was it the purpose of our book. Our book celebrates Bob’s life.

But will there be any kind of closure? I honestly don’t know. I want, more than anything, for Bob’s friends and family, and especially his children, to find peace. I know they miss him and they hurt—a lot. And I want that hurt to stop. I don’t know that it can. Bob loved his children very, very much. He loved his family very, very much. He loved his friends very, very much. And the manner in which he died and the scandal that erupted following his murder continue to hurt his loved ones, and it’s extraordinarily tragic.

Bob is perhaps one of the few murdered celebrities whose memory receives little to no respect by the general public. It’s not the legacy he, his children and grandchildren, his family, and his friends deserve. Perhaps one day there can be some kind of closure, but only if he can start to be understood by the public instead of judged.

You mentioned to me earlier a story about a woman who came up to you at an event at which you were appearing, and expressed her gratitude to you for writing the book. 

She was crying. She said, “You have changed my negative perception of Bob Crane and given me my show [Hogan’s Heroes] back.” It was so powerful that afterwards, when I had a few minutes to myself, I broke down and cried—because that is why we’re here. That is why we spent twelve years officially researching Bob Crane. That is why I wrote his biography.

The Hogan's Heroes exhibit at Liberty Aviation Museum
Do you get many responses like that?

Yes, and I’m overwhelmed each time. But I will never forget that wonderful lady at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention as long as I live.

When people first see me with the book and the posters and all of the Hogan’s Heroes props and series memorabilia, they love seeing the Hogan’s Heroes things. But then some of them look at the book’s cover and give me this funny look and say something like, “Oh, that guy.” And in a lot of cases, people say they have to mentally block out “the creep” so they can enjoy the show. Usually, after listening to me for a few minutes, their eyebrows raise. They had no idea of any of what I tell them.

It’s sad to me that the very first thing people think of when they see Bob’s picture or hear his name is “creep” or “pervert.” They have a preconceived notion that’s been forced upon them by the media ever since Bob’s murder, and it isn’t their fault at all. They make assumptions based on the scant information they have been given. But out of context, and often even exaggerated or fabricated, that information does not provide a true or complete picture. That’s why I say in the book, “Writing a biography is a delicate—not a reckless—process, where the end result, if done properly, is simply the truth revealed.” Talking with so many different people from every aspect of Bob’s life and piecing it all together allowed us to better understand him as a complete person.

Addiction should never define a person. That’s not a cop out. Addiction is not pretty, but it also takes a brave and courageous person to recognize, deal with it, and try and overcome it. We all have hang ups. Not one of us is perfect. We all can do better, and we should all strive to better. And in Bob’s case, people need to have all of the facts, not just the fragments, told to them in their proper context. Only then can people get a clear picture and can make an informed opinion.

Obviously he didn’t expect his career to be cut short so suddenly, at 49 – nobody does. Do you think he would have been pleased with the body of work he left behind?

Bob was driven to achieve his goals. He had his sights set on his future, and he was optimistic. There were disappointments, sure, and he wasn’t particularly proud of some of his works, but in no way was he thinking, “Okay, this is it. I’m done.” He was moving forward and gearing himself up for the next thing, and he always gave his all to each project and learned from every experience.

I think Bob was on a rebound both in his personal life and in his career. Was he pleased with his work up to that point? Yes, for the most part. He loved Hogan’s Heroes. He loved performing in theatre. He loved radio. He loved his drums. He loved acting. And in all areas, he worked hard. But he also yearned to do more in his career and find that perfect role again. And that’s what he was working toward at the time of his murder. The 1970s were a period of transition for him, and he was in the process of reinventing himself by breaking free of being typecast as Colonel Hogan and overcoming his personal troubles.

I personally think, and as others have told us, he would have gone on to do more great things. While it can’t be proven because he was killed, he was so focused and driven as a general rule, that if he set a goal, he was going to do everything in his power to follow through and achieve it.

A while back I hypothesized what might have happened to Hogan after the war. It's a fun question and people have some great ideas. It was a shame Hogan never had the chance, as he once said, "to walk out the front gate at the end of the war." Do you have any thoughts about what would have come next?

I love this question! M*A*S*H set the precedent for shows to have an official ending, and it’s a shame that Hogan’s Heroes never had one. All of our beloved POWs are still locked up in Stalag 13 for all eternity! However, Bob wrote an “ending” to the series. But I can’t give the whole thing away! It’s all detailed in the book. I also wrote an ending to the series. I would love to publish it, and I’ll keep you posted!

Any last thought you’d like to leave us with, that kind of puts a wrap on Bob Crane the man?

My favorite quote by Bob is the following, and I think it truly sums up who he really was.

"When I was a kid, I fell in love with Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous. That, to me, was the ideal. A good man, a brave man. What I would want to be. I'm still in love with that."


Please note that author profits from Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography will be donated to various charities in Bob Crane’s memory. For more information, visit http://vote4bobcrane.org/book.html. My thanks again to the wonderful Carol Ford for spending some time talking about one of our favorite shows.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks Mitchell! Great questions, and a lot of interesting information from Ms. Ford. Hopefully she will find continued success in her quest to reverse the negative perception and show the world a more complete picture of Bob Crane.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This interview convinced me to put her book on my Amazon wishlist, to be purchased sometime this year. Although I can separate an actor from the role and enjoy a show no matter what I think of the stars' personal lives/views, it will nonetheless be nice to have the stigma diminished on the star of one of my favorite TV shows.

    ReplyDelete

Keep those cards and letters coming in!