The murder of Bob Crane, known to fans of TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes” as Colonel Hogan, is the ostensible subject of a new memoir by his son, Robert Crane. But as the subtitle of this book, “Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder,” suggests, the younger Crane has more far reaching ambitions.
The co-author — he wrote the book with a longtime writing partner, Christopher Fryer — brings into focus not just the startling ascendancy and then downward spiral of his dad’s show business career but its awful fallout, of how a life lived in the shadow of glamour and excess can be seriously damaging.
So this is a melancholy tale of lives distorted and values overturned. Such a tale harkens back to the mordant tales of Nathaniel West and Michael Tolkin. It’s also a story of sadness and death for Robert Crane’s journey has not been an easy one.
I should acknowledge Crane was a helpful news source for me when I was a journalist at the Hollywood Reporter. In those days he ran John Candy’s company, Frostbacks, acting as publicist, confidante and right-hand man to that gifted comic actor.
We spoke many times when I did news stories about Candy including the last time, March 4, 1994, when Candy died of a heart attack. Only late in our telephone relationship did he happen to mention he was Bob Crane’s eldest son.
I was pleasantly surprised. I grew up with Bob Crane. No, not “Hogan’s Heroes,” which I seldom watched since I never found Nazis to be all that funny. Rather his dad’s KNX AM radio show in L.A. As my own dad drove me to school, we listened to the hilarious antics of D.J. Bob and his trusty engineer Jack.
Crane would not only spin records, he accompanied them on his drum set — Crane was very skilled drummer — then threw in a plethora of sound effects and comic voices stored on tape decks to punctuate his gags and occasionally mock sponsors’ commercials.
I would laugh all the way to school. I soon demanded my own reel-to-reel tape recorder so I could do my own imitation of the Bob Crane Show.
His KNX show ran nine years. Guests included Marilyn Monroe, Mary Tyler Moore, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan. Crane’s comic genius on radio eventually translated into bit acting roles in movies and then as a regular on TV’s “The Donna Reed Show.”
Then “Hogan’s Heroes” came along with Crane as the central figure of an ensemble cast set among Allied prisoners in a German P.O.W. camp. With a tough shooting schedule, he was forced to give up the morning drive-time show although he stayed in the CBS family.
The top-rated “Hogan’s Heroes” ran from 1965 to 1971. On that show, Crane writes, his dad was emulating his own comic heroes especially Jack Lemmon but also Gig Young and Tony Randall, likable actors who lived fully on camera, always at ease in their roles and quick with a witty comment or glib retort.
That was the right model for Crane, as was TV host Jack Paar, a conversationalist more than an interviewer who got the most out of his guests on the old “Tonight Show.” But the actor seriously lost his way after CBS cancelled “Hogan’s Heroes,” doing movies with outmoded comic models and then his own failed TV show.
Never trusting others and more comfortable being a one-man band as in his radio days, he struck out on the dinner theater circuit, acting, producing and directing a comedy called “Beginner’s Luck” in smaller American towns.
Bob Crane conducted a not-so-secret double life as a sex addict and homemade pornographer. He invested in expensive video equipment to photograph any woman willing to shed her clothes for Colonel Hogan or capture his sexual activities with women on camera, sometimes in threesomes with his pal, John Henry Carpenter.
The younger Crane now marvels at how clueless his dad was in gaining a reputation as the “Pied Piper of Porn.”
“My dad had too much downtime and no structure,” writes Crane. “He never made the connection that his way of killing time was also killing his career.”
No one in Hollywood wanted to hire a man with this reputation. More crucially, the hobby may have killed Crane himself.
Officially, his murder on June 29, 1978 in a dingy motel room in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he was performing the play, is an unsolved case. The town’s police department thoroughly botched the crime scene and its evidence. So it was years before charges were brought against John Henry Carpenter.
Carpenter was a video equipment salesman and buddy who hung out with the semi-famous actor to participate in his sex action. The theory was that Bob Crane was ready to terminate the friendship and an angry Carpenter bludgeoned Crane to death while he slept.
Carpenter was eventually found not guilty since the evidence by then was slim. Paul Schrader made one of his better movies, “Auto Focus,” about the case, which more or less dramatized Carpenter’s guilt. Greg Kinnear played Crane and Willem Dafoe played Carpenter.
Robert Crane served as an advisor on that film (and even played a bit role), which made public a long-simmering animosity between Bob Crane’s two families.
In the first one, Crane sired young Robert and his sisters. Then came a second family when he divorced his wife of 20 years, Ann, to marry his statuesque “Hogan’s Heroes” co-star, Patti Olson, a.k.a. Sigrid Valdis.
It is Crane’s contention that Patti encouraged her husband’s immoral exploits and could even have had a hand in his murder as her husband had by then moved out and started divorce proceedings.
While this may be the beliefs of a bitter son, Crane presents persuasive evidence this was not only possible but the actions following the murder by Patti and her son by Bob Crane, confusingly also named Robert Crane, served only to exploit Crane’s unsavory proclivities including selling copies of those infamous videotapes.
Intertwined with this tale of his dad’s downward spiral, the botched crime investigation and family feud, Crane details his own story. He loved his father, who never let fame go to his head. Bob remained in many ways a small-town dad, picking up his own dry cleaning and driving himself to work. No entourage for Bob Crane.
But Robert Crane hated how kids at school reacted to him. He didn’t mind being liked or disliked for what he did but saw no reason for people to react to him because of his father. One senses these feelings followed him into adulthood and into failed romantic relationships until he met and married Kari Hildebrand.
Just as he began getting his sea legs as a responsible adult and caring husband, Kari died after a protracted battle with cancer. The death of John Candy soon after, indeed on the very day Crane was hosting the opening for a posthumous exhibition of his wife’s art, exacerbated his own sorrows.
While Crane’s memoir is filled with sadness and tears, more than this it reflects an uneasy relationship with celebrity. The son of a famous entertainer, Crane has made his living interviewing celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Chevy Chase and Joan Rivers for magazines and books. And, of course, he worked closely with a major movie star.
Crane envisions a “moat” separating mere mortals from these glorified human beings. “John and my dad occupied the castles while the rest of us inhabited land on the other side of the drawbridges,” he writes. “We could meet halfway or I could visit the castle, but we would always return to our respective sides.”
The castle dwellers had to recognize their cares and responsibilities for themselves, he notes. If one of the knaves were to suggest a modification of behavior or lifestyle, then it’s “Off with his head!”
No one could talk to Candy about his obesity or smoking habit, Crane says. Likewise, “I was never aware of an agent, publicist, or friend confronting my dad about his homemade porn and the impact it was having on his career.”
Whatever the truth to this moat concept, which is simply a more metaphorical restating the “yes man” syndrome, the fact is Robert Crane often lived a life amid the corrosive influence of celebrityhood.
Fame is a disease, whether its symptoms be those of the hackers who stole and posted many nude celebrity photos recently or the stalker and killer of John Lennon.
In Mike Myers’ documentary “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” the film’s subject, a longtime manager of many top musical performer, says he has come to the conclusion that there is something fundamentally unhealthy about celebrityhood. In his career he has been a witness to the negative impact it’s had on his clients.
Crane’s book says virtually the same thing. He writes that John Candy and his dad shared a feeling that life on the road was simpler, preferable even to family life no matter how much they treasured that.
“You focused on work and when the work was finished you could play,” Crane writes.
How sad if that’s true. This would mean that Crane’s “family” on “Hogan’s Heroes” set was more meaningful and possibly even more real to him than his own family. And that dinner theater was an escape from his second family, where a few hours of work led to an unstructured, frat-boy existence of sheer decadence.
If Crane were a friendly plumber and Candy a genial dentist their proclivities may have been the same. Nonetheless, Crane’s memoir makes the case that celebrityhood encouraged and enlarged those unwise appetites.
And, in Robert Cane’s case at least, the negative impact this had on him, his siblings and mother made it difficult though not impossible to carry on. His father’s glory even today is a two-edged sword, a source of understandable pride but a constant reminder of the pain and suffering it brought.
“Crane: Sex, Celebrity and My Father’s Unsolved Murder,” which is coming out his fall from the University Press of Kentucky, is the anti-celebrity memoir. It deserves to sit on the same shelves in book stores next to the latest biography of a famous star.
It tells an uncomfortable truth: That seductive fame can distort and corrode not only the life of the anointed one but forever damage loved ones. It’s the ultimate false god.
Unfortunately in this era of “Entertainment Tonight,” “Access Hollywood,” TMZ and Twitter, this more than ever is a god worshipped by many.