Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Actor's Actor: Bob Crane, Donna Reed, and Lessons in Acting

Bob Crane as Dr. Dave Kelsey.
The Donna Reed Show / "Friends and Neighbors"
April 4, 1963
by Carol Ford

It has been said that Bob Crane was born to play the role of Colonel Hogan on Hogan's Heroes. The American flier who took great pleasure in ridiculing impish Colonel Klink, the German Luftwaffe kommandant of Stalag 13,  was a natural fit for the brash, witty, and boyish Hollywood radio personality, who, for nine years, commanded the Southern California airwaves over KNX-CBS Radio. In fact, Bob Crane seemed to bring the character of Hogan to life so effortlessly that many people did not believe he was even acting. Two Emmy awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series were denied him for that very reason. But in truth, Bob had worked extremely hard at developing his acting, and his character on Hogan's Heroes was no exception. Colonel Hogan was not born overnight, and Donna Reed and The Donna Reed Show had played an integral part in Bob Crane's development as an actor.

Impact of KNX-CBS Radio
Prior to his work on Hogan's Heroes, Bob had devoted a great deal of time and effort to learning the acting profession, which included spending nearly two years as a regular on The Donna Reed Show. Through his work on The Donna Reed Show, Bob began to hone his acting skills, preparing him for greater things to come.

Before we get to The Donna Reed Show, however, we need to step way back to September 1956, when Bob first began working as a radio personality at KNX in Hollywood. In addition to music and drums, radio had been Bob's main career focus on the East Coast. By 1956, he had been working in radio and broadcasting for six years, and he had become a major presence in the Boston/New York City radio market through his work at WICC in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His primary sights were always set on New York City, but when CBS came calling about an opening in Hollywood, he saw a unique opportunity. KNX was not just a dynamic move up in radio for Bob; it would also open other doors, permanently altering his career path. When he accepted the job and moved himself, his family, and his radio show to the West Coast, he soon found himself strategically placed to explore the acting field.

Acting was a natural career progression for Bob, who had enjoyed the spotlight ever since gaining attention as the drummer in his high school jazz band, as well as in other professional and semi-professional jazz bands in the community. Now located in Hollywood, he realized his own potential of breaking into the performing arts. Comedians who were also fine actors, including Jack Lemmon, Jonathan Winters, Jerry Lewis, and Dick Van Dyke, caught his attention and became his idols, and he was determined to follow in their footsteps.

Bob not only believed acting was something he could do, it was something he wanted to do. But he was going to have to wait. His first contract with KNX included a five-year no-acting clause, preventing him from acting professionally while working at the radio station. Undeterred, Bob turned to local community theatre in Southern California, and he appeared in stage plays, such as Send Me No Flowers and Tunnel of Love. In 1959, he also filmed a segment of an unsold pilot for television, Picture Window, which was never produced.

After his first five years were up at KNX in 1961, Bob agreed to renew his contract, only this time with the no-acting clause removed. For the next four years, he would continue to renew with KNX on a yearly basis if KNX would agree to allow him to act professionally. Not wanting to lose their star radio personality, who by that time was one of the most listened to radio personalities in Los Angeles, KNX agreed.

By 1961, Bob Crane had established himself as a prominent Hollywood figure. Not only was The Bob Crane Show over KNX a terrific success, but he was also the only radio personality to host leading film, television, and music stars for live, unrehearsed interviews daily. During his tenure at KNX, he interviewed approximately 3,000 guests, and most of them were celebrities. His connections to the entertainment industry were strong and were serving him well, but initially, not quite the way he wanted.

'No' to TV Talk Shows
Because of Bob's tremendous success as a celebrity interviewer, he was in high demand, with talk show producers begging him to transition his radio program to television. The offers to host his own television talk show were tempting and would have paid well, but Bob was not the least bit interested. He spurned offers repeatedly, which included replacing Johnny Carson as host of Who Do You Trust? and Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show (it then went to Johnny Carson). So dedicated was Bob to learning the skills of becoming a professional actor that he refused to become branded as a television talk show host.

"Art Linkletter and a lot of other good friends in broadcasting told me I was a fool not to branch out into the television emcee business and maybe become another Jack Paar or Johnny Carson," Bob said in a 1965 interview. "But I couldn't see it. Once you become identified as a TV emcee, you're dead as an actor, and actor is what I wanted to be more than anything else."

Bob Crane can't resist a quick drumming stint with garage tools
as Carl Betz continues to work in the background.
The Donna Reed Show / "Friends and Neighbors" / April 4, 1963
To follow his dream of acting and pursue it as a serious profession, Bob opted to take small, lesser-paying roles in film and television. His earliest appearances on screen occur in 1961, when he can be seen in the films Return to Peyton Place and Man-Trap, and on television in the G.E. True Theater series. He is also heard but not seen in an episode of The Twilight Zone (as a radio announcer). Bob's big acting break came at the end of 1962, when he was awarded a significant guest-starring role on The Dick Van Dyke Show. His episode, "Somebody Has to Play Cleopatra," featured Bob's character Harry Rogers as part of a  lackluster community theatre ensemble, begrudgingly led by Rob Petrie, and it aired on December 26, 1962.

A Milestone Offer
One special viewer of The Dick Van Dyke Show had taken notice of Bob Crane. Donna Reed, who had also been a guest on Bob's KNX radio program and seemed to have a soft spot for the young, ambitious entertainer, liked what she saw on The Dick Van Dyke Show that night. Not long after Bob's episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show aired, the casting department from The Donna Reed Show contacted Bob and asked if he would guest star on their series.

Bob accepted with enthusiasm, and on March 14, 1963, he debuted in the guest-starring role of Dr. Dave Blevins on The Donna Reed Show in the episode "The Two Doctors Stone." Donna and her husband, Tony Owen, who produced the series, were impressed with Bob's performance. They had been looking for something new for the series, and Bob's off-beat and brash sense of humor was just the spice needed to balance Donna's sugar-infused storylines. Two new characters were created - Dr. Dave Kelsey and his wife, Midge - who would be next-door neighbors of Donna and Alex Stone. They offered Bob a seven-year contract to play Dave Kelsey, which Bob outwardly refused. 

Donna Reed, Carl Betz, Ann McCrea, and Bob Crane in
a scene from the episode "Friends and Neighbors."
The Donna Reed Show / April 4, 1963.
"The Donna Reed people saw The Dick Van Dyke Show I did," Bob explained in May 1965. "They gave me one short part on The Donna Reed Show. They liked it so much they said, 'We'll give you a contract for seven years.' I told them I didn't want to tie myself down for seven years. I agreed to do seven of thirteen shows - for very good money - but I told them I didn't think at the end of a year or two I would want to be doing the next-door neighbor."

Rather than locking himself into a mammoth seven-year contract, Bob signed a two-year contract with The Donna Reed Show to portray Dr. Dave Kelsey as part of the show's main cast, with Ann McCrea signing on to play his wife. During this time, Bob also maintained a full schedule at KNX and would dash back and forth from Columbia Square to Columbia Picture Studios between the two jobs. With the agreement in place, Dave Kelsey first barged in on Donna Stone and her family on April 4, 1963, in the episode "Friends and Neighbors."

Disheveled Dave! Bob Crane, Donna Reed, and Carl Betz
in a scene from the episode "Friends and Neighbors."
The Donna Reed Show / April 4, 1963.
'Friends and Neighbors'
In the middle of the night, Dave Kelsey shows up on the Stones' front doorstep, frustrated. He and his wife, Midge, have been living with her parents, and he's tired of sharing space with his in-laws, whom he refers to as "out-laws." Donna and Alex graciously allow Dave to spend the night in their home, and the next day, Alex has a talk with Dave over a game of golf. He suggests that Dave and Midge purchase the house that is for sale next door. 

The Kelseys do just that, and at first, all seems like it will work out. But to the dismay of Donna, Alex, and especially Dave, Midge announces that she does not wish to live in the new house, not when they are already living with "Mommy and Daddy." Dave is crestfallen, Alex is speechless, and it's Donna to the rescue. She talks with Midge, and soon, Dave and Midge move into their new home. To celebrate, Midge (with a little help from Donna) prepares a feast - roasted chicken with prune stuffing - for Dave and their dinner guests, Donna and Alex. The meal is a tasty triumph, and in true Donna Reed fashion, all's well that ends well.

Guy talk. Alex Stone offers his pal Dave Kelsey some advice
on marriage in the episode "Friends and Neighbors."
Bob Crane and Carl Betz / The Donna Reed Show
April 4, 1963

Advice from the Matriarch
About mid-way through Bob's run on The Donna Reed Show, Donna encouraged her young protege to hone his acting skills further. "Bob, why must you always be a comic? she asked of him once. "You could be a leading man." Her words resonated with him, and wanting to further educate himself, Bob took an acting course in the summer of 1964 taught by American actress and acclaimed acting instructor Stella Adler.

"I read in the paper Stella Adler, famous New York drama coach, is coming to town to give lessons for eight weeks," he said, "and I decided to enroll in the advanced workshop... You walk in that class, and Miss Adler looks you over. She digs in." 

This course was a big step for Bob, who continually sought to broaden his scope in the acting field. Bob held his own in the class, and although Stella Adler proved to be a tough instructor, she also admired his talents. Remarking on Bob's efforts during the course, Donna Reed noted, "Bob is funny, and he doesn't know it."

The Road to 'Hogan's Heroes'
Bob Crane delivered a terrific performance as Dr. Dave Kelsey, helping to win soaring ratings for The Donna Reed Show. However, Bob had outgrown the role, as he had predicted. He no longer wished to play the wise-cracking next-door neighbor, and instead, sought something else, something different. He wanted something fresh and cutting edge, something away from the role of a husband with a wife and kids, which he believed was a concept that had been overdone.

Dinner is served - Midge presents her celebratory meal to
her husband Dave and their guests Donna and Alex Stone.
The Donna Reed Show / "Friends and Neighbors" / April 4, 1963
"At the end of the first year, I said I'd go one more year," Bob explained. "But by about the middle of the second year, I said I wanted to do something else, a little wilder than the next-door neighbor and a nice doctor."

Around the fall of 1964, Bob asked to be released from his contract, which Donna Reed and Tony Owen granted. On December 1, 1964, Bob finished shooting his last episode, and walked out. For the remainder of the series, which aired its final episode on March 19, 1966, the character of Dr. Dave Kelsey was worked into the story lines by having him mentioned but not seen. For example, when Midge visits Donna, she will mention her husband Dave, but the viewer never sees him.

Freed from his role on The Donna Reed Show, Bob was once again highly selective in making a decision regarding a new series, this time, for the leading role. He turned down several lucrative offers, including the lead in Please Don't Eat the Daisies, another husband/wife/kids premise that he did not want. Then, opportunity came knocking. In mid-December 1964, he auditioned for and earned the role of Colonel Hogan in Hogan's Heroes (even though Richard Dawson auditioned for the role of Hogan, that part was never seriously intended for Dawson; the producers wanted an American actor as the lead). Colonel Hogan had been exactly what Bob Crane wanted. The pilot episode filmed on January 7, 1965, and the rest, as they say, is history.

On Hogan's Heroes, Bob Crane took what he had learned from The Donna Reed Show and Stella Adler's acting course and applied it to his current role. Bob worked exceptionally hard to perfect the character of Hogan. As the series matured, so did Bob's acting skills, and as a result, so did the character of Hogan. Over time, Hogan became less campy and slapstick and more level-headed and controlled, modeled after another of Bob's acting heroes, John Wayne. Bob turned Hogan into the serious leader of his men we now see on screen, and he became the leading man in his own series, as Donna Reed had encouraged. And he did it all so well that people did not even think he was acting.

Lasting Impression and Appreciation
For the remainder of his life, Bob was grateful to Donna Reed and the opportunity she had given him to cut his teeth in acting on her series. No hard feelings existed between Bob and Donna Reed and Tony Owen over his early departure from The Donna Reed Show. In fact, Donna and Tony had watched the premiere of Hogan's Heroes on September 17, 1965, and congratulated Bob on the success of his new program, saying "Our loss is America's gain."

Donna Reed was also a big fan of Hogan's Heroes. After original episodes would air, she would call Bob and provide words of wisdom and frank evaluation of the episode and his performance.

In 1969, when asked what Donna Reed had been like to work with, Bob Crane answered truthfully, "She was marvelous. I learned everything I know in the business from her."

Anderson, J.E. (1965, August 23). Bob Crane is hoping for long POW term. The Miami Herald, p. 7B.
Rich, A. (1965, October 6). Citizen News, p. B-12
Witbeck, C. (1964, August 26). Donna's doctor's head and image trimmed. Evening Independent, p. 6B.

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