Friday, April 5, 2019

Tribute to Johnny Thompson — The Great Tomsoni

In April 2013, I was in Las Vegas for a business meeting being held at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. The hotel is situated just off of the Vegas Strip, and what it lacks in walking proximity to other casinos and attractions, it makes up for with its own spectacular events, including Penn & Teller's magic show. Three of my work friends and I had obtained tickets to Penn & Teller's show, and not only were we attending the show, but we were attending as VIPs. This was entirely thanks to Johnny Thompson, who made sure we were well taken care of.

Johnny Thompson and his wife, Pamela Hayes, maintained a long, successful career in the entertainment industry. What many people may not have realized up until March of this year is that John was not just a magician, he was the Magician's Magician, serving with Pam as magic consultant to acclaimed magician notables, including Penn & Teller and Criss Angel. Performing as The Great Tomsoni & Co., Johnny and Pam have been hailed as two of the greatest magicians of all time. In fact, Johnny also inspired the neuroscience community, prompting "investigators, to conduct research into the neuroscientific bases of magic." He even co-wrote an academic paper on the subject.

Last week, I learned through Bob Crane's son Scott that Johnny passed away on March 9, 2019, at the age of 84. He had suffered complications from respiratory failure after collapsing during a rehearsal on February 25, 2019. His passing was covered by many major news outlets, including Variety and The New York Times. Scott was devastated by the news, having just talked with John and Pam in February of this year. I, too, was stunned and saddened. John and Pam, like so many from Bob's life, are kind, generous, and caring people. Sadly, one by one, these beautiful and important people who knew and loved Bob are leaving this world. And now, with the loss of Johnny Thompson, another bright light has been extinguished.

Meeting John and Pam while I was in Las Vegas was an honor and a memorable experience. John and Pam were jolly, the perfect hosts, and full of life. When I first met them in the casino lounge in the hotel, I noticed that Pam even carried her sweet little dogs in her purse with her, and as we sat down to talk for awhile, they both reiterated their utmost appreciation to me for what my coauthors and I were trying to do — set the record straight for their dear friend, Bob Crane.

A few years earlier, in late summer 2009, Linda Groundwater and I conducted two lengthy, in-depth interviews with John and Pam as part of our extensive, and often exclusive, research for Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography. They were eager to talk with us, and their conversation was informative, witty, and at times, hilariously funny! They bantered back and forth with each other, all while giving us a rich history of their friendship with Bob Crane.

Johnny and Pam Thompson, with Bob Crane,
in Beginner's Luck (circa 1976).
John and Pam were also adamant when they told us the public has it all wrong about Bob Crane. Thanks to media sensationalism, combined with misinformation and lack of perspective, Johnny and Pam wanted people to know the truth. They were on board with us all the way, and they made sure we knew how much they appreciated our efforts on Bob's behalf.

Pam, who costarred with Bob on stage in Beginner's Luck and Send Me No Flowers, as well as in an episode of NBC's The Bob Crane Show, told us: "We're hoping to put this right. I really believe what they did in [AutoFocus] was make him look as though he were a sleazy guy, and that's the last thing he was. He was really a gentleman. The sensationalism people go after is just unconscionable."

Bob and John met in early 1970, during Bob Crane's first run of Beginner's Luck at the Drury Lane Theatre in Chicago. At that time, John was performing in a show in Chicago called the Lewis and Christie Show. While in Chicago for Beginner's Luck, Bob and his-then future wife, Patricia Olson (Sigrid Valdis), went to see the Lewis and Christie Show. According to John, Bob and Patty "fell in love with the show and came back several nights." Bob and Patty enjoyed the performance so much that they invited John over to see Beginner’s Luck on its closing night.

John recalled to Linda and me: "Meeting Bob at that time was really wonderful because it started a great relationship between the two of us." They became such good friends, in fact, that in 1973, Bob asked John if he would accept a role in Beginner's Luck. John agreed, taking the role also played by Bernard Fox (who Hogan's Heroes fans will remember as Colonel Crittendon).

Bob Crane with Pamela Hayes Thompson
in Beginner's Luck (circa 1976).
In the early 1970s, Bob played matchmaker for Johnny and Pam, and the couple soon married—and stayed devoted to each other ever since. The Thompsons maintained a close friendship with Bob and Patty, and their son Scott, throughout the 1970s. They continued to costar with him in Beginner's Luck over the years as often as their schedule allowed.

John remarked to us how Bob and Pam had terrific stage chemistry together, stating: "They had a chemistry that I can say is akin to Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke. It was a great, great on-stage relationship. Both Bob and I kind of trained Pam in timing in both physical comedy as well as timing in lines. And the three of us really did work well together. It really was a great balance. And so was Bernard [Fox]. Bernard was equally as brilliant."

Pam went on to explain to us in one of our interviews: "I don’t remember ever, ever fighting about anything. I was so overwhelmed, so young. And [Bob] taught me so much. I’m still working today at this horrendous age, and it’s because of him. He’s taught me so much timing. And then when John would do the show, I could keep up with them both because I listened. That was my learning time, and [Bob] taught me so much."

There are some fascinating and very little known facts about Johnny Thompson and his connection to Hogan's Heroes.

First, although Hogan's Heroes was cancelled after season six, the series was supposed to have gone on for one more year, for a total of seven seasons. During the sixth season, John Banner's health was failing. Not knowing the show was going to end, Bob began seeking a successor to Sergeant Schultz. This person would not play Schultz (really, nobody else could pull that off except John Banner!). But rather, the actor would play a different guard, taking Schultz's place. The person Bob had in mind was Johnny Thompson. But because the series was cancelled and didn't go the extra season, looking for someone to carry on if John Banner couldn't became a non-issue.

Second, following the cancellation of Hogan's Heroes, Bob wrote an ending to the series. This was to have been a variety show set in the months following the end of World War 2. Werner Klemperer and Robert Clary were on board—Klink was Hogan's business manager and LeBeau was going to perform as a singer. Bob, of course, was all set to play drums. Rounding out the cast was Johnny Thompson, who was going perform his magic act. The show, Hogan's Heroes Revue, was going to be performed in Las Vegas, but it never made it to the stage because Bob didn't agree with what he considered shady business on part of the hotel.

But I can't give everything away! For all of the details, read Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography.

Bob's murder on June 29, 1978, came as a cruel shock to John and Pam. They were so distraught, in fact, that they blamed themselves. They explained to Linda and me that they were unable to go with Bob to Scottsdale, Arizona, and perform in that fateful June 1978 production of Beginner's Luck. They had to turn Bob down because they were already booked for another venue. Following his murder, they felt deep guilt for not being there for him during that time, and it was something they carried with them all these years. They always wondered if—had they been there—maybe they could have looked out for Bob, and maybe he wouldn't have been murdered that night. They believed that perhaps, had they been there, they could have steered him away from the danger that ultimately took his life.

Carol Ford (center) and her friends from work,
meeting Teller, courtesy of Johnny Thompson.
During our interviews, and then on and off over the next few years, Johnny and Pam shared details about their friendship with Bob, all of which is contained in Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography. They expressed such happiness and joy repeatedly about what we were doing for Bob. In many ways, what we do for Bob isn't just for Bob, but also for all who knew and loved him.

And indeed, Johnny and Pam Thompson loved Bob Crane. They respected him as a colleague and understood him as a friend. As friends, John and Pam were as loyal to Bob as friends could get. They didn't always see him every day, and they could go for stretches without seeing or hearing from each other at all. But both sides knew that all they had to do was reach out—to pick up the phone or send a note—and they would be there for each other—as true friends do.

Rest in peace, Johnny Thompson, The Great Tomsoni. Your magician's wand may be broken, but your legacy, memory, and spirit will live forever.

Carol Ford with Johnny and Pam Thompson.
Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino | April 29, 2013.