Monday, March 29, 2021

Becoming Colonel Hogan

Let's be honest. Bob Crane's German accent on Hogan's Heroes was pretty bad. In fact, it was terrible. It seemed everyone on the series could perform a decent (or in some cases, exceptional) German accent except for Bob. Larry Hovis (Sgt. Andrew Carter) was so good at it, in fact, that he could pull off a convincing—and a bit frightening—Adolph Hitler. 

But where others excelled, Bob seemed to fail. To some, it may even be a bit painful to hear him fumble a German accent with American accent overtones. Had this been real life, the Germans would have caught him in a New York minute.

Yet Bob was a gifted voice impersonator, having honed the skill in radio for fifteen years. In Hollywood, he was hailed as radio's "Man of a Thousand Voices" by KNX. He worked with Mel Blanc on a pilot for a new radio program, Superfun. And one of his first television "roles" was as the uncredited voice announcer in The Twilight Zone episode "Static," where he provides all of the voices on the radio.

It begs the question: If Bob Crane could perform all sorts of accents on his radio program, from a French fashion designer to race car driver Andy Granatelli, to an Einstein-sounding engineer, to a love-struck Russian, to a host of other "character" voices, then why could he not perform a decent (or even passable) German accent on Hogan's Heroes?

Simply, he was told—directed—to do it poorly. The directors thought it would be funny. "He wasn't supposed to do it well!" director and associate producer Jerry London told Linda Groundwater and me in our interview for Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography. "That was the comedy of it!" he said.

Linda and I discuss this in our latest episode of our podcast, Flipside: The True Story of Bob Crane. Bob didn't just become Colonel Hogan overnight. He was still quite inexperienced as an actor at the start of the series. This doesn't make him a bad actor, though. 

Early on his acting career, which consisted of community "little" theatre, guest-starring roles on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Twilight Zone, his big break on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and eventually, the regular role of Dr. Dave Kelsey on The Donna Reed Show, Bob made a decision to take acting seriously. He accepted coaching advice from Donna Reed, and in addition, at her suggestion, he took a course taught by legendary acting instructor Stella Adler. 

While the Hogan's Heroes directors and producers, and viewers of the series in its original run by extension, may have thought Bob Crane doing a botched German accent was funny at the time, it unfortunately does not age well. Viewers today watch and think Bob couldn't act, or worse, didn't care to learn how to act. This wasn't the case. He was following direction. And when a director tells you to do something, you do it. 

Indeed, Bob was learning. He came a long way on Hogan's Heroes. People learn throughout their entire lives, and the same was true for Bob. He continued to learn and hone the craft until the time of his murder in 1978. Many actors who worked with him believe he would have had found another hit series and enjoyed continued success as an actor and/or director had he lived.

In the end, Hogan's Heroes is a television show. We're supposed to suspend our belief and understand that no matter whether the German accent was good or bad, all of the heroes are speaking fluent, flawless German. Otherwise, they would have likely failed their first mission, right out of the gate. 

Listen to "08. Becoming Colonel Hogan" on Spreaker.