Monday, January 14, 2013

Hogan's Heroes

When I first watched HOGAN'S HEROES in the sixties, I had no way of knowing what an odd premise it was. After six seasons, the series was one of the very few that never jumped the shark! Looked at today, the final episodes of that last season hold up as being as good or better than the best episodes of earlier seasons. There was one major cast replacement but it was barely noticeable.

The premise was simple but somewhat ingenious, combining elements of the serious play/film STALAG 17 with more gung-ho war flicks and more than a dash of the spy craze then sweeping the US. We're never given a full back-story, nor an ending, and specific details we did have changed from episode to episode. Basically, though, Col. Robert Hogan was shot down and captured on purpose so he could set up an underground organization of unsuspected Allied prisoners along with various other specially trained experts who ended up there the same way.

There were other prisoners who came and went, rarely the same actors twice. They were simply background material, ignored all but visually in nearly every episode. Only the core group of five stood out.

And their antagonists, of course. Col. Wilhelm Klink was the sycophantic but somehow lovable loser who ran the camp. He was easy to get around and easy to manipulate so it was up to Hogan to both give him a good reputation and maintain it for him so their unwitting ally wouldn't get transferred away for his own incompetence. Distinguished actor Werner Klemperer, known for his more serious portrayals of evil Nazis, took Klink straight to the Emmy Awards!

Klink's sidekick was Sgt. Hans Schultz. Often criticized by those who said that Nazis simply can't be funny, actor John Banner was able to make Schultz into one of the great TV characters of the sixties, completely unbelievable but 100 percent hilarious. 

Rarely given the credit, HOGAN'S HEROES was one of the first TV series to feature an African-American actor with little reference to his race throughout the whole run. Ivan Dixon's character of Kinch was the smartest person other than Hogan and also had a great comic timing. With only a couple of episodes centering around his character overall, though, he opted to skip the final season in order to pursue what would become a distinguished career as a director.

Englishman Richard "Dickie" Dawson had been a nightclub comic and a small-time actor, perhaps best-known for his one-time marriage to actress Diana Dors, the British Marilyn Monroe. As cockney conman Newkirk, he came into his own and later became a game show staple before hosting his own, FAMILY FEUD, and becoming a TV legend himself.

Frenchman Robert Clary got a lot of publicity out of the fact that he himself had been in a Nazi concentration camp in WWII (NOT, as he was quick to point out, the same thing as a prisoner of war camp). His Lebeau was a lively and entertaining part of some of the more absurd storylines. 

Comedian Larry Hovis never gets enough credit but he may well have been one of the funniest comics of his day. As Carter here he was the shy, quiet, down-home "normal" one--albeit with a penchant for liking to blow things up!

Leon Askin as Klink's superior appeared often and leant a stressed air of superiority to his high-pitched role of a German General.

Howard Caine as the Gestapo chief also showed up quite often and managed to steal pretty much every scene he was in from all of these other scene-stealers by chewing the scenery.

When Ivan Dixon left, Kenneth Washington, with no explanation ever even hinted at, played a variation of the same role as Baker in the final season.

There were quite a number of other actors who appeared fairly regularly on HOGAN'S HEROES, many even as different characters in different episodes. These included Bernard Fox, John Hoyt, John Stephenson, Nita Talbot, Kathleen Freeman, Arlene Martel (STAR TREK's T'Pring), Henry Corden, Noam Pitlik, Harold Gould and even an actor named Robert Hogan for whom the show's main character was named.

The tragic and still unsolved murder of series star Bob Crane in the late seventies put a bit of a damper on the show's tremendous popularity in syndication but its reputation and recognition has built back up in time with a whole new generation discovering HOGAN'S HEROES now that every episode is available in pristine quality on Youtube!

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