Fifty years ago my dad was the host of the number one radio show in the number two market in the country. He was, to the late ’50s and early ’60s morning drive in Los Angeles, what would much later become the province of Howard Stern and Don Imus. My dad interviewed a panoply of celebrities, from Bob Hope to Marilyn Monroe, Jonathan Winters to Jayne Mansfield. He played his drums on the air and punctuated all of it with wacky comedy effects—things he called “gimmicks”—to poke fun at everyone and everything, especially his sponsors. A 60-second spot for Hertz putting you in the driver’s seat ended with squealing tires, screeching brakes, and shattering glass.
My dad’s growing celebrity was sometimes a cause for alarm, as when a woman from Seattle showed up unannounced on our Tarzana, California, doorstep claiming my dad was the father of her child, though to my knowledge my dad had never set foot—or any other part of his body—in the Pacific Northwest.
For purely selfish reasons, however, my dad’s radio show had some monumentally positive effects. He once asked his listeners if anyone had extra tickets he could buy to hear a new band play locally. A woman in Culver City sent him four tickets for $5.50 each, and that’s how I got to see the Beatles live at the Hollywood Bowl. I thought maybe this celebrity thing was not all bad. That was a half-century ago.
As successful as my dad’s show was, he wasn’t content. He had a serious bite from the acting bug. He’d done a handful of guest shots on sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show as well as an abbreviated stint as the goofy neighbor on The Donna Reed Show, but he hankered to become the new Jack Lemmon or the next Gig Young. That’s when his agent called.
“Bob, have I got a script for you. Prisoner of war camp in World War II, Nazi commandant, German shepherds, gun towers, the whole strudel.” This was late 1964.
My dad said, “Thanks, but I want to do comedy. I want to be Dick Van Dyke. I want to be Jack Lemmon. I’m not a dramatic actor.”
“Bob, what are you talking about?” the agent replied. “This is a comedy. These are the funny Nazis.”
And so my dad, Bob Crane, became Colonel Robert E. Hogan, commanding officer of Hogan’s Heroes. Hogan’s debuted in 1965, a mere 20 years after the end of the war. It was an immediate hit and ran for six years, though not without controversy. TV Guide reviled it as one of the worst television shows ever. Criticism notwithstanding, Hogan’s Heroes is still on the air a couple of hours every day on two different cable networks, and has been running continuously for the last 50 years.
On Thursday, June 29, 1978, I was 27 years and two days old. I had just interviewed Chevy Chase, the hottest star in Hollywood at the time, for an article I was doing for Playboy’s new Euro-hip Oui magazine. I was spiraling up in a thermal of great possibilities when I encountered a nasty downdraft.
I received a call that Thursday afternoon from my dad’s business manager who said there was a rumor my dad had been shot. He hadn’t. But someone had crept into the apartment where he was staying in Scottsdale, Arizona, while doing a dinner theater gig, and bashed his head in with a blunt object while he slept. My dad was two weeks shy of his fiftieth birthday.
The crime unleashed a cyclone of rumors, scandal, public shame, and unimaginable heartache for my mom—who in 1978 had been divorced from my dad for eight years—my two younger sisters, and me.
Nowadays we have a name for sex addiction. There are even ads on TV for lovely, oceanview treatment centers that cover any manner of anti-social and dangerous behaviors, but in 1978, after his grisly murder, my dad’s proclivities for videotaping his sexual encounters garnered him the headline, “Hogan’s a Pervert.” These days he’d have thousands of “likes” and his own Twitter feed.
I’m in no way defending his “hobby.” Far from it. My dad had no rein on his motor, verbally or physically. His quick wit and funny ad-libbing made him a success on the radio and television. It made him a genial character, a happy-go-lucky actor, but his inability to see the destructive path he was on was also his tragic flaw.
I carry my dad’s name, and like his celebrity, it brings both keys to the city and doors that slam in my face, neither of which have anything to do with me.
Chatter that accompanies grief volleys the term “closure” like a shuttlecock, floating back and forth in the days or sometimes hours after whatever tragedy happens to be afoot. But closure is not an emotion I’m familiar with. Having walked through my dad’s murder scene and buried my nose in the sad, sad set piece, I will never get the smell and images of the overflowing ashtray, the half-empty liquor bottles, the blood splatter on the walls, and my dad’s stripped mattress out of my head. I felt it was my duty to be my dad’s ambassador to the living, to report back to the troops on the home front with accurate descriptions of the battlefield I was witnessing. Closure doesn’t enter into it.
The Scottsdale Police Department has never solved the killing of Bob Crane, forever 49-years-old. Colonel Hogan, on the other hand, will turn 50 this year, soaring on the airwaves and still going strong.
Robert Crane is coauthor of Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder; My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey Through Hollywood; Jack Nicholson: The Early Years; and Bruce Dern: A Memoir; and he is a contributor to Hal Ashby: Interviews.