Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Bob Crane I knew and loved

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post. It’s about Bob Crane, who starred in HOGAN’S HEROES and was later murdered in a porn-related incident.  But that's not the focus of today's question.

It comes from Mark:

How was Bob Crane on radio. You hear a lot of superlatives now, but the early work of famous people is often overpraised. What did you think of him at the time?

Before Crane established himself as a fine comic actor, he was a truly great radio personality and here’s why: He really knew how to communicate one-to-one with his listeners. He was warm and funny and talked directly to YOU. Very few announcers understand that concept. But the great ones, like Arthur Godfrey, Paul Harvey, Dan Ingram, and Vin Scully do.

For years Crane did mornings on the CBS flagship station in Los Angeles, KNX.

His big schtick was that he used a lot of wild tracks in his show – quick sound bytes inserted into programming, even commercials. He’d play a Winston cigarette commercial and stop it right in the middle for five seconds of a guy coughing.   Remember these were the late '50s and that technique was very groundbreaking.   Now almost every zany radio personality does this as part of their act.  But Crane was one of the originators. 

Interestingly, he was hired from a small station in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The station used to reach parts of New York and he was eating into the ratings of powerhouse WCBS. Primarily to get him out of town, CBS offered him the morning show on their LA outlet.

Great, except there was a problem. KNX was a union shop. Crane was used to playing all of his wild tracks himself – which was quite a feat considering everything was on discs and had to be cued up to just the right spot. He was also a drummer and had expert timing.

The union engineers were nowhere near as proficient at it and the show really stumbled out of the gate. Crane threatened to quit unless he could run his own control board. Lots of meetings between the station and the union resulted until an agreement was reached allowing him to do that.

Crane was also an excellent interviewer. A regular feature on his show was celebrity interviews, and he’d get the biggest stars in Hollywood to come on his local show. Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Stewart, etc. One day he interviewed Carl Reiner, who at the time was running THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. He convinced Reiner to give him a small part in an episode. The producers of THE DONNA REED SHOW saw him and were impressed enough to give him a recurring role on their series. For two years he did that show but kept his radio gig.

And all the while he remained the same humble charming friendly guy on the air. You just felt comfortable listening to him. And the quality never slipped. You never got the sense he was now just phoning it in because he had a TV series.

Once he got HOGAN’S HEROES and was starring in a show, that’s when he finally gave up the radio job.

But even then, a few years later, he filled in a few times for Dick Whittinghill at crosstown rival KMPC. I was an intern at KMPC back then and spent some time with him.   He was as nice and genuine off the air as on. 

I also knew him a little bit from the neighborhood. His son was roughly my age and I’d see Bob Crane at Little League games or school concerts. He was the typical suburban dad.

Who knew he would abandon all that for a life of sex and pornography and enter a very unsavory and ultimately deadly world?

Crane is remembered way more for his TV work, but I’m here to tell you, as good as he was, his radio work was even better.

35 comments:

Craig Edwards said...

A great remembrance. I like hearing stories like this. I've read Auto Focus and watched the movie - and remember when his murder made the news in the late 70's. Such a sad story.

Bill Avena said...

If Autofocus had concentrated on Crane's earlier radio career and ended sooner it would have made a much more celebratory movie. "Patton" ended before the jeep crash (had to stop to report CAPTCHA because I couldn't identify the salads).

Peter said...

What did you think of Greg Kinnear's performance in Auto Focus and the movie as a whole?

Even though the movie focuses on the more sensational aspects of his life, it still portrayed him as essentially a nice guy who fell in with a sleazy guy, portrayed by Willem Dafoe.

Unknown said...

Living in the midwest, I didn't know Mr. Crane did radio, and how good he was. Who do you like now? I know everything is corporate now, but anyone up and coming?

Richard John Marcej said...

I can understand Mark's question, as all the names of the great announcers that you mentioned are all gone. Except - Vin Scully.

I live on the east coast and have the MLB package on my cable so I get every team's television feeds. Thanks to this, I have the opportunity of putting on a Dodger game (home games only, of course) and listening to Vin call a game. I'd advise anyone, if they can, especially if they've never heard him work, to try and watch at least one Dodger home game while Scully is still announcing. He's amazing. He broadcasts alone, no color commentator (he doesn't need one), and is as smooth, entertaining and especially informative as anyone one half his age.

Because of that when my Pirates play in Los Angeles later this year I'll probably watch the Dodger feed. He can tell me more about the players on my team then the home announcers and that's not a knock on them, he's just that good.

Ron Rettig said...

Ken, I also listened to Bob Crane every morning on KNX radio and remember when he talked up his guest appearances on the Donna Reed Show. Lohman and Barkley were good replacements on KNX when he left radio but I still missed him in the AM. I loved him on the radio but never really cared for him in TV series including his hit Hogan's Heroes. I always thought he had a so-called face made for radio.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

AUTO FOCUS turns out to be not an entirely accurate portrayal of Crane's life, at least according to Crane's own family: his children talk of what a loving, doting, caring father his was, but I believe it was his youngest son, Scotty, who said that the portrayal of Crane being a devout, church-going saint who got caught up in the evils of Hollywood and allowed himself to be corrupted by this John Carpenter fellow who lead him into an obsession with sex and porn was entirely cooked up for the sake of storytelling, and insists that Crane was never the religious person he was made out to be, and in fact always had an obsession with sex and porn, it just consumed him life more and more as time went on - with or without Carpenter's influence.

But that's the problem with biopics, they often distort fact and dramatize the subject's life for the sake of storytelling. Somebody was trying to do a biopic about Jim Henson a few years ago and revealed part of his screenplay on the internet, which was met with tons of backlash, as the climax of his story depicted Jim as literally losing his mind, slipping into a state of madness, and hallucinating that the Muppets were coming to life, talking to him, tormenting him, driving him further to madness, etc. Completely false and totally disrespectful.

There's very little of Crane's radio work on YouTube, but what little there is sounds very interesting, especially a post-HOGAN interview with Richard Dawson, whom Crane refers to off the bat as one of his good friends - this really crushes all those rumors and gossip of decades past that the two hated each other on the grounds that Dawson wanted to play Hogan and resented Crane for winning the part, which Dawson himself said in a separate interview that while he did test for the part of Hogan, he knew he wasn't right for the part (that and he couldn't do a convincing American accent)..

Mike Barer said...

Crane is part of Hollywood history now.

Bill O said...

When Dawson, a Match Game regular, was about to hold a card with his match, he said "Here's a word I never thought I'd utter again". The card read "Crane".

Hamid said...

Go balls deep, Pop!

Mike McCann said...

Ken,

A great reminscence of Bob -- likely the greatest alumnus ever of Connecticut radio.

Small clarification, though. Crane worked -- and as noted, dominated morning ratings -- at WICC Bridgeport. But in the 1950s, it was hardly "a small station." At AM 600, with a stick near Long Island Sound, the station had a killer signal. Located in the state's biggest city, which then had a population of nearly 200,000 people, it was more medium market than small-time. And located just 60 miles outside New York, WICC easily covered a good chunk of the New York suburbs, including Long Island.

So while Bridgeport-to-L.A. is a huge jump (and likely unprecedented), this is not quite pulling the girl from the drive-thru window and co-starring her alongside Tom Cruise.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Bill I have heard about Dawson going through a period of time where he wanted to break away from his recognition as part of HOGAN'S HEROES; I read in Caroll Spinney's book that he and Oscar the Grouch appeared on THE DINAH SHORE SHOW alongside Dawson some years after HOGAN ended, and Caroll thought it would be funny to try to have Oscar banter with him, so when he had Oscar ask, "So, Dawson, how's everything over at HOGAN'S HEROES? Heh-heh-heh!" Dawson was not amused, and neither Caroll nor Oscar got another word in edgewise for the rest of the show. Werner Klemperer was just the opposite though when he appeared on THE PAT SAJAK SHOW, saying he didn't mind at all whenever people would keep coming up to him and calling him "Colonel Klink," because he was grateful HOGAN gave him the recognition that he otherwise didn't really have prior to the show (he was more of a character actor whose face you'd recognize, but not the name).

Some actors are like that, though. Up till her death, Liz Montgomery threw herself into so many projects that put her in dramatic and heavy roles so people would see her as something other than Samantha Stephens; likewise, I understand David Ogden Stiers gets put out with people who remember him only as Charles Emerson Winchester.

GS in SF said...

Just the thought of Hogan's Heores as a TV show is amazing. I loved Stalag 17, but I cannot imagine a time when someone pitched Hogan's Heroes and someone said, 'let's make it.'

Wouldn't it be the equivalent today of going into a pitch meeting with the following:
"It's the story of brave Americans taken prisoners by Al Qaeda"
"Go On"
"And about their day to day struggles of living in the remote mountains, and their interactions with the mullahs and jihadists."
"Go on."
"And it's a comedy."

Doug Thompson said...

Bob Crane (the son) has written an excellent book (with Christopher Fryer) about growing up in Connecticut and Hollywood, his dad, his dad's (still unsolved) murder and working with John Candy. It's called "Crane - Sex, Celebrity and My Father's Unsolved Murder".

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@GS Werner Klemperer actually had a similar experience when he was approached about playing Klink: his agent asked if he'd like to play the Kommandant of a POW camp, to which he excepted as he had played those kinds of roles before (in serious projects, mind you), but when he entered the producer's office and he handed him the script, he said, "You know this is a comedy?" Werner responded, "you're out of your bloody mind!"

As it turns out though, and I only learned about this recently, HOGAN'S HEROES was originally going to take place in a modern-day American prison, but the premise was still there: the prisoners carrying operations and everything under the guards' noses. However, the producers got word that somebody else was developing a comedy for NBC about POWs in an Italian prison camp during WW2, so the HOGAN producers quickly reworked their premise to make it a German prison camp in WW2 and raced to get it on air before the NBC show, which finally did make it to air a year or two later (CAMPO 22, or something like that), but by that time, it was accused of being a rip-off of HOGAN.

@Doug I haven't read the book, but I did hear about recently. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't he actually claim that he believes Sigrid Valdis (Crane's HOGAN co-star and second wife) to be a suspect in his father's murder, and that money was the motive?

Peter said...

Ken, are you gonna follow up on the open invitation from Kevin Smith and Matt Mira to appear on their podcast? That would be pretty cool!

Anonymous said...
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Elf said...

@GS in SF: Gilbert Gottfried used to do a bit on that in his act, essentially "The show is about a bunch of American POWs being held by the Nazis during WWII. If they get caught trying to escape, they'll be shot. It's a comedy!!!"

John said...

I found this on the Interwebs about a year ago, and was surprised to learn Crane was so good with doing multiple voices on the fly (which kind of answers the never-before asked question "What if Phil Hendrie had been asked to do a commercial for fruit wine around Passover?").

Cap'n Bob said...

Ken: you say Crane was killed in a porn-related incident. Isn't this just speculation?

Anonymous said...

There is an excellent interview out there that Bob Crane did with Rod Serling c.1963.
Serling really opens up on the superficiality of television.

Robert Crane said...

Robert Crane1:49 PM+1
0
1


Thanks Ken for a wonderful piece on my dad, Bob Crane. I was directed to your blog by radio producer, Doug Thompson, who produced Radio Kandy with John Candy. I also worked with John for a few years. Re: comments sent in -- I believe Rege Cordic supplanted my dad at KNX. Yes my dad was a church-going Catholic while the first family was together and a former altar boy. I've donated a dozen KNX shows to the Paley Center in LA and NY. His second wife, Patti (Klink's secretary) and my dad were going through a brutal divorce at the time of his death. Instead of 50-50, Patti got it all (curious timing, eh?). As Mr. Thompson so graciously did already, I will put in a blatant plug for my book Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father's Unsolved Murder from University Press Kentucky. Best, Robert Crane

Bill Dillane said...

Loved your comments. A new biography called Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography comes out September 17. More info at http://vote4bobcrane.org/book.html

Ken Levine said...

Peter,

I contacted them through their website. Have not heard back. I wish I had a better contact connection for Matt. All I can do is hope someone will now contact me.

Anonymous said...

I had the privilege of working with Bob Crane at KNX. He was one of the nicest persons I ever worked with. He did my 5th year college reunion at a Hollywood restaurant,brought his Wollesak tape recorder, with all his tracks on it. We had worked out a routine, with the names of those attending and it was fabulous! He always extremely charitable to every one at the station. At that time he had no vices. Didn't drink, even coffee, didn't smoke. Always dedicated to his work at the station or to breaking into TV and the movies. No one worked harder. Many years later, during The Hogans Heros series I ran into him at The Classic Cat on Sunset Blvd., where I had been attending a meeting. Some of the girls there were in some shows I (and your father) were involved in so I knew a few of them. I was schocked to Bob there, He knew them all. I asked him, what are you doing here???? He aksed me the same.

Doug Thompson said...

Bob is being modest. He was John Candy's right hand man for many years, right up until John's death in 1994. We both started working for Candy at Frostbacks Production company on San Vicente & Wilshire sometime in 1988. God we had fun! John Candy was an absolutely wonderful man as well as a very generous boss.

Joseph Scarborough: There were a couple of theories about Bob Crane's death. Bob (the son) mentions several of them in his book, but the police only ever charged John Carpenter (the video equipment salesman, not the Hollywood director). He was not convicted as too much time had elapsed between the death (1978)and the trial (1994). As his son Bob points out in the book, the Scottsdale, Arizona police pretty much botched the crime scene from the get go. Read the book, I know you'll like it. (KEN: If that's too much of a plug you can delete the last part).

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Robert Thanks so much for the insight on your father's life, as well as clarifying some misinformation for us. I wasn't entirely sure, because I do remember AUTO FOCUS portrayed your father as a church-going Catholic as you say, but I recall statements made by Patti and Scotty afterwards that that wasn't accurate at all; matter of fact, I think I saw where Scotty was quoted as saying your father went to church only three times: for his [Scotty's] baptism, his father's funeral, and his own funeral. I've seen a couple of documentaries about the murder investigation, and while, to me at least, it seemed as if the amount of circumstantial evidence that was available all pointed back to John, but I know it's been said by those involved, including Mark Dawson, that the investigation kind of zeroed-in on him and didn't really take any other possible suspects into consideration - one of these documentaries suggested that any other suspect could have been an angry jealous boyfriend or husband of one of the many women he slept with, or perhaps even his co-star from his play BEGINNER'S LUCK (whose name escapes me at the moment). But I heard about your book that Doug previously mentioned, now I'm interested in checking it out for myself; out of curiosity, where exactly would I be able to find a copy? Finding interesting books worth reading is always difficult in my town - we do have a Books-A-Million and a Barnes & Noble across town, however, they usually have good selections.

Robert Crane said...

Robert Crane

Joseph,

Second family (Patti, Scotty) hated the first family. Scotty was seven when my dad was killed. My dad didn't have time to go to church because he was constantly on the road supporting Patti's lifestyle.

The jealous boyfriend theory was put aside when my dad's blood type was discovered on the passenger door of Carpenter's rental car. Unfortunately, this was before DNA testing. Carpenter had the means and opportunity, Patti had the motive.

Ken Levine said...

Robert,

Would love to get in touch with you. I think we even knew each other from Parkman and Taft. My email is bossjock@dslextreme.com.

Todd Everett said...

David Ogden Stiers was on Rizzolli and Isles last night. He played Isles' father, a Boston doctor. Not a medic, it was pointed out disparagingly, a PhD.

Chester said...

Really... Who are we to judge,comment on, predict what will happen to those who went before us. Accolades in this life may mean nothing in the next life. And if you don't believe in a next life, then it's all fodder. Right?

Gary West said...

I had the pleasure to work on "Radio Kandy" from the Unistar side. Great memories. John Candy was the best. "Radio Kandy" was a lot of fun ... great show. The folks at FrostBacks were a great bunch! I still have my red "FrostBacks" sweatshirt.

Bob Crane - way ahead of his time. Here's another great Bob Crane aircheck - this one, from 1957... Uncut and, about an hour. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIfKD0DI7JI

Don K. said...

If the Kevin Smith you're trying to reach is the same Kevin Smith who filmed Clerks and you haven't contacted him yet, try radio station KROQ. Ralph Garman works there and he and Smith do comedy shows now and then. He'd know how to reach Amith.

Artie Breyfogle said...

Agreed...Crane was a GREAT jock...

Peter said...

Thanks for replying, Ken!

I hope they reply and get you on their show. That would be great fun!