of a Salesman; or How the Sexual Revolution Killed Col.
The life and death of Bob Crane
By Tyler Thoreson
Gadfly January 1999
night Bob Crane was murdered wasn't all that different
from any other night in the 49-year-old actor's
life. He had spent a couple hours onstage playing
the lead in Beginner's Luck, a romantic comedy
to which he owned the rights and which he had been
putting on in dinner theaters around the country
for much of the 1970s; he was now starring in it
at the Windmill Theater in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Like many a bachelor of his era, Crane spent the
rest of the night searching for that special woman
willing to let him take Polaroids of her naked and
perhaps, if he was extra lucky, screw her in front
of a video camera. At around 3 in the morning on
June 29, 1978, he was rudely awakened by two forceful
blows to his left temple with a blunt instrument.
And then he was dead.
news that the actor had been violently murdered
reached the American public, there was more to the
story than the tragic cutting down of an innocent
celebrity hero. Had the former Col. Robert E. Hogan
been murdered at the peak of his celebrity, the
media coverage would surely have been frenzied and
widespread. But in 1978, Bob Crane wasn't exactly
at the zenith of his career, and his death forced
the media to report on some of his less than respectable
that summer Crane had been forced to accept an unhappy
role in America's celebrity culture, that of the
irrevocably pigeonholed, washed-up sitcom star who
is unable to reclaim his (increasingly unwarranted,
he begins to fear) former glory and has to suffer
through an extended, labor-intensive dénouement
on the dinner-theater circuit. All along, Crane
seemed to be possessed of the kind of ego that seeks
comfort in the laughter of other people, in the
applause of an audience, in the cyclopean, fawning
smile of the camera and when those fail him, in
the comfort of willing women.
willing women. Numerous willing women at once. And
finally, when even those widely appreciated therapies
somehow aren't enough, the man, lost in the doldrums
of middle age, was left with only one choice, and
he bet everything on it. He began to have his sex
on camera. After all, Crane had spent most of his
career in front of a camera, and he wasn't about
to give it up. So he downsized a bit; he went indie,
so to speak. He started to tape himself doing what
he liked best, and that happened to be screwing
loose women. This guy was knocking boots in front
of a video camera before Pamela Anderson had even
heard of silicone implants. He was the archetype
of the Swinging ’70s, a busy time for many
folks, an era when one could enjoy the fruits of
the Sexual Revolution without worrying about the
dangers of AIDS. Nowadays, everybody knows that
sex can kill you. Back in 1978, prodigious fornicators
had worries like the clap or an unwanted pregnancy,
but death wasn't one of them.
it turns out, it probably should've been. Because
from the viewpoint of 1999 it appears that Bob Crane's
appetite for sex and videotape (no lies—Crane was an honest man) is to blame for his death. But that's just speculation;
his murder remains unsolved.
* * *
Crane was born on July 13, 1928, in Waterbury, Conn.,
a small, largely unremarkable industrial city. Other
than his being Catholic, Crane's childhood was fairly
free of drama. Crane attended high school in Stamford,
where he was not much of a student. In the height
of the swing era—the original
swing era—the young man dreamed of being a
professional drummer. At 16 he dropped out of high
school and landed a job as a percussionist with
the Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. Already the
future sitcom star had started to show a taste for
jocularity, and after two years with the orchestra
he was canned for goofing off during a Bach fugue.
For the next few years, Crane made his living traveling
the East Coast and drumming for several different
bands, and in 1949 he married Anne Terzian, his
1950, Crane got a $37.50-a-week job at WLEA, a small
radio station in the western New York town of Hornell.
Within a couple of years he was pulling down $500
a week at WICC in Bridgeport, Conn., and soon turned
down $700 from WEEI in Boston. "I'm afraid
I was too ambitious for Boston by then," Crane
said once. Six years in radio had proven to Crane
that he had the on-air good stuff, and he had his
eyes on either New York or Los Angeles. His big
break came in 1956, when he was given the KNX morning
drive-time show in L.A. Soon he became known as
the "King of the L.A. Airwaves," and was
making nearly $100,000 a year. But he didn't simply
sit back and revel in his exploding fame and fortune.
Like a small-time southern governor gunning for
the White House, Crane worked the crowd shamelessly—one
year he made 256 public appearances. He took his
work seriously. "Don't call me a disk jockey,"
he was quoted as saying. "A disk jockey gives
nothing of his real self to what he does, and that's
not my approach at all. I'm a radio personality...
People say to me, 'Aw, you're just naturally funny.
You don't have to work at it.' I don't care if that's
what they think. But man, I do work at it.
I work hard." The Bob Crane of the 1950s
and early 1960s was not only a man dedicated to
his career, he was known as a square who neither
drank nor smoked. His behavior showed little indication
that the Bob Crane of the 1970s was somewhere in
there lurking—he called the movie Tom
Jones so shocking he would never take his mother
to see it.
the early 1960s Crane had filled in for Johnny Carson
on Who Do You Trust? and appeared on Alfred
Hitchcock Presents, Lawrence Welk,
Your First Impression, Jack Benny,
Ed Sullivan and Tonight. After
an appearance on The Dick Van Dyke Show,
Crane caught Donna Reed's eye, and by 1963 he was
a regular on her eponymous show. Hungry for greater
fame and fortune, Crane happily endured a grueling
schedule. He awoke at 4:00 a.m. for his KNX show,
which went till around 10:30. Then he would hurry
over to Reed's studio and shoot her show until 7
many Generation X types see Hogan's Heroes
as just one show among the afternoon rerun rotation
of their childhood—along with such standbys
as Get Smart, Gilligan's Island and The
Brady Bunch—at its 1965 debut, the show's
premise generated quite a bit of controversy. World
War II was still a part of the recent past, and
the airing of a sitcom set in a German POW camp—“Nazis
with a laugh track," as it was known in the
industry—had CBS executives wary of
public outrage. In the end, America proved ready
to laugh at the war, and Hogan's Heroes was
an instant hit, thanks in large part to its portrayal
of Stalag 13's ruling Nazis as feckless dolts and
the camp's American prisoners as canny archetypes
of American ingenuity and positivity. With his good-natured
but sly wit and wide-open persona, Crane was perfectly
suited to the lead role of Colonel Robert E. Hogan,
and he quickly became one of television's biggest
both 1966 and 1967 Crane's performance on Hogan's
Heroes got him nominated for Emmies.
He lost, respectively, to Dick Van Dyke and Don
Adams, which had to be somewhat of a blow. Nonetheless,
Crane's show went on to lead the Nielsens. As leader
of Stalag 13's absurdly diverse underground operation
funded by the production of counterfeit Deutschmarks
("We've been having a little trouble with the
ink," Crane told a new prisoner. "The
real stuff runs"), and fake-Luger cigarette
lighters and grenade paperweights (every third one
live), and where Le Beau's French cooking necessitated
the construction of a steam room to help the POWs
keep thin and avoid the Nazis' suspicion, Crane's
Hogan was an icon of American cunning and ingenuity.
Before the recent proliferation of drab History
Channel documentary footage, generations of Americans
were unable to envision World War II except through
the television world of Col. Hogan and his underground
band of sly pranksters.
its inception, the show was hardly a Bob Crane vehicle,
but it quickly became his. "You have to remember,"
Robert Graysmith quotes Werner Klemperer, "that
Bob Crane was basically not an actor. He became
an actor. He had a sort of likable American naíve
quality that was just right for the part."
years of tireless struggle, Crane had finally achieved
his place in the booming American culture of celebrity,
and he proved ready to reap the fruits of his labor.
"It was after he lost KNX and Hogan's Heroes
came along that he became more interested in exotic
dancers and nightclubs," remembered Pete Noyes,
a former colleague. "Don't you think it's a
case of a guy getting away from his roots and all
of a sudden being turned loose in that Hollywood
culture? I remember... he was very faithful to his
first wife, but Bob started hanging out at topless
places. I could see over the ten years a sort of
personality change. Nobody could quite explain this—he
was from a very strong Catholic family. He was a
good Catholic boy."
Mr. Noyes was being coy, or things were a lot different
back then. After all, I find it extremely plausible
that, all Catholic-boy rhetoric aside, exotic-dancer,
nightclub-V.I.P. hoochie-coochie was the main reason
guys like Crane sought the limelight in the first
place. Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Frank Sinatra,
hell, probably even the blond guy from The Greatest
American Hero—is it wrong to say
that they hadn't once dreamt of the love of a great
all, here's a guy who started out in drive-time
radio. This isn't Daniel Schorr we're talking
about. And all charm and quick wit aside, Bob Crane
was not exactly a man of substance. "I can't
tell Puccini from a pizza," or "Sartre
from a samba," he once lamented. He was not
the type of celebrity whose misguided quest for
authenticity drives him to, say, write a novel.
What Bob Crane was after was booty. And booty he
of all, the marriage had to go. His union with his
high school sweetheart, which had given him two
children, had, by 1970, fully petered out. For years
Crane had been having an affair with Patti Olsen,
the woman who played Colonel Klink's secretary,
"Hilda," and whose main line on the show
consisted of variations on "Herr Kommandant,
Colonel Hogan to see you." She and Crane were
wed a mere four months after his divorce from Anne.
its four-season run, Hogan's Heroes had become
America's highest-rated television show, and after
its 1970 cancellation a brisk demand for syndicated
reruns was all but assured. Ever the ambitious worker
of angles, Crane had negotiated a contract that
granted him a share of the profits and a higher
royalty rate instead of a salary increase. By the
late 1970s, he was earning around $100,000 a year
simply for having once played Col. Hogan. With his
daily bread taken care of, Crane was largely free
to deliver himself to temptation.
was slow to accept that all the future had to offer
was a slow fade into obscurity, and in the early
1970s he made several lunges at regaining the spotlight.
But the public, whose affections can be fickle,
didn't respond. Of all the Hogan's cast members,
you'd think Werner Klemperer would be the one to
be typecast for his brilliant portrayal of the bumbling
Colonel Klink. But after the show was cancelled,
Klemperer steadfastly avoided playing roles even
remotely similar to the inept colonel. Crane, on
the other hand, played it a bit too safe and tried
to parlay his success in the likable, wisecracking
role of Hogan into other projects. All of them failed.
were two Disney films, the 1974 bomb Superdad
and Gus, a talking-mule vehicle that tanked
in 1976. In early 1975, America was offered The
Bob Crane Show, but it flopped and was yanked
from the airwaves after three brief months. Still,
there were appearances on such shows as Dinah
and Her New Best Friends and, curiously enough,
Love, American Style. Meanwhile, during the same period "Love, Bob Crane Style"
was getting to be a pretty kinky thing indeed.
is a way in which men can look to the sexual adoration
of women, lots of women, as a way to build up an
eroding ego and a sense of diminishment," says
Dr. Ava Siegler, a clinical psychoanalyst and consultant
in forensics to the New York State Supreme Court.
"If your career is fading, sex is a very good
antidepressant." And, she adds, among people
who are not well educated and lack a certain level
of self-awareness, especially "people who are
in the acting field or in glamorous businesses where
they're used to a great deal of public acclaim,
intimacy is not what they're looking for. They're
looking for mass adoration. One of the ways to get
that is through orgies, through multiple sexual
Crane took out ads nationwide in swingers' newsletters
and used his copious royalty checks to build fully-equipped
sado-masochism dungeons for the lucky ladies who
responded to his ads. "He would pay for the
construction of dungeons in [people's] homes,"
said an L.A. dominatrix who went by the name Tiffany
Moonlight. "He would spend literally thousands
of dollars, especially here in Los Angeles."
L.A. in the 70s could be quite a hedonistic place,
and although he stayed away from drugs and hardly
drank at all, Crane kept close to the action.
man who was there with him for much of it was John
Henry Carpenter, a seller of videotape equipment
whom Crane had met through Hogan's cast member
and onetime Family Feud host Richard Dawson.
Dawson had long been keenly interested in the then
cutting-edge practice of taping oneself in the act
of coitus, and Carpenter had helped equip his boudoir.
On Carpenter's introducing Crane to the lasting
pleasures of on-camera sex, the two became close
friends. From the start—and from all
appearances Carpenter knew this all along—his
and Crane's relationship was founded upon three
principal activities: (1) cruising for chicks, (2)
balling them in front of a camera and (3) using
the resultant tapes for private pursuits.
friendship was mutually beneficial. Carpenter had
given Crane a new direction for his sexual appetites,
and the television star gave Carpenter something
his homely facial features and moderately dumpy
build never could: instant success with the ladies.
As Crane took to the summer-stock theater circuit
for both the money and whatever level of celebrity
he could maintain, Carpenter would occasionally
jet in from L.A. to spend a few days living large
with his friend.
the late 1970s, Crane, who was nearly 50 and by
now estranged from his second wife, Patti, had settled
into a comfortable routine of dinner theater and
casual adultery. He owned the rights to a romantic
comedy called Beginner's Luck and was both
directing and starring in productions in theaters
in California, Ohio, Florida, Hawaii, Texas and
Arizona. He knew the lead role well, and with only
three other cast members productions were simple
and easy to put on. After performances, Crane would
do a hokey little monologue and talk to audience
members who cared to stick around. It was a way
to come across as a swell guy and, more importantly,
a great way to meet women.
was Crane's life in June of 1978. No longer a television
star, he was nonetheless doing well enough financially
and had been planning to build a new house in L.A..
for himself and Bob Jr., the son from his first
marriage. Beginner's Luck was nearing the
end of an unremarkable month-long run in Phoenix,
and on the evening of Sunday the 25th, Crane drove
to the airport to pick up his friend John Carpenter,
who had flown in from L.A. for a few days of debauchery,
or so he hoped.
sexual appetite showed no signs of ebbing, which
doesn't surprise Ava Siegler. "For some people,
as they get older, their needs for heightened sexual
stimulation increase," she says. "So what
used to be exciting for them no longer is, they
have to up the ante, and one way of upping the ante
is by switching partners, that's where they're getting
their thrill, and by having more than one partner
so there's more sexual stimulation at the same time."
Though from all reports Crane and Carpenter had
never gotten sexual together, it was common procedure
for the two to have sex with two women together
on the same bed. On this visit, neither seemed to
do especially well with the single women of Phoenix,
but Carpenter, lacking the old standbys Crane could
fall back on, struck out repeatedly.
details of that week are fairly murky. Crane showed
no signs that anything was wrong, but by Thursday
he was dead, the victim of two swift blows to the
left temple with a blunt object.
facts of the case are these:
leaving his performance of Beginner's Luck
Wednesday night, Crane had a flat tire, and instead
of changing it he rode the rim to a nearby service
station and had the attendant do it. It has been
speculated that Crane's murderer had punctured his
tire and was planning to do him in as he changed
to the spare. If so, Crane's decision to have someone
else take care of it bought him a few hours more.
subsequent hours were typical. Crane hooked up with
Carpenter, and the two of them went to Bogart's,
Crane's favorite Scottsdale hangout. They had dates
for the evening, but after repeated entreaties each
ended up empty-handed. By 2:30 a.m., Crane had dropped
off his date and was back in his apartment. Carpenter
was in his hotel room packing for his departure
the next day. According to Carpenter, the two talked
for a few minutes on the telephone; not much later,
Crane was dead.
body was found the next afternoon by a fellow cast
member, Victoria Berry, and the Scottsdale police
began their investigation. No murder weapon was
ever found, and to this day no one has been convicted
of the crime.
obvious reasons, John Carpenter was the main suspect,
but the combination of a shoddy police investigation
and the fact that DNA testing hadn't yet been developed
kept him from being charged at the time. Another
issue which has led many to believe in Carpenter's
guilt was that, while Crane was a fully heterosexual
person, Carpenter had reportedly had several sexual
experiences with men and was very possibly in love
with his famous friend. There were reports that
the previous evening he and Bob had had a heated
conversation, and that now that he had his home-video
operation fully set up, Crane was trying to distance
himself from the slightly creepy Carpenter. Murders
have been committed for lesser reasons.
a couple swift thwacks to the head were undeniably
the cause of his death, there was a video cord wrapped
in a neat bow around his neck, and although he had
not taken a woman home that evening, there were
a couple splotches of what looked like dried semen
on his thigh. It's been theorized that after beating
his friend to death, Carpenter may have tied the
cord around Crane's neck and proceeded to masturbate
over the dead body.
with no murder weapon or witnesses, there simply
wasn't enough evidence to charge Carpenter. Fourteen
years later a new Maricopa County district attorney
finally did arrest him for the murder of Bob Crane.
The case against him was strengthened by rediscovered
photos of what appeared to be blood and brain tissue
on the door of Carpenter's white Chrysler Cordoba
rental car, possibly the result of his having thrown
a murder weapon out the window. The car was tracked
down, and some of the material was still there,
but DNA tests were inconclusive. Pictures of Crane's
apartment before the murder showed a tripod, which
Crane had bought from his friend. When Crane's body
was found, the tripod was gone.
we'll probably never know for sure who did it, there
is one thing you can say about the murder of Bob
Crane: It was probably the most glamorous thing
that had happened to him in a long time.