ARCHIVE HIGHLIGHT

Death of a Salesman; or How the Sexual Revolution Killed Col. Hogan  
The life and death of Bob Crane
By Tyler Thoreson

From Gadfly January 1999

 

The 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.

When 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 pursuits.

By 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.

Several 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.

As 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.

* * * *

Bob 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 high-school girlfriend.

In 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.

By 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 p.m.

Although 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 stars.

In 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.

At 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."

After 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."

Well—

Either 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 many women?

After 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 got.

First 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.

During 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.

Crane 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.

There 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.

"There 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 partners."

Bob 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.

A 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.

The 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.

By 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.

Such 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.

Crane's 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.

The 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.

The facts of the case are these:

After 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.

The 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.

His 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.

For 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.

Although 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.

But 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.

Although 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.