By Cliff Henderson
Special to Gloucester County Online
Author Carol Ford wasn’t even born when Hogan’s Heroes debuted on CBS back in 1965, and she was barely out of diapers when the show ended its primetime run in the spring of 1971. Yet she carries a torch almost as bright as the sun for the show’s star Bob Crane.
Most people know very little about Crane, other than his role on Hogan’s Heroes, that he began his career in radio in the 1950s, or that his life ended tragically in 1978 with his still-unsolved murder. But that’s about to change with the upcoming release of Ford’s new book, Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography, scheduled to hit bookstore shelves on September 17th.
Asked to explain the origins of her fascination with Crane, Ford says, “It was the mid-1980s. I was 14 and watching Hogan’s Heroes in summer reruns like everybody else. I didn’t know anything at all about Bob Crane or that he was even dead. Then one night I was in the bookstore at the Deptford Mall, and I ran across a book about classic TV sitcoms. I skipped to the section about Hogan’s, and that’s where I read for the first time that Bob had been murdered.”
Crane was bludgeoned to death on June 29, 1978, in Scottsdale, Arizona. The crime remains unsolved to this day.
“It really upset me,” Ford continued. “As a kid, I adored him on Hogan’s, and learning of his murder came as quite a shock. And I mean, what a waste. So two days before my 15th birthday, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to find out who Bob Crane was.’”
Now, 30 years later, she has done just that.
Clearly a labor of love, Ford is animated when talking about all the effort involved. Approximately 200 people who knew Bob Crane were interviewed over a period of 12 years, including numerous family members and close personal friends, as well as many of his colleagues in radio and the entertainment industry.
“Earning their trust was often difficult,” Ford states. “Many were reluctant to contribute because of being burned in the past by an unforgiving media that wanted to focus only on his murder or the sex scandal. But once people saw the direction of this book, most were eager to contribute.”
It’s also much different than what has ever been done for Crane in the past. The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith, later made into the biopic Auto Focus starring Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe, spotlights Bob’s life mostly after he arrives in Hollywood in 1956, fixating on his sex life, his activities leading up to his murder, and the murder itself.
To put it mildly, Ford is not a fan of the book or the movie.
”It’s not a complete picture of him at all,” she said. “Auto Focus hones in on the negative but doesn’t give it any context. A lot has been omitted—and a lot of good stuff! You can’t compress a person’s life into a ninety-minute film, and it’s even tougher when the primary source material for that film was a book that focused mostly on scandal and murder. Unfortunately, Bob’s whole life story has been chiseled down to a few basic points: he was a big star on Hogan’s Heroes, he had lots of sex, and then was the victim of a murder which still remains unsolved. But there is so much more to him than that.”
For instance, Bob Crane was a talented musician who began his career in show business in the 1950s as a jazz drummer then a radio personality. While his love for the drums would stay with him his entire life, it was in radio where he found some of his greatest success. With humble beginnings at various stations in upstate New York and Connecticut, in 1956, Crane hit the big time when he was hired as the new morning man at KNX in Los Angeles, the West Coast flagship station of CBS. There he became known as “The Man of 1,000 Voices,” and was a true innovator who kept listeners tuned in and laughing with his fast-talking, freewheeling style. It was a departure from the norm in the 50s—still a time where radio was king and broadcasting legend Arthur Godfrey was a household name.
In fact, the argument can be made that Bob Crane was Howard Stern before Stern himself.
“He did what was known as clustering,” Ford explains. ”Start to finish, Bob performed his program as one show, not segmented. Commercials, songs, and skits all ran into one another and over each other. He would do it all: play his drums, do hilarious live commercials, interview the biggest names in Hollywood, play a few records then go into a skit. And it all flowed together.”
Bob was also a groundbreaker when it came to on-air commercials.
“He gently ‘roasted’ the sponsors by poking fun at the product through his rapid-fire improvisation.” Ford said. “But he never intended to insult the sponsor. It was all in good fun, and most of the time, the sponsors loved it. They understood that airtime on The Bob Crane Show meant the audience was going to listen to the ad!”
Hear some of Bob Crane’s KNX radio show: http://bit.ly/1MvXZW7
Crane’s nice-guy persona was on full display when he hit the big time in 1965, when he was cast as the glib, wisecracking Colonel Robert Hogan following a two-year stint on The Donna Reed Show.
“It was very important to Bob that Hogan’s wasn’t offensive to veterans,” Ford said. “Before he signed the deal, he organized a special screening for Vets in the Midwest to get a feel for how they would respond to a war comedy set in a German POW camp. They loved it, claiming that humor helped them get through the war. From that point on, he was sold. Later during the show’s run, Bob met with veterans and POWs regularly, and they shared wartime stories with him. Some of their tales were worked into the storylines.”
As he achieved his greatest success, Crane’s lifelong personal demons began having a negative affect his career. Sex addiction was a relatively new term, and Bob’s proclivities were a dirty secret to the public but not in Tinsel-town. His growing appetite for sex and pornography—all of which were with consensual adult women—had ultimately begun to affect his employability in Hollywood.
“Yes he was troubled,” Ford stated. “But there was an awful lot of good that he did in his life that he hasn’t gotten credit for. At the end he recognized his issues and was working to overcome them. Unfortunately, he didn’t get very far in that battle because he was murdered. I doubt we’ll never know who killed Bob or why, but knowing the man as I do now, I’m sure that had he not been murdered, he would have gone on to do great things both personally and professionally.”
Asked what she’d like people to know about Bob Crane, Ford lights up.
“Bob Crane’s life as it has been presented over the decades is quite lopsided and unbalanced. He may not have always made the right decisions, but his heart was always in the right place. He wasn’t perfect, but he was perfectly human.”
Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography will be released on September 17, 2015, and is currently available for pre-order through Amazon and the publisher.
For more information about Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography, visit http://vote4bobcrane.org/book.html
A nearly lifelong resident of Gloucester County, Carol Ford grew up in Mullica Hill and graduated from Clearview Regional High School and Rowan University (when it was still Glassboro State College). She has twenty years of experience in the publishing industry, and is a managing editor and the Director of Editorial Services for Anthony J. Jannetti, Inc., in Pitman, NJ—an association management, marketing, and publishing firm. She currently resides in Wenonah, NJ.