Monday, June 4, 2012

Classic TV: Hogan's Heroes (1965)

In 1965, McHale's Navy began its 4th & final season on ABC, but the series had shifted locations, with the crew of the PT73 now in Italy. In today's parlance, that would mean it jumped the shark.

While McHale demonstrated that the sitcom formula that Phil Silvers had mined a few years earlier could work in the context of a series set in World War II, Hogan's Heroes raised the bar. Also set in World War II, this CBS offering placed a group of prisoners of war (POW's) in Stalag 13 in Germany, but these weren't your ordinary prisoners. Instead, they ran what amounted to an underground railroad within the confines of the camp itself!

Air Force Col. Robert Hogan (Bob Crane) was the senior officer among the POW's, and, understandably, was also the team leader. Sgt. Andrew Carter (Larry Hovis), though presented as dumber than a bag of hammers most of the time, was also a chemist and one of two mimics on the team. The other was Cpl. Peter Newkirk (Richard Dawson), who also designed the disguises the team wore. Sgt. James Kinchloe (Ivan Dixon) was the communications ace, and LeBeau (Robert Clary) was the master chef who kept Sgt. Schultz (John Banner) busy with strudel and other delights. Otherwise, LeBeau was usually sent ahead on recon if needed.

Camp Commandant Wilhelm Klink (Werner Klemperer) was so sure no one could escape from Stalag 13, that he bragged about it at every opportunity. Unbeknownst to him, there were tunnels all over the joint, which allowed Hogan and his men to ferry other prisoners off to safety under the collective noses of the German army, including Major Hochstetter of the Gestapo (Howard Caine).

Technically a sitcom, Hogan's Heroes should really be filed under comedy-adventure, what with the occasional missions that were crucial to the plots of some episodes. The series lasted six seasons, and in the last season, Ivan Dixon left the show, replaced by Kenneth Washington as Baker, who replaced Kinchloe as the communications officer.

With the passing of Richard Dawson over the weekend, only Robert Clary remains from the show's core cast. Post-Heroes, Clary, like Dawson, ventured into daytime televison, only in his case, it was a lengthy run on Days of Our Lives. Dixon moved on to become a director, Hovis' last series was a revival of the game show, Liars Club, during the 70's, Banner followed up Heroes almost immediately with the short-lived Chicago Teddy Bears, co-starring with Dean Jones & Art Metrano. Bob Crane landed a self-titled sitcom and made a few movies, including "Superdad" for Disney, but everyone knows the rest of his story. I believe Washington is still around, but like Clary, is retired.

Here's the intro that you all remember:

The series has most recently aired on Me-TV & Universal HD. So far, no word about a tribute marathon in honor of Dawson, who passed away on Saturday.

Rating: A.


magicdog said...

My dad & I always enjoyed watching this show! We even have the first three seasons on DVD!

Had you ever seen the original B&W pilot? It's included on the DVD but hasn't been shown on TV. The team also included a Russian named, "Vladamir" who was originally the tailor for the group. By the time the pilot was done, he was cut.

What I found extraordinary was that so many members of the cast had connections to the Holocaust in some way: Clary actually was imprisoned in Buchenwald and all of his family (except for a sister) were killed. John Banner, an Austrian Jew, also lost family to the camps. Leon Askin (who played Gen. Burkhalter) and Werner Klemperer were also Jews who narrowly escaped it.

This show tends to get a lot of guff from PC types because of the setting or the wacky, improbable premise. But since the show was popular with viewers who were a lot closer to the WW2 experience than we were, I think it's a moot point. It was a POW camp, not a concentration camp after all. While I don't doubt that Allied troops captured in Europe didn't consider their experience a picnic, it was still a far cry from places like Auschwitz.

The characters were fun and memorable and we all lived to see Col Klink fail by episode's end!

hobbyfan said...

I have seen the pilot, and I have the first two seasons on DVD. Just haven't played them yet.

They also meant for Klink's secretary to be secretly part of the team as well, but went against it. The 2nd actress to be the secretary later married Bob Crane. Go figure.

I kept waiting for them to do something where Schultz would turn on the Nazis and become an ally to the Heroes, but that would've been the "jump the shark" moment.