The Eternal Winter of Hogan's Heroes
Sometimes shows get on television that just don't make any sense. Hundreds get proposed every year, dozens of pilot episodes get made, but only a few select shows get made and produced for mass consumption. And then every so often shows enter the collective memory of a society because they hit the jackpot of relevance, comedy, and talent. Hogan's Heroes, which played for six seasons from 1965-1971, is one show that lives on today in reruns and a possible reboot, but the fact that it ever got made was a miracle.
World War II made a huge impact on popular culture, and has been depicted many times in movies. But few television shows have dared to tell stories involving Nazi Germany, and to think of a comedy show involving one of the most notorious villains of history is hard to fathom. One of the cardinal rules of comedy is that you need something to make fun of- and Nazi's in some respect were the perfect target. Bringing them down from their lofty perch as an evil empire was cathartic for a lot of veterans and victims of the war. Incredibly, Hogan's Heroes even became popular in Germany, just 20 years after the war ended.
It makes perfect sense that many of the actors and creators of Hogan's Heroes were Jewish. Around the same time, Mel Brooks made history by including a ridiculous song and dance number, Springtime for Hitler, in his movie, The Producers. With the world rapidly changing in the 1960's, it was finally time to put the anti-Semitic ghosts of Nazi ideology to rest. (Though anti-semitism seems to raise its ugly head repeatedly throughout history). For Hogan's Heroes there were two ideas that made the show work.
First, it would always be winter at Stalag 13, the prisoner-of-war camp at the heart of the show. Since the show was filmed in the famed Desilu lot in California right next door to Mayberry, that meant a lot of fake snow, painted windows, and eventually just white paint to make it look like a wintry prison camp. All of the cast members had to wear winter clothing no matter what the temperature, and it added a bleakness to the show that contrasted beautifully with the humorous antics of the POWs.
And second, the Nazi's would always lose in every episode, while Colonel Hogan and his group ran rings around them with outlandish schemes that exposed their bumbling incompetence. Nazi's were seen in history as ruthlessly efficient, and this show turns the tables and makes it realistically possible that they were just as vain, incompetent, cowardly, and foolish as the rest of us.
You have to suspend reality and not think to hard about all of the liberties the show took with the reality of prisoner of war camps. While Stalag 13 was based on a real camp, there's no way that an underground espionage ring could have existed on the scale that Hogan's Heroes depicts. That doesn't matter. Somehow the prisoners are able to escape at will through a series of tunnels, travel to Paris, London, and Berlin in several episodes, and fool just about every German officer they come into contact with, including the notorious Gestapo. Everybody on the show speaks English, even in Berlin, and getting supplies, money and help from German citizens seems to be no big deal.
Here are some interesting things I came across during my one month binge watch of the show:
- The man who played Colonel Robert Hogan, star Bob Crane was a popular disc jockey before he went into acting, having a supporting role on then Donna Reed Show before moving to star in Hogan's Heroes. Crane. a married man, had an affair with the actress who played German secretary Helga in season 1 and ended up marrying her replacement Sigrid Valdis aka Hilda on the set of the show. While the show made him famous, he had a hard time finding good roles after it ended. Crane met an untimely death in 1979 when he was murdered in a crime that was never solved.
- Werner Klemperer, who played the bumbling German commandant, was a Jewish refugee who fled the Nazi's in 1935. His contract with the show dictated that his character must never come out on top, and Colonel Klink never did. Klemperer was a talented violinist, though on the show he mocked his own playing, and he was the only cast member to win an Emmy award- twice for best supporting actor in a comedy.
John Banner, aka. Sargent Schultz, was arguably the real comedic star of the show, portraying his all seeing but never telling German guard with the well-known catchphrase- "I know nothing, I see nothing..." Banner was born an Austrian Jew, and his family fled the Nazi's as well, with him eventually enlisting in the US Army during WWII.
The two best known Nazi officers were played by Howard Caine and Leon Askin, two Jews who fled Germany as well. While their characters, General Burkholter and Major Hofsteter were not played as bumblers, they played the straight man to Hogan's endless schemes, always losing in the end.
The Hogans Heroes pilot episode was filmed in black and white and included a Russian POW, played by Leonid Kinsky. Kinsky left the show before it ever took off, convinced that it was a crazy premise that would never succeed.
Robert Clary, who played French POW Lebeau, was a survivor of the holocaust. Clary, a French Jew, was sent to Buchenwald in 1942 and liberated by the Americans in 1945 as a teen. Clary ended up outliving all of the original cast members.
Richard Dawson, who played the British POW Newkirk, was arguably the most successful of the cast members after the show ended. He hosted the game show Family Feud for an long time, becoming known as "The Kissing Bandit" for his tendency to kiss all of the attractive women who came on the show.
Hogans Heroes broke ground by giving a major role to a young black actor, Ivan Dixon, who played Kinch, the brains behind much of their underground communications. Even better, Dixon's race was rarely made an issue or even mentioned, and he hilariously impersonated Germans on the radio and in communications. He was the only cast member to leave before the show ended, walking out after season five.
Larry Hovis, who played the slim but resourceful Sgt Carter was used to impersonate Adolf Hitler himself in one of the most popular episodes. Hovis was married during the show though his character wasn't, so he wore gloves in most episodes to conceal his wedding band.
There is a strong connection with M*A*S*H, another wartime comedy. Gene Reynolds directed episodes for both shows, and William Christopher, aka Father Mulcahey, played several characters on both sides of the war during Hogan's Heroes run.
In 1971 the network that ran Hogan's Heroes, CBS, purged much of its lineup, including popular shows like the Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Gomer Pyle. Hogan's Heroes ended up in this purge as well, even though its ratings were strong. There was no finale where the prisoners get liberated, because there was no warning that cancellation was imminent.
American involvement in WWII only lasted 4 years, but the show lasted 6 and could have gone for more. The winter setting made it timeless and unlike shows today there were very few changes or character developments that changed the basics of the show. The specific battles of WWII are rarely mentioned, with the exception of D-Day, which does take a prominent place in a season 2 episode. The Russians are always looming to the East as a threat, and the Americans and British are always on the move to the West, but Stalag 13 never seems to change.
My father was a prisoner of a German POW camp, and his stories of life there were far different from the ones this show tells. It was a bleak and scary experience for most POW's. I'm not sure if my dad ever watched the show, but I'd like to think he got a kick out of it. Seeing the imperial Nazi army brought down to the level of ridicule gives them less power over anybody, and I wish comedy was able to skewer more deserving targets both now and in the past. That is comedy's greatest gift to all of us- to humanize the inhuman and laugh at the insanity of life.