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Today is the 50th anniversary of the debut of what I consider one of the best and most underrated sitcoms in TV history: Hogan's Heroes. CBS had a lot of gems back in the day, and this series was among them. Reliving the Second World War on a fictionalized forum was a bit of a trend back in the 1960s. Ernest Borgnine's noted sitcom, McHale's Navy, had that exact timed setting, as did Combat!. But Hogan's Heroes stood out above the rest.
The series premiered on CBS on September 17, 1965. Set in World War II in 1942 (when America's involvement began), the series starred Bob Crane as Colonel Robert E. Hogan, the leader of a special group of Allied POWs who operate as an espionage unit from their camp, Stalag 13. The group's duties were to sabotage the German war effort, doing so by blowing up important buildings and bridges, and getting various escapees out of Germany, and those range from fellow Allied soldiers to citizens, to even other Germans. The group cannot escape themselves, but with all of the shenanigans, craziness, and all around wackiness they pull, and the fact that they manage to live the good life at that camp, why would they want to escape?!
Werner Klemperer co-starred as Colonel Wilhelm Klink, the incompetent commandant of Stalag 13. Regarding the character's ineptness, it was actually Werner himself who basically demanded that Klink be portrayed as a complete idiot; that was the only way that he would accept the role. As many viewers know, Klink does have his nasty side, but he's mainly portrayed as a "horrible boss" of sorts; arrogant, self-serving, and most of all, sycophantic. It's mainly/solely because Klink is in charge of Stalag 13 that the Heroes' schemes succeed, and Hogan emphasizes this many times in various episodes, especially ones where Klink either attempts to get promoted or faces a transfer to the Russian Front, which happens too many times to count. They know full well that ANY replacement would be more competent than Klink, so at times, the Heroes have to save his bacon in order to keep their operation going.
The same goes for the equally inept Sergeant Hans Schultz, played by John Banner. Schultz is portrayed as being more incompetent than Klink, but shockingly, even he proves to be a bigger threat to the Heroes than Klink when he actually served as commandant in Season Six's "Kommandant Schultz." Unlike Klink, Schultz gets the gist of what Hogan's really doing, but out of fear of being transferred to a combat unit, he ignores it with his trademark catchphrase, "I see NOTHING! NOTHING!" He is almost always bribed with LeBeau's gourmet cooking, which he loves, and he often gets involved in whatever fun and games the prisoners have.
Robert Clary, one of the few surviving cast members, played the aforementioned Corporal Louis LeBeau, who serves as a tailor and chef for the group. He is a proud and patriotic Frenchman, and also a stereotypical one, having a huge penchant for women. He is often referred to as "Cockroach" by Klink and Schultz, though Klink does it to be nasty, while Schultz is a bit more affectionate. LeBeau's culinary skills are at times needed for the Heroes to succeed in their operations, especially if Klink is attempting to butter up to any and all generals.
Before beginning his lengthy stint as the host of Family Feud, Richard Dawson (one of Bob Crane's good friends) was part of the sitcom's cast as RAF Corporal Peter Newkirk. Newkirk is the pickpocket of the group, and in several episodes, he is also enlisted to intercept phone calls to the camp and put his imitation German accent to work. Regarding his personality, Newkirk is mostly pessimistic and an admitted coward, but he does do his part in their operations.
Ivan Dixon played Sergeant James/Ivan Kinchloe on the first five seasons of the series. Seeing as how the show premiered before of during the civil rights movement, it was revolutionary for a show to feature an African-American character who was multi-lingual and could operate their two way radio, which was used to send and receive messages from Allied HQ in London. However, for that obvious reason, Kinch couldn't go out with the group and disguise himself as a German; he'd be easily spotted. Ivan Dixon left the series at the end of Season Five, and his character was written off without explanation. The void was filled by Kenneth Washington (one of the few surviving cast members), who played Sergeant Richard Baker during the show's final year.
Larry Hovis played Sergeant Andrew J. Carter, who is a bit of a wild card. If the Heroes have any problems regarding their operations, it's usually Carter who inadvertently causes them. Despite his ineptness, the gang admires him, and will do anything for him. Surprisingly, Carter is actually the second-highest ranking member of the Heroes, after Hogan, of course. Both Carter and Kinch are sergeants, but Carter is actually a Technical Sergeant, which outranks Kinch's Staff Sergeant position. Despite this, Carter never pulls rank and shows a deep respect to Hogan and any others above him. Carter's specialty is explosives, which has had Hogan jokingly calling him a pyromaniac.
The pilot episode, "The Informer," was shot in black and white and featured Leonid Kinskey as a Russian character named Vladimir. Kinskey left the series after the pilot, with the belief that the show wouldn't last long. Larry Hovis' Carter appeared as a guest character and was actually a Lieutenant. It was also the first appearance of Leon Askin as Colonel (later General) Albert Burkhalter. Burkhalter became a staple on the series, serving as Klink's frequent superior. He cannot stand Klink, and often wonders how a) he reached Colonel, and b) he maintains an escape-proof record. At times, Burkhalter appears to show more respect to enemy Hogan than to Klink; often laughing at Hogan's jokes about Klink. A once-a -season staple often had Burkhalter attempting to pair Klink with his widowed (and unattractive) sister Gertrude Linkmyer, who was played by Kathleen Freeman in most of her appearances and by Alice Ghostley in Season Four's "Watch the Trains Go By."
And then there's Hochstetter--Gestapo Major Wolfgang Hochstetter. Where do I start? Howard Caine first appeared on the series as a Luftwaffe major in Season One. He later appeared as SS Colonel Feldkamp in Season Two's "The Battle of Stalag 13" before beginning his stint as Hochstetter. Hochstetter's known for his loud rants, often shouting "Who is this man?!" when Hogan arrives. From Season Three on, it was changed to "What is this man doing here?!" Another one of Hochstetter's lines had him proclaiming that he would "sur-r-r-r-round zis camp with a ring of steel!" I've said for years that they need to make a big screen version of Hogan's Heroes, and I have the perfect Hochstetter: Jason Alexander.
If there was an Allied equivalent of Klink, it was Bernard Fox's Colonel Rodney Crittendon. Crittendon first appeared in Season One's "The Flight of the Valkyrie," and he immediately rubbed the Heroes the wrong way when he stated that a soldier's sole duty is to escape and if they were involved in anything other than that, including what the Heroes usually do, he'd report it to Klink. As revealed in the episode, Crittendon has about 12 years over Hogan, which made him the senior officer when he was in their camp. However, once Crittendon learned about the group's activities later in the season, he was eager to be part of the operations. When he was, Crittendon's incompetence made things difficult, but they always got the job done.
Hogan's Heroes had its share of women as well, beginning with Klink's secretaries, Helga and Hilda. Cynthia Lynn appeared during the first season as Helga, and she was often seen making out with Hogan outside of Klink's office. Cynthia left the series after Season One and was replaced by Sigrid Valdis as Hilda beginning with the Season Two opener. Sigrid (born Patricia Olsen) appeared as Gretchen in a Season One episode, and it was there that her relationship with Bob Crane began. Sigrid's stint as Hilda lasted from 1966 until 1970, and it was in that year that she and Bob Crane became husband and wife.
The recently late Arlene Martel appeared several times as Tiger, a French operative who the Heroes worked with often, and usually had to rescue from German forces. Perhaps the most notable female character in the show's history was Marya, played by Nita Talbot. Marya first appeared in "A Tiger Hunt in Paris," Season Two's two part episode, and it was there that her traits were cemented. From that point on, Marya often appeared with Germans, leading Hogan to become untrustworthy of her and believing that she's on the other side. However, Marya was always revealed to be working with the Heroes all along, much to Hogan's shock and (at times) dismay. She outlandishly flirts with Hogan, as well as LeBeau, who is crazy about her and is often referred to as her "small one" ever so affectionately.
Hogan's Heroes lasted six years, which is how long the war lasted, but it was twice as long as America's involvement. The series has been critically acclaimed, though it had its controversies. The biggest one was the fact that a good bit of the German characters were played by Jewish actors. In fact, Werner Klemperer (Klink), John Banner (Schultz), Leon Askin (Burkhalter) and Howard Caine (Hochstetter) were all Jewish. Harold Gould, Harold T. Stone, and Alan Oppenheimer were among other Jewish actors who portrayed Germans.
Regarding the series' cancellation in 1971, I learned that CBS, at that time, was looking to go a family-friendly route for the 1971-72 season. Clearly there's nothing family-friendly about the Second World War, so Hogan's Heroes had to go. The series' final episode, "Rockets or Romance," aired on March 28, 1971. I've read YouTube comments from viewers lamenting that the series never got a true finale, which would have seen the war ended.
I love Hogan's Heroes with a passion. I have all six seasons on DVD and I've watched the episodes far too many times to count. I've said for years that someone needs to make a big screen adaptation of Hogan's Heroes. If an annoying show like The Brady Bunch can get TWO movies, then Hogan's Heroes can get ONE.