- SHOW: Hogan’s Heroes
- NETWORK: CBS
- RUN: 1965-1971
This was as unlikely a hit show as you could find: A sitcom set in a Luftwaffe prison camp in Nazi Germany during World War II. They actually used the tagline “If You Liked World War II, You’ll Love Hogan’s Heroes.” Yet, it found an audience and lasted on CBS for six years until Norman Lear convinced the network that their viewers would rather see a sitcom about a bigot from Queens than Hogan’s Heroes, or any show that had anything to do with rural people.
Hogan’s Heroes was inspired by the movie The Great Escape, where Allied prisoners of war escaped by digging tunnels past the fences and guards and into the woods surrounding the camp. The main difference is that, while Hogan and his crew had tunnels leading from under the barracks to the woods beyond the camp fences, they were used both to get out of and back into camp, often accompanied by outsiders such as members of the German Underground, flyers who were shot down near the camp, German officers defecting from the Third Reich, prisoners from other camps, scientists looking to leave Germany, taking their secrets with them, etc. When not doing that, the crew is kept busy with sabotage and espionage activities as directed by Allied Command in London, with whom they stay in contact by means of a shortwave radio hidden in the tunnel.
(The tunnel is somewhat of a miracle: At the beginning of the pilot episode, we’e told that we’re in “Germany, 1942.” The US had only been in the war since late 1941, which makes you wonder how they managed to build such a complex set of tunnels in such a short time. Of course, it’s always winter at Stalag 13, so maybe it’s the end of 1942 rather than the beginning. Could they have dug that complex of tunnels in just ten months? Perhaps they were left over from World War I, as was suggested in one episode.)
The head of the Heroes is Colonel Robert Hogan (played by Bob Crane) of the US Army Air Forces, who for some reason is kept in a Luftstalag with enlisted men, something the Germans never did. He receives the orders from Headquarters, devises a plan for carrying out the orders, then assigns tasks to his crew. The Heroes are two Americans, Staff Sergeant James Kinchloe (played by Ivan Dixon), who worked for the phone company in Detroit before the war and who handles the radio and other wiring jobs, and Technical Sergeant Andrew Carter (played by Larry Hovis), who worked at a drug store in Muncie, Indiana before the war and who is a demolitions expert, a competent chemist, and who looks enough like Adolf Hitler himself that he will sometimes dress and act like Der Führer when the occasion calls for it. (Dixon left the show after the fifth season and was replaced by Kenneth Washington as Sergeant Richard Baker for the final year.) They are joined by Corporal Peter Newkirk of the Royal Air Force (played by Richard Dawson), an expert pickpocket and petty thief as well as tailor, and Corporal Louis LeBeau of the Free French Force (played by Robert Clary), a gourmet chef who’s small enough to fit anywhere, including in the kommandant’s safe and all sorts of packing crates.
Hogan is successful largely because the staff at Stalag 13 is so inept. The kommandant is Colonel Wilhelm Klink (played by Werner Klemperer), an incompetent administrator who’s always buried up to his neck in paperwork. All the members of his class in the military academy have been promoted to either General or Field Marshall and have gone on to important jobs in the Third Reich, while Klink is running a prison camp. Vain, supercilious, and narcissistic, Klink fancies himself a violinist on a par with Heifetz and a ladies’ man rivalling Don Juan, when in fact he’s an abysmal violinist and often has his dates taken from him by either Hogan or by General Burkhalter (played by Leon Askin), Klink’s boss in Berlin who visits Stalag 13 frequently. Burkhalter would just as soon see Klink shipped to the Eastern Front and replace him with a captain or major, except that Klink has an apparently immaculate record, as there has never been a successful escape from Stalag 13, which Klink never fails to tell anyone who will listen. The reason he has a perfect no-escape record is because Hogan won’t allow it: the success of his operation depends on Klink’s incompetence.
The sergeant of the guard is Sergeant Hans Schultz (played by John Banner), a fat, lazy, slovenly man in his late 40’s who was very happy making toys as the owner of the Schatzi Toy Company until the Nazis commandeered his factory and inducted Schultz, a decorated veteran of World War I, back into the Luftwaffe. Schultz can be easily persuaded to look the other way when he catches Hogan and his men outside the camp by Hogan reminding him that his job was to make sure that didn’t happen, and that he might find himself on a troop train to Stalingrad if word gets back to Klink. Schultz is also easily bribed with candy bars from the prisoners’ Red Cross packages and with strudel or some other dish prepared by LeBeau.
No show about Germany during WWII is complete without a Gestapo officer or two, and this is generally Major Wolfgang Hochstetter (played by Howard Caine), an ill-tempered and irritable man who often arrests everybody in the room before he realizes he has no case against anyone, whereupon he departs shouting “BAH!” He spends much of his time at Stalag 13 because he’s convinced that Hogan is the most dangerous man in Germany, which, of course, is true.
Hogan has an affectionate relationship with Klink’s secretary, Helga (played by Cynthia Lynn in the first season) or Hilda (played by Sigrid Valdis, Crane’s eventual wife, in the remaining seasons), who let him in on what’s going on in Klink’s office and occasionally will do something to help Hogan carry out his mission. He rewards them with nylon stockings, perfume, cosmetics, and extensive make-out sessions in her office. Both Helga and Hilda are also the targets of Klink’s amorous advances, which both are able to rebuff without much effort.
Three characters turn up from time to time, usually giving Hogan fits. Colonel (actually Group Captain) Rodney Crittendon of the RAF (played by Bernard Fox), whose arrival demotes Hogan from senior POW officer because Crittendon has twelve more years in grade than he. Crittendon’s first visit to Stalag 13 started with him informing the POW’s that, were he to learn that they were engaged in sabotage or espionage, he would be required to report it to Klink. Subsequent encounters with Crittendon show that he is a gung-ho supporter of Hogan’s mission, and usually manages to screw it up somehow. Gertrude Linkmayer (played by Kathleen Freeman and once or twice by Alice Ghostley) is General Burkhalter’s widowed sister. Burkhalter is constantly trying to marry her off to Klink, which results in Klink begging for Hogan’s help to get rid of her. Finally, there’s Marya (played by Nita Talbot), a glamorous Russian spy. She turns up on occasion hanging on the arm of a German officer, to whom she might or might not have told the secrets of Hogan’s operation, extorting Hogan’s assistance in one of her schemes. Hogan and LeBeau met her in Paris, and she has LeBeau wrapped around her finger. Any time she arrives at Stalag 13, he believes she has come for him, and whenever Hogan gets suspicious of her, LeBeau jumps to her defense.
One interesting aspect of the show is that the actors playing Klink, Schultz, Burkhalter, and Hochstetter are Jews, three of whom left either Germany or Austria when the Nazis came to power. All served in the US Armed Forces during World War II. In addition, a number of other actors who played Germans were Jewish. Werner Klemperer agreed to do the part of Klink only when it was written into his contract that the Germans would never defeat the Heroes.
Two episodes of Hogan’s Heroes are currently shown on MeTV at 10 and 10:30 PM Eastern time on weekdays.