Hogan’s Heroes’ unceremonious finale comes from the era before TV “endgames”

Hogan’s Heroes’ unceremonious finale comes from the era before TV “endgames”

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

For six years—longer than the American involvement in World War II—the prisoners of Hogan’s Heroes Luftwaffe Stalag 13 fought the Nazis from deep inside enemy territory. They sabotaged major operations, fed intelligence to Allied command, offered aid to the resistance, and did their best to make their captors’ lives incrementally more annoying, day by day. Then their job was done, unceremoniously. When the sitcom M*A*S*H ended, it wrapped with a two-and-a-half-hour event, watched by a record-breaking audience that tuned in to see how the men and women of the 4077th handled the end of the Korean War. When Hogan’s Heroes ended, it just ended. No “finale.” No closure. No invitation to fans to see the men of Stalag 13 foil the Germans one last time.

On April 4, 1971, CBS aired “Rockets Or Romance,” a Hogan’s Heroes episode so unexceptional that Brenda Scott Royce’s book Hogan’s Heroes: Behind The Scenes At Stalag 13! estimates that its basic plot had been used 11 times before. Colonel Bob Hogan (played by Bob Crane) gets word that the Germans are deploying a new secret weapon that could help win the war, and he and his fellow POWs—an eclectic group of flyers from varied Allied Air Forces—scramble to distract and deceive the camp’s Kommandant, Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer), and his right-hand man, Sgt. Schultz (John Banner), until the weapons can be disarmed. All just another day at the office.

“Rockets Or Romance” wasn’t even the last episode filmed for Hogan’s Heroes’ sixth season. In keeping with the way TV was made at that time, “Rockets Or Romance” was one of a batch of episodes written and shot as part of the regular production cycle, then scheduled for broadcast after they were in the can. Because Hogan’s Heroes wasn’t serialized, episodes could run in any order, so the producers and the network decided later which finished episode would make the strongest season première, and would slot the rest according to the time of year, the expected audience, and other largely practical reasons. Most likely, no one at either the network level or from the team at Bing Crosby Productions gave much thought to whether “Rockets Or Romance” would be the best way to bid farewell to Hogan’s Heroes.

Not that the producers and cast weren’t aware that their time was up. In Royce’s book, several people who worked on the show are quoted as saying that BCP was eager to sell Hogan’s Heroes into syndication, which in those days didn’t happen while a series was still running. Also, by 1971 CBS was in the process of changing its image, canceling its cornier programs and replacing them with more sophisticated fare. In its final season, Hogan’s Heroes aired on Sunday nights, right after Lassie and right before The Ed Sullivan Show and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour—all relics from an earlier age. But during that year, CBS also debuted The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All In The Family. One year after Hogan’s Heroes was canceled, The Bob Newhart Show joined the lineup, along with M*A*S*H. Howard Caine, who played Major Hochstetter on Hogan’s Heroes, said that he could see the writing on the wall during that last year. “They put us on opposite the first half hour of [The Wonderful World Of] Disney. Now, we were extremely popular with the kids, young people. And that’s where they placed us to kill us. And we knew it.”

Yet nothing really changed about Hogan’s Heroes in its sixth season, aside from one big cast change: Ivan Dixon left the show at the end of season five, replaced by another black actor, Kenneth Washington, playing a different character whose duties on Hogan’s team were the same as Dixon’s character’s had been. The reason for the switch-out went unexplained on the show itself, again because Hogan’s Heroes wasn’t serialized, and rarely acknowledged what had happened in previous episodes. Hogan’s Heroes existed in a kind of limbo. Not only could any episode have been a viewer’s first episode; just about any of them could’ve been the show’s first.

“Rockets Or Romance” was written by Arthur Julian and directed by Marc Daniels (both TV lifers), and opens with a bit of drama like something out of The Bridge On The River Kwai. While Hogan and his men are outside digging ditches and complaining to Schultz, a man claiming to be a Luftwaffe general rolls up with a flat on his car, demanding that the prisoners change the tire, which Hogan refuses to do. Laugh track aside, the scene is very cinematic, with subtle camera moves and zooms; and the stand-off between Hogan and the officer is fairly tense, until Schultz gamely offers to change the tire, at which point it’s revealed that the officer is actually an agent of the underground, and that the whole confrontation has been a ruse to feed Hogan intel.

Hogan learns that the Luftwaffe have three mobile rocket launchers moving into position to blitz London. Two of them are near a resistance outpost, and Hogan’s been ordered to rendezvous with an operative there, to uncover and transmit the exact location to the Allies, who’ll then blow up those two weapons. The third launcher is located inside Stalag 13, which concerns Klink, who doesn’t believe he can spare the men to guard it. So his superior, General Burkhalter (Leon Askin), commands him to move some prisoners to kitchen duty to fill in the gaps. The conversation between Klink and Burkhalter—and Schultz, who’s in the room too, but promises to hear “nuuuuh-think!”—is indicative of their usual dynamic. Burkhalter thinks Klink’s an incompetent, terrified of his own prisoners. But it’s because Klink’s such a dummkopf that he’s able to maintain a perfect “no escape” record. Hogan and his men know they can run operations right under his and Schultz’s noses, and frequently do whatever they can to make their jailers look good. It’s a symbiotic relationship, with Klink giving Hogan slack in order to maintain his illusion of control.

When Hogan’s contact deduces that the rocket launcher at Stalag 13 could have its gyroscopes (and thus its navigation system) disrupted by an electro-magnet, the heroes take advantage their new kitchen assignment—the one Klink was nervous about—to distract Schultz while they get a closer look at the weapon. French Corporal Louis LeBeau (Robert Clary) and British Corporal Peter Newkirk (Richard Dawson) give Schultz a choice of dishes for the evening menu, dazzling him with exotic-sounding names like “vichyssoise” and “pêche Melba.” This was another common tactic of the Hogan POWs: a promise by the prisoners to alleviate the drudgery of another ordinary shift at work, by coming up with something special (even though nothing ever really changed).

Hogan, meanwhile, is delighted to learn that his contact is a beautiful woman (a twist that, according to Royce’s book, happened six times during the run of Hogan’s Heroes). Because of the elaborate network of tunnels and gadgets that the prisoners of Stalag 13 built, Hogan was able to come and go as he pleased from the camp; but always he had a job to do, which kept him from feeling “free” in the conventional sense. Hogan tries to enjoy his downtime with this lovely lady, Lily (Marlyn Mason), while they’re waiting for the rockets to show up. But duty keeps intervening, right up to the point when the launchers arrive and Hogan and Lily have to call in the location—at which point the episode cuts to grainy stock footage of bombers, as though the heroes had alerted Allied command to send a WWII movie in to save them.

“Rockets Or Romance” ends with the prisoners putting their gyroscopic sabotage plan into action, right when Klink is about to launch a rocket toward London. Instead, the rocket heads to Burkhalter’s neighborhood, roughly in the area of his house. That ending was also par for the course for Hogan’s Heroes. Though the show wasn’t serialized, it did expect its audience to become familiar with characters’ traits and habits over time: Schultz’s gullibility, Klink’s cowardice, Burkhalter’s bourgeoisie tastes, and so on. That’s how the production originally got around the criticism that it was trying to sell the viewing public “funny Nazis.” In the world of Hogan’s Heroes, the Germans were primarily just petty bureaucrats, trying to get through the day and head home. The show wasn’t as overtly anti-war as M*A*S*H would be, but it did make fun of the business of war, by turning Klink into another harried sitcom dad and Hogan into his precocious teenager.

Regardless, Hogan’s Heroes was controversial, at least at first. Comedian Stan Freberg helped pitch the show with the tagline, “If you liked World War II, you’ll love Hogan’s Heroes!,” which struck some as offensive. The pilot episode featured Leonid Kinskey as a Russian prisoner, but the actor chose not to stick around for the rest of the series, because he said he was uncomfortable playing let’s-pretend with people in Nazi garb. Clary though, who was an actual Holocaust survivor, stood up for his show, saying that the Nazi stalags were very different from the concentration camps, and that the actual Nazis on Hogan’s Heroes—as opposed to bumbling working stiffs like Klink and Schultz—were depicted as both malicious and idiotic. Television audiences sided with Clary. Hogan’s Heroes was a top 10 ratings hit in its first season, and drew steady viewership thereafter, then did well in syndication around the world.

Perhaps that’s because all prison stories are figurative, at least to a degree. Whether the characters behind bars are cold-blooded killers or innocent victims of a malevolent authority, the movies, books, songs, and TV shows about them tend to be more about the common feeling of being trapped, and how people either make the best of a dire situation or attempt a daring escape. Albert S. Ruddy, who co-created Hogan’s Heroes with Bernard Fein—and later co-wrote one of the great prison films, The Longest Yard—originally intended to set the sitcom in a regular American jail, but rewrote the script when he heard that NBC was developing a show called Campo 44, set in an Italian WWII POW camp. (The Campo 44 pilot was later burned off in a one-off broadcast in 1967, and was accused by TV critics of ripping off Hogan’s Heroes.) In an interview on the Hogan’s Heroes complete-series DVD set, Ruddy says that it took less than a day to remake the show as a WWII farce, because the core of the premise never changed: It was always about these clever fellows and how they lived like kings in some of the worst conditions imaginable. It’s such a powerful fantasy, this idea of being able to turn an armed fortress into a secret clubhouse. 

Ruddy also says that after they sold the pilot, he was offered a contract to become a writer on the show, but turned it down because he really wanted to get into movies, and only wrote a TV script in the first place after a writer friend of his told him how much money he could make as the creator of a network series. Ruddy says he didn’t have the temperament to treat writing like a 9-to-5 job, sitting in a conference room and coming up with stories and jokes for the same group of characters, week in and week out. He recognized that a hit TV show can itself be a kind of prison.

The Hogan’s Heroes cast experienced that, too. Though they claim in Royce’s book that they all got along reasonably well, resentments did fester the longer the show endured. Crane was reportedly irritated that Klemperer won two Emmys for Hogan’s Heroes, while he himself was shut out the two times he was nominated. Dawson had originally been considered to play Hogan, and some people involved with the show said that Dawson resented Crane for being the star. (In a rare interview on the Hogan’s Heroes DVD box set, Dawson dismisses that, saying that if he’d been the star of the show, “We would’ve been off in three episodes.”) And while everyone liked Banner, his castmates were occasionally annoyed by his habit of underplaying his lines in rehearsal and then stealing scenes when the cameras were pointed in his direction. Hogan’s Heroes was stuffed with colorful actors playing colorful characters, and they were all jostling for more airtime.

Once the series ended, most of Hogan’s Heroes’ stars had a tough time following it up. Dawson bounced back best, launching a successful second career as a game-show personality. Crane didn’t fare nearly as well. During the run of the show, he co-starred with Klemperer, Banner, and Askin in a Cold War farce called The Wicked Dreams Of Paula Schultz, and its failure would be a sign of things to come for Crane when he tried to branch out into movies. He had his best luck in dinner theater, touring the country. Crane’s Hollywood career was hampered by his close association with the character of Hogan, his reputation as a prickly on-set presence, and his undisguised preoccupation with sex. Crane was found murdered in an Arizona apartment in 1978, and while investigating the case—which remains unsolved—the police found caches of pornographic photos and movies, featuring Crane with various women.

Crane’s sordid death casts a shadow over Hogan’s Heroes even now, making the show a little harder to take as a family-friendly goof. Hogan’s Heroes’ approach to the sitcom form looks more quaint by the year, too. In “Rockets Or Romance,” Hogan mentions that he’s been a POW for four years, which is about as close as the show ever came to establishing any continuity. Hogan’s Heroes was more in the tradition of a traditional newspaper comic strip, where gags recur year after year, and the characters never really age or change.

But TV fans are mistaken if they think that medium has been profoundly transformed since 1971. Some series are more mature in their subject matter and storytelling now, but even the people in charge of those shows often admit that each week they’re just trying to figure out how best to fill their timeslot. Consider Justified, one of the best shows currently on television, which just wrapped up its fourth and best season, following a 13-episode arc that began with the characters trying to determine the identity and whereabouts of a long-vanished outlaw. Justified showrunner Graham Yost has admitted that they had no idea who the outlaw would turn out to be when the season started. They just set the mystery in motion, then followed it where it led. Those kinds of confessions flummox the “television as the new Great American Novel” crowd, who like to imagine more long-range planning and authorial intent than the practicalities of TV production usually allow.

Given that they both aired on the same network, and nearly consecutively, it’s easy to compare Hogan’s Heroes to the far more respected wartime sitcom M*A*S*H; while M*A*S*H had a few more serialized elements, it too relied on broad comic types, and had a continuity so muddled that it’s like nobody in the writers’ room was paying the least bit of attention to it. Which they weren’t, because that wasn’t something that was highly valued then. If M*A*S*H were on the air today, the Internet would be clamoring for its writers to come up with an “endgame” after the first couple of seasons, the way that people do today with How I Met Your Mother. (When, oh when, will the Korean War finally meet the mother?)

Even the greatest TV shows of the modern era have suffered from bum episodes, plot threads that never led anywhere fruitful, and references that seemed fresh at the time but now come off as distractingly dated. (Remember when the characters on Arrested Development spent an entire episode on the Atkins diet?) That’s the nature of this particular beast. With exceedingly rare exceptions, scripted television is designed to be an episode-to-episode exercise in what its creators find funny, gripping, thought-provoking, and personally meaningful. Even the most meticulously plotted-out modern series can be impacted by what’s happening behind the scenes, by real-world events that bleed into the scripts, or even by the 21st-century equivalent of John Banner and Werner Klemperer being so entertaining that they demand more screen time.

The hook is important. But the hook isn’t everything. It’s mainly a way to get people to tune in, at which point what really matters is what the creators of a show do to hold the audience’s attention. Someone once said that the person who really controls the airwaves is whatever slob happens to be standing in the right spot when the light on top of the camera turns red. But those slobs have to work fast and think on their feet, too, knowing that any moment could be the end.

Filed Under: TV, Justified

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