Question: Friends and I were talking about how amazing it is that Hogan's Heroes ever got on the air. So I have to ask: How did the producers ever get a show set in a concentration camp on? Nick C., Seward, Neb.
Televisionary: They didn't. Hogan's Heroes, which ran on CBS from September 1965 to July 1971, was a comedy set in a prisoner-of-war camp, not a concentration camp. Who came up with that idea? Creator Bernard Fein, who'd earlier played Private Gomez for four years on The Phil Silvers Show and wanted to create a similar antiauthority dynamic on his series. The thing was, his concept initially revolved around a U.S. penitentiary rather than a WWII prison camp, but no one was interested until he made the switch.
"I tried for four years to sell the show," Fein told TV Guide in 1965. "Finally I gave up and decided to leave the business. I got on a plane for New York. Sitting next to me was a guy reading Von Ryan's Express. The minute I saw it, I said to myself, 'That's it!' I didn't even leave the airport when I got to New York I bought a ticket back to Hollywood on the next plane. Albert Ruddy and I turned out a new script with the German POW camp locale, and four days after we finished it, it was sold."
Now, it's not like you're alone in failing to make the distinction between camps, Nick. In fact, cast member John Banner, who played doltish but lovable Sergeant Schultz on the show, was worried enough about that problem to make a point of noting the difference in an interview. "Just so people don't get prisoner-of-war camps mixed up with concentration camps," he said. "You can't make fun of a concentration camp."
No, you couldn't. And while many a critic still had a field day questioning the tastefulness of portraying Nazis as laughable fools The New York Times wrote that the show's "hopeless oafs" had "more in common with Desilu Studios than Hitler," while The Washington Post pointed out that "what the children are not seeing is a Nazi in any form that ever existed" several HH cast members knew more than any critic about how bad the real Nazis were.
Banner, an Austrian Jew, lost his whole family to the camps. Werner Klemperer, who played the hapless Colonel Klink, fled Germany with his family soon after the Nazis began persecuting Jews. And Robert Clary, who played French prisoner Corporal Louis LeBeau, was a French Jew who survived four concentration camps Ottmuth, Blechhamer, Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald. So nobody knew the difference between comedy and reality better than he did.
"Stalag 13 is not a concentration camp. It's a POW camp, and that's a world of difference," Clary said in 1966. "You never heard of a prisoner of war being gassed or hanged. Whereas we were not even human beings. When we got to Buchenwald, the SS shoved us into a shower room to spend the night. I had heard the rumors about the dummy showerheads that were gas jets. I thought, this is it. But no, it was just a place to sleep. The first eight days there, the Germans kept us without a crumb to eat. We were hanging on to life by pure guts, sleeping on top of each other, every morning waking up to find a new corpse next to you."
After the U.S. Third Army liberated Buchenwald in 1945, Clary returned to Paris. "Of the 12 people in my family who had been sent to concentration camps, including my mother and father, I was the only one to come back alive," he said. "Today, at that apartment house where I spent the first 16 years of my life, there is a plaque over the door which says: 'In memory of the 112 inhabitants of this house, including 40 young children, deported and dead in German camps, 1942.'"
On a much less serious note, Klemperer had to deal not only with questions leveled by professional critics, but with those coming from the scariest critic of all: his father. Otto Klemperer was a legendary conductor who, when still living in Berlin, entertained the likes of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in the family home. After fleeing Germany and sending for the family, he went to work for the L.A. Philharmonic and conducted the leading orchestras of Europe after the war.
Otto expected his son to follow him into classical music. "[H]e believed in the good old-fashioned idea that a son should learn and learn and learn," Klemperer said in 1966. "Acting was not in the learning category, and it took him a long time to accept the idea."
Whether or not he accepted his son as Klink was another matter, since it's not entirely clear he was ever really told exactly what the show was. When Klemperer and his wife called on Otto in Stockholm in 1965, they decided to break the news about the series to him. "Comedy, you say? Marvelous! Who's the author?" the old man asked his son. There was an awkward pause. "How do you explain?" Klemperer the younger recalled. "Then he asked me to send him a script. I didn't dare."