The following is an article from Uncle John’s All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader.
Tasteless television is pretty common these days. Many critics think Hogan’s Heroes -a 1960s sitcom based in a Nazi POW camp- belongs in the same group. In fact, its outrageous premise might qualify it as the most tasteless sitcom ever aired.
In the early 1960s, two men named Bernard Fein and Albert Ruddy teamed up to write a pilot for a TV sitcom. Neither had any experience in writing pilots -Fein was an actor who’d co-starred in the Sgt. Bilko TV series, and Ruddy was an architect- but that turned out to be an asset. If the pair had known how difficult it was to sell a TV pilot in Hollywood, they probably would not have bothered. “If someone were to ask me today what their chances of selling a television pilot are, I would say you might as well go to Vegas,” Ruddy says. “It’s a million-to-one shot.”
The pair came up with a sitcom about inmates in an American prison who outwit the buffoonish warden and guards and are secretly running the prison. Instead of stamping license plates and exercising in the yard, the cons manufacture cigarette lighters and engage in other moneymaking schemes to bankroll escape attempts.
TOUGH ON CRIME
The script was genuinely funny, but when Fein and Ruddy began shopping it around, they realized the prison concept had an innate problem: American audiences were not inclined to sympathize with hardened criminals and probably wouldn’t enjoy watching them escape each week. And potential advertisers knew it: “No one wanted to sponsor ‘a night in the slam,’” Ruddy says.
The pilot might have died right then and there -and with it, Fein and Ruddy’s writing careers- if the two men hadn’t heard about a show called Campo 44 that was going into production at NBC. “We read in the paper that NBC was doing a World War II sitcom set in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp, and we thought- perfect,” Ruddy says. “We rewrote our script and set it in a German POW camp in about two days.”
The revised script featured the exploits of Colonel Robert Hogan, recruited to lead an espionage/sabotage group behind enemy lines. Hogan and his men allow themselves to be captured by the Germans so they can set up a base of operations at the Stalag 13 POW camp- which is run by comically inept Nazis. From there, they sabotage the Germans while helping Allied prisoners escape.
Fein and Ruddy pitched Hogan’s Heroes to NBC, but the network turned them down -not because they thought the pilot was terrible, but because they thought it was so good the series couldn’t possibly live up to it. “If the pilot is this good,” one NBC executive sales Ruddy after his sales pitch, “how could they sustain it week after week?”
CBS also rejected the series, but for an entirely different reason. After sitting through the sales pitch, CBS founder William Paley told Fein and Ruddy: “I find the idea of doing a comedy set in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp reprehensible.” But Ruddy kept pitching the show. “I literally acted out a half-hour of the show -the barking dogs, the machine-gun sound effects …It was hilarious!” At the end of it, Paley bought the show.
Hogan’s Heroes premiered on September 17, 1965, and quickly became the most popular new show of the year. In fact, for several seasons it ranked in TV’s top 20 programs …but it never escaped the controversy it premise engendered: Was it immoral to portray history’s most evil killers as bumbling -even lovable- buffoons week after week, just to make a buck? One critic wrote: “Granted, this show is often funny and well-acted. But there’s simply no excuses for turning the grim reality of Nazi atrocities into fodder for yet another brainless joke.” Another wrote simply: “What’s next? A family sitcom set in Auschwitz?”
Ironically, the biggest apologists for the show were its Jewish cast members -including all four of the actors who played the regular Nazi characters- Colonel Klink, Sergeant Schultz, General Burkhalter, and Major Hochstetter. Not only were they Jewish, but three were actually refugees from Nazi Germany:
* Werner Klemperer was the son of conductor Otto Klemperer, a Jew who left Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power.
* John Banner (Sergeant Schultz), an Austrian Jew, was touring with actors in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1938 when Hitler invaded Austria. Unable to return home, he emigrated to the United States.
* Leon Askin (General Burkhalter) was an actor in Germany when Hitler became Chancellor. He was dismissed from the theater and was later arrested and beaten by the Gestapo. He fled to Paris, and emigrated to the United States in 1938.
A STRANGE CHOICE
If that’s not weird enough, it turns out that Robert Clary, who played a character named LeBeau, had actually been imprisoned for three years in a Nazi concentration camp. His comment: “A lot of people have asked how could I work on Hogan’s Heroes. I tell them that ‘Hogan’s Heroes was very different’ …We were not really dealing with Nazism.” Howard Caine, who played Major Hochstetter, was also Jewish. His defense: “I’ve had, over these years, many fellow Jews say to me ‘How can you play a comic Gestapo like that?’ Because I play him as a madman… My willingness to do it was to remain true to the concept that they wanted of the vicious killer, potential Nazi.”
However, not everyone who worked on the show was comfortable with the concept. Actor Paul Lambert got out after only four episodes. “I always felt a little queasy about doing a show about ‘funny Nazis,’” he says. “If it wasn’t for the money, I would’t have done Hogan’s at all.” And Leonid Kinskey, who played a Russian POW in the pilot, turned down a regular part in the series. “The moment we had a dress rehearsal and I saw German SS uniforms, something very ugly rose in me,” he said. “I visualized millions upon millions of innocent people murdered by Nazis. One can hardly in good taste joke about it. So in the practical life of the TV industry, I lost thousands of dollars, but I was, and am, at peace with myself concerning my stepping out of the series.”
Ironic note: When Campo 44 finally debuted on NBC (September 9, 1967), critics denounce fit as a Hogan’s Heroes rip-off, not realizing that it was really the other way around.
[Ed. note: As far as tasteless sitcoms go, we would venture to guess that Heil Honey I'm Home! a British sitcom from 1990, would surpass Hogan’s Heroes for bad taste, but the Hitler sitcom was canceled after one episode.]
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader.
The 13th book in the series by the Bathroom Reader's Institute has 504 pages crammed with fun facts, including articles on the biggest movie bombs ever, the origin and unintended use of I.Q. test, and more.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!