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On June 29, 1978, “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane went from the dinner-theater circuit to front-page headlines in the worst possible way. He was found dead in a pool of his own blood and brain tissue in the Scottsdale, Ariz., apartment that was his temporary domicile during his run in the romantic comedy “Beginner’s Luck.” Crane’s head was completely bashed in by a camera tripod, and a severed power cord from one of his many VCRs was tied around his throat for good measure. The murder became infamous by the discovery at the crime of several videocassettes featuring the actor starring in his very own porno movies as well as some equally explicit photo albums.
The speculation into Crane’s life, obsessions and death were once the sole province of tabloid television and true-crime novels. But with the release of Paul Schrader’s Bob Crane biopic “Auto Focus” — which stars Greg Kinnear as Crane and Willem Dafoe as John Carpenter, the video technician accused (and acquitted) of his slaying — this unsolved murder mixed with sexual addiction is now part of a major media war. Crane’s son Scotty, armed with his father’s candid snapshots, blue home movies, a sensationalistic Web site and plain old audacity, has taken on Schrader and Sony Pictures.
Scotty Crane’s site may be the first to offer celebrity skin as a protest vehicle. Viewing its pages is like being confronted with irrefutable proof of an urban legend. There is the affable Col. Hogan on top, on the bottom, giving and receiving and generally romping with party gals who seem happy just to bathe in the sitcom star’s charisma and take off their clothes for his camera. In the site’s free sample area there are pictures of Crane tapping out a beat on a snare drum while entertaining a topless stripper and another shot of him in his 1950s dad sweater with a buxom nude woman bending over in front of him while he clicks his ever-present camera into a mirror.
“My dad always had a big libido,” says the younger Crane from his hotel room in Cannes, France. “I do too. I love beautiful women but I’m just monogamous because I learned a heavy moral lesson from my father’s murder: that you can’t go spreading it around. That you can’t sleep with other men’s wives.”
Robert Scott Crane is the son of Bob Crane and his second wife Patricia, who played Col. Klink’s blond bombshell secretary Hilda on “Hogan’s Heroes” under the stage name of Sigrid Valdis. Scotty was only 7 at the time of his father’s murder and was even fingerprinted during the investigation of the crime.
Like his father before him, Scotty has a successful career in radio (Bob Crane was L.A.’s “King of the Airwaves” before turning to television). His show “Shaken Not Stirred” is nationally syndicated and has been nominated for a Peabody Award. After Scotty’s attempts to contact Schrader and the makers of “Auto Focus” were ignored or rebuffed, he launched Bobcrane.com in May 2001, going on the Howard Stern show soon thereafter to take his case to the public.
“I haven’t thought of a better way to be believed or noticed,” Crane says, and he may have a point. Since he went live with his dad’s homemade porn and Sony ejected him from a packed press screening of the film last July, Scotty Crane has seized the press from the usually infomercial-like Hollywood hype machine. Almost all coverage of “Auto Focus” is combined with some mention of Scotty’s site and his complaints against the film.
Schrader (the writer of Martin Scorsese’s classics “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” as well as the director of such films as “Affliction,” “Patty Hearst” and “American Gigolo”) has at times allowed the Crane controversy to degenerate into unpleasant mudslinging. In a recent interview with Lynn Hirschberg of the New York Times Magazine, Schrader went on the offensive against Scotty Crane and his mother. “Patty Crane says I am killing her,” he says. “I don’t think I, or a movie, can be responsible for the health of a woman who is a lifelong smoker and drinker.”
The 56-year-old filmmaker goes on to state that he has a copy of Scotty Crane’s unpublished coffee table book “The Faces of Bob Crane” and it contains nude pictures of Patricia Crane as well as, in Schrader’s words, “a picture of Patty with a woman.”
Scotty and Patricia Crane’s lawyer, Lee Blackman, vigorously dispute this. “Firstly, there are no nude pictures of Patricia Crane in the book and there are certainly no lesbian pictures of her,” he says. “There are numerous photographs of Patricia Crane in the book and she is fully clothed in all of them. Since there are numerous photos of her in the book, anyone could look at them and tell that none of the other photos that he’s alluding to are her.”
Blackman also denies that Patricia Crane drinks alcohol. “She has an almost allergic reaction to hard liquor,” he says. “I am shocked that the New York Times would publish this type of journalism.”
Scotty also disagrees with the film’s portrayal of his mother. “There is a scene where she attacks my dad and he has to perform a play in Scottsdale that night with stitches. There are no medical records of this and no police records. The people that performed with my dad in the play don’t remember this and a whole audience full of people didn’t see this. It is completely made up.”
Scotty Crane’s conflict with Schrader may have become deeply personal following their one face-to-face meeting. After millions of Web hits, Crane says he met with the director and executive producer Trevor Macy nine days before shooting wrapped on the film. “They offered me $20,000 so I wouldn’t sue the film studio,” Scotty exclaims. “This whole meeting was so they could say that they tried to reach out to Scotty, when really all they were doing was offering me hush money. I wasn’t interested in their money. I just wanted the truth about my dad.”
While Scotty Crane refused the offer, Crane’s other son, Bob Jr., served as a consultant on Schrader’s film. Crane’s son from his first marriage, Bob Jr. has a longstanding ax to grind with Patricia Crane that could explain the dim view of her presented in “Auto Focus.” In the Times article, Bob Jr. repeated his frequent suggestions that Patricia may have been involved in her husband’s death.
“I think the cops in Scottsdale didn’t investigate her enough for my dad’s murder,” Bob Crane Jr. told the Times. “Who gained from his death? Nobody except Patty, who inherited everything.”
San Francisco true-crime author Robert Graysmith, who wrote the book “The Murder of Bob Crane,” on which “Auto Focus” is based, disagrees.
“Even though she has the best motive of anybody, with the considerable sum of money that would have been coming to Bob the year following his death,” Graysmith says, “Patty actually had the most perfect alibi in the world. She was on a remote island off the coast of Washington at the time of the murder.” The Scottsdale police, he says, actually flew from Washington to Arizona on regular airlines to determine whether she could have gotten to Arizona to commit the murder. “Those blows that killed Bob Crane were delivered by a very strong man,” he adds.
(Bob Crane Jr. has stopped discussing the film and declined to comment for this article.)
“Auto Focus” chronicles Bob Crane’s rise to the top with “Hogan’s Heroes” and his post-TV descent into a world in which he used his syndicated celebrity to pick up women and videotape himself having sex with them. The movie depicts Crane as a devoted family man in its first act and a lecherous has-been in its last. Scotty Crane questions not just the film’s chronology and general conception, but also the filmmakers’ right to use his father’s life as a metaphor.
“They portray him as being this ‘Father Knows Best,’ Pat Boone suburban family man who was led by my mother into this slow decline into pornography,” Scotty says. “I have thousands of pictures of my dad with nude women. There is a picture from 1956 of my dad with a naked woman who isn’t his first wife. I have the evidence. I have the pictures, police reports and autopsy reports. If you want to see it, I can get it to you. That’s what the Web site is about.”
“I don’t think so,” says Graysmith in response. “I think the Bob Crane story is: Here is a very good man who became a not so very good man. Werner Klemperer and Robert Clary [Col. Klink and Corporal Louis LeBeau from "Hogan's Heroes"] said that Bob was the squarest guy that they ever met. He was a conservative Reagan Republican kind of fellow who couldn’t even understand the scripts very often. He was a very straight arrow. He was the average American guy, which is probably why he was chosen to be Hogan.
“He said himself that he was 100 percent faithful to his first wife, and I believe him,” Graysmith continues. He believes that “fame and new friends” changed Crane, pushing him into serial infidelities and his homemade porn collection. “After that it just accelerated, almost as if he’s attempting to find himself on other pieces of film. I think that with the downward slide of his career, maybe it just increased: the less career, the more extracurricular activities.”
Michael Gerbosi wrote the screenplay to “Auto Focus,” with some help from postmodern biopic specialists Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski (the writers of “Ed Wood” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt”). For Gerbosi, the issues here go beyond Crane himself, a family schism and an unsolved murder.
“With almost every Hollywood movie about a real-life historical figure, there’s always somebody out there who feels something was left out, or that something was not depicted as completely accurate,” Gerbosi explains in a carefully worded phone interview. “What’s dangerous about these complaints is: Their aim is to limit artistic freedoms and control a movie’s content. Not every fact about Bob Crane could fit into this movie — not every single facet of his life was interesting to explore.
“We had to limit ourselves to an hour and 40 minutes,” he continues. “In this relatively small time frame, my goal was to present a story that had broader implications than just one person. I feel this story is a look at the universal problem of sex addiction, and a look at some of the universal concerns that come along with attaining a measure of celebrity. And in my opinion, Scotty Crane’s complaints are nothing more than his attempt to censor this movie.
“It’s understandable to me why he would feel he has a proprietary interest in the story of Bob Crane, because it’s his father,” Gerbosi muses. “It’s his life. He’s lived through this. This is very much a personal matter for him and that’s understandable. I hope that Scotty understands that this story is also bigger than just the family and has become a story discussed on the Internet, a story that is out in paperback, a story that is in tabloids and on television. This has become very much a public-domain story.”
Scotty Crane is unmoved. “‘Auto Focus’ is a product, and Sony is selling it as the life of Bob Crane,” he says. “Hey, I have no problem with products. I buy Crest toothpaste just like everyone else, but they are marketing this like it is the true story of my father and it just isn’t.
“I could write a 500,000-word book about all the inaccuracies in the film and the real Bob Crane,” he continues, “but even if I did get it published, who’s going to read it and who’s going to believe it without the evidence? Today the public wants DNA and they want video. They want hard evidence and they just don’t believe anything else.”
A good deal of the hard evidence that Crane offers is housed in the “Members Only” section of his Web domain, which can be previewed for three days for $3.95 or browsed at your leisure for $19.95 a month. Despite money collected from these fees, Crane claims that the site only breaks even.
The site’s downloadable movies are mostly in black and white and lack sound, except for a mechanical hum generated by Bob Crane’s 1970s home-video equipment. The footage is grainy but it is undoubtedly the elder Crane in all of his swinger lifestyle glory. If you are still unsure, the site offers a large selection of crystal-clear still photographs. Some of these show him participating in mass orgies on plaid couches, while middle-aged men in polyester slacks look on as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening.
Although the pornographic scenes on Bobcrane.com would earn at least an NC-17 rating, there is no bondage or S/M, and all Crane’s partners appear to be of legal age and aware that they are being filmed.
“One of the myths is that my dad videotaped women without them knowing about it, and that isn’t true,” Scotty Crane explains. “I have a lot of movies on here and you can tell the people in them know they are being filmed. There was one woman who said that she knew she was being photographed but not taped. The Scottsdale police reviewed the tape and they could see that she was mugging for the camera and looking right into it.
“In the movie they portray my dad’s apartment as having hidden cameras and recording equipment all over it. Now, the video cameras that my dad had were huge compared to today. They didn’t even have a scope that you could look through. The only way you could see what you were filming was to view it on a big black-and-white TV monitor. The walls of his small apartment looked like something from ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ with all this gadgetry. Anyone who was being filmed had to know about it.”
One of the most critically lauded scenes in “Auto Focus” features Kinnear as Crane showing off his new penile implant to Dafoe’s Carpenter. This has also become one of the most sensationalized facets of Scotty Crane’s crusade. “My dad was murdered in 1978, and penile implants weren’t out until 1982,” Scotty explains.
On the Web site, Scotty combines a Maricopa County coroner’s report with a picture of his father’s large, erect penis to disprove the movie’s claims. “Contrary to the film ‘Auto Focus’ this document proves that Bob’s ‘johnson’ was ALL NATURAL!” the site tells us.
Whether you consider Scotty Crane to be an obsessive media hound, the damaged son of a murdered TV star or a David armed with a slingshot of porn against Sony’s Goliath, he has adeptly exploited the public hunger for tabloid topics. For Scotty, the only way to show what his dad didn’t do was to reveal everything he did. Of course, his campaign has provided more spectacular publicity for “Auto Focus” than Schrader and Sony could otherwise have managed. But Scotty still pronounces himself satisfied with his multimedia blitz and the controversy it has stirred.
“I think the Web site has done its job,” he says, before striking a more reflective note on the question of his own future. While Schrader and the makers of “Auto Focus” may be haunted by Bob Crane’s ghost come Oscar time, when the question of accuracy could hurt their chances for nominations, Scotty Crane will have to wrestle with his father’s ghost for the rest of his life.
“This movie has forced me to come out and defend my father and my family in a way I never have previously,” he reflects. “Before this, I was known as a disc jockey and a producer with platinum records — some of them even put out by Sony. Now I am just known as Bob Crane’s son.”
Bob Calhoun is a California freelance writer who specializes in rock 'n' roll, martial arts and Hollywood stuntmen.More Bob Calhoun.