Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.
Bob Crane is best known for starring in the inexplicably popular Nazi-themed sitcom Hogan’s Heroes and for dying in an unsolved murder related to his secret life as a sex addict and homemade pornographer. He may have been murdered by his partner in swinging and voyeurism John Carpenter. No, not that John Carpenter: an entirely different weird dude from the 1970s obsessed with film, or at least amateur, early video.
As far as distinctions go, those are pretty memorable ones. Paul Schrader, a man who knows a thing or two about sex, guilt, and self-destruction, made a fairly engaging biopic about Crane called Auto Focus, starring a perfectly cast Greg Kinnear, who captured both Crane’s glib charm and his stormy depths.
When I saw that Crane’s son Robert Crane had written (along with writing partner Christopher Fryer) a book entitled Crane: Sex, Celebrity, And My Father’s Unsolved Murder, I understandably assumed that it would be a book about the elder Bob Crane’s brief, alternately charmed and cursed life and career and awful death. I was wrong. A more accurate title would have been Crane: Some Stuff About Sex, Celebrity, And My Dad’s Unsolved Murder But Mainly My Life As John Candy’s Publicist And My Undistinguished Career As A Freelance Writer.
I did not realize until too late that the Crane in the book’s title was really the author and not his father. The book is a giant bait and switch. I came for an intimate portrayal of a tortured soul who was the picture of wholesome, clean-cut, chipper American masculinity to the public but consumed by his libido in private, as told by someone who knew him like none other. Instead I got a book that dispatches with the Bob Crane stuff relatively early on, then goes on for hundreds of pages about subject matters far less interesting and way more self-indulgent.
That’s a shame, because the stuff related to Bob Crane’s life is genuinely compelling. Crane loved being a big kid. He was his son’s playmate, pal, and hero, an energetic goof who was forever fiddling around with primitive technology, making home movies with his family as the cast and diligently, painstakingly editing the interviews with celebrities who were a major component of his popular Bob Crane Show radio show on KNX-CBS. Bob Crane was a radio personality in the truest sense, a man whose energy and curiosity never flagged, who intuitively liked people and had a snappy line of patter for everyone.
He also loved gizmos: recording equipment, video equipment, film equipment, it didn’t matter. At the beginning, Crane’s almost Nixon-like obsession with recording things was relatively innocent. It was the stuff of home movies and radio shows. But as Crane’s life darkened and he moved away from the security of his life as a family man and further into a shadowy nightmare world of sexual compulsion, his use of technology grew more disturbing. As an enthusiastic homemade pornographer, his life focused more on providing a never-ending stream of casual encounters to document for posterity over his family and career.
If Crane was legitimately a book about the author’s father and was about half as long, it might be worth reading. Bob Crane comes alive in his son’s affectionate prose. The younger Crane creates a vivid portrait of life as a celebrity’s child in an exciting and tumultuous era. The portions involving the aftermath of Crane’s murder are chilling.
The subtitle suggests that the book will be a journalistic investigation into his father’s murder, like James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, which was partially about his life, and partially about his mother’s long-unsolved murder. That does not turn out to be the case here. I went into the book assuming, like most did, that Crane’s murderer was John Carpenter. If Carpenter were innocent, would someone as creepy as Willem Dafoe have played him a movie? Carpenter was tried for the murder but was acquitted, largely due to the incompetence of the law enforcement folks handling the case.
Crane suggests that Carpenter probably did it, but also that Crane’s second wife, Patricia, might have put him up to it, or might have done it herself, although that assertion seems grounded less in hard facts that in the author’s intense hatred of his stepmother, a buxom Hogan’s Heroes he depicts as satanic. Patricia is dead and cannot defend herself, but Crane takes great delight in pointing out repeatedly that his dad showed him a picture of Patricia and himself having a threesome with another woman. Crane is the literary equivalent of Crane driving over to Patricia’s final resting place to enjoy a three-minute-long piss on her grave. He may have reason to be angry, but that anger is conveyed in ways that mainly reflect badly upon him.
If the younger Crane cannot say enough terrible things about the monster he depicts as his father’s slave-master and possible murderer, he cannot say enough nice things about John Candy. He spent part of his career as Candy’s pal, confidante, and in-house publicist and much of Crane is devoted to chronicling their friendship and professional relationship.
As a Candy fan, I’m relieved to discover that he was pretty much exactly how you would want and expect him to be: a kind-hearted, generous teddy bear who spread laughter and light everywhere he went. Candy seems like a prince of a man, a consummate mensch. The problem is that nice is often boring. That is the case here. Crane makes having John Candy fly you around the world on his dime so he could have you as a drinking buddy and late-night companion sound pretty great, unsurprisingly. It also lacks the tension and drama that makes for compelling reading.
When Candy dies young around the same time the author’s first wife dies, the book briefly threatens to become interesting. Yet the writing doggedly keeps it from realizing its potential. Crane and his co-author spend a lot of the book trying to be funny, which is very different from being funny. Funny is organic, pleasurable, and graceful. Attempted comedy is painful, stiff, and continually calls attention to itself and its need for validation and approval. Funny is Ronald Reagan smoothly delivering a wisecrack. Attempted comedy is Jeb Bush meekly imploring, “please clap.” Comedy earns laughs. Attempted comedy begs for laughs that never come.
Crane is full of attempted comedy, like Crane quipping that his dad was an odd fit for Disney (who made his ill-fated vehicle Superdad) since his vibe was more “The Absent-Minded Pornfessor.” The book also includes, among its five appendices, a fictional “interview” between Crane and his dead father containing gems like the following:
Robert Crane: You were killed in 1978. You loved technology. Rolling Stone called you a “cool video sex pioneer.” Yet you missed digital cameras, CDs, DVDs, and PCs.
Bob Crane: More importantly, I missed Pamela Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith, and the real Erin Brockovich. Talk about equipment!
Between his father’s unsolved murder, his work with Candy, his first wife’s dramatic early death, his work as a consultant on Auto Focus, and his own career as a freelance writer, Robert Crane clearly believed he had enough material for a satisfying memoir. The problem is that Crane is misleadingly packaged as a book about the co-author’s dad when in fact he recedes into the background for most of it, and it is far too badly written and padded to be satisfying on any level.
The tragedy of Bob Crane’s life and career is that both ended so prematurely. The much milder disappointment of this maddening, underwhelming book co-written by his son is that it goes on for far long, where it ceases to be interesting and becomes something of a chore. That is not something anyone should be able to say about a book involving Nazi comedy and an unsolved, possibly sex-related murder, but then Crane isn’t really about those lurid attractions so much as it is its co-author’s ego and wildly inflated sense of his own worth.
This is the final installment of Silly Little Showbiz Book Club here on AVC—but you can find more of Nathan Rabin’s pop-culture takes on his personal website.—ed.