Sitcom Star Bob Crane Descended Into Porn and a Brutal Death. His Son Wants Answers

Robert Crane has written a book telling the story of his father, actor Bob Crane, from his unique viewpoint.
Robert Crane has written a book telling the story of his father, actor Bob Crane, from his unique viewpoint.

Books by children of Hollywood stars are an established literary genre with two basic subgenres: Mommy/Daddy was an abusive, selfish monster (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby) or Mommy/Daddy was a saint who never did anything wrong (Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn).

Now Robert Crane has invented a third subgenre, albeit one likely to remain a one-off: Daddy was a sex addict whose shocking murder was never officially solved, and 37 years later I still can't say for sure who did it.

The story of the unsolved murder of his father, Bob Crane, in a seedy Scottsdale, Arizona, motel at the age of 49 has already been told in lurid fashion in director Paul Schrader's riveting 2002 film, Auto Focus, based on Robert Graysmith's 1993 book, The Murder of Bob Crane.

But Crane's oldest son tells the story from his unique point of view, as he watched his father from up close before becoming a writer for Playboy and assistant to actor John Candy.

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The real pleasure in Crane's Sex, Celebrity and My Father's Murder isn't the hunt for the killer, who according to the book is almost surely John Carpenter, Crane's good friend and sleazy wingman/parasite/sex-video enabler. Rather, it's the son's story of how a small-town Connecticut DJ got a big break, dragged his family to La-La Land for his new radio gig on KNX and used his glib charm, quick wit and celebrity interviews with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Bob Hope to become a TV sitcom star. Crane then details how his father succumbed to the sexual temptations offered to any male Hollywood star.

So buyer beware if you're expecting a story of a son's obsessive quest to once and for all identify the murderer. This is a more subtle story, of a son's quest to understand how his father's life could go so wrong after so much had gone so right.

Indeed, near the end of the book, after both of his prime suspects — Carpenter and Crane's second wife, Patti — are dead themselves, Crane declares that he no longer cares who did it. He's just glad the whole nightmare is over.

So why write the book?

"To do a Freudian thing of putting this episode into a closet and closing the door, even though you know it's still in there," he tells the Weekly.

When you consider how Crane's life ended — naked in bed, with his head bashed in by a video camera tripod and an electric cord lashed around his neck, surrounded by hundreds of nude photos and sex videos — there's a certain twisted sense of inevitability to it all.

His son readily concedes that it was his father's obsession with documenting his conquests — and his insistence on sharing those conquests with anyone and everyone — that started his downfall.

"He was oblivious that, at places like Disney, it cost him work after people in their executive suites got wind of what he was doing," he says. "Dad had no governor in terms of who he shared his interest in making porn with. Right to the end, he was like a teenager who thinks everything he's doing is so cool there won't be any repercussions."

In long-running TV sitcom Hogan's Heroes, Crane played the leader of a merry band of prisoners of war who consistently flummoxed their Nazi captors. He even got to guest-host three nights for Johnny Carson in 1968.

But instead of seizing the opportunity to move up the Hollywood ladder, Crane continued to act like a sex addict long before that term was invented.

The downhill slide was quick and decisive. Seven years after Hogan's Heroes, he was traveling from one tank town to another to do two hours of dinner theater and fill the other 22 hours pursuing random women and his video obsession, enduring a brutal divorce from Patti and trying to shed Carpenter as a first step toward fixing all that had gone wrong.

It was that rejection that led to the murder, according to prosecutors who finally put Carpenter on trial in 1994 without enough forensic evidence to actually convict him.

Despite the acquittal, Crane's son agrees with the prosecutors — up to a point.

"I think there's a 90 percent chance it was Carpenter, but I can't eliminate Patti and the idea she hired a hit man," he says. "This will be a cold case forever."

Robert Crane will appear at the L.A. Central Library on March 22 at 2 p.m. (lapl.org) and at Book Soup on March 24 at 7 p.m. (booksoup.com).


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