Although born in Waterbury, around 1930, Bob’s family moved to Stamford, Connecticut, where he and his older brother, Alfred John, grew up. The Cranes moved around often during the 1930s through the early 1940s. They left Connecticut briefly in the mid-1930s, when Bob’s father found work at a department store in Poughkeepsie, New York. But the Cranes returned to Stamford in 1936. Bob graduated from Stamford High School in 1946. Following graduation, Bob worked at Finlay Straus Jewelry Store in Stamford and enlisted in the Stamford National Guard, serving from 1948 until his discharge in 1950.
Upon graduating from high school in 1946, Bob began sending audition tapes out to radio stations up and down the East Coast. In 1949, he took a course at the University of Bridgeport in station operation instructed by Wally Dunlap (of WICC). Though discouraged by the rejection responses he received, he did not give up. Finally, in early 1950, Bob received a call from WLEA in Hornell, New York. WLEA is credited with offering Bob his first job in radio.
His time spent in Bristol was short, and by April 1951, Crane had moved to WLIZ in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he promptly became what the area’s “new town crier.” Bob would often say that he had been hired at radio stations for all sorts of bizarre reasons. In this case, Wally Dunlap had been searching for a new morning man for WLIZ. The one stipulation – he must not drink alcohol. Not a drinker and because Dunlap had known Bob from his college course, Bob earned the morning time slot at WLIZ.
Bob Crane’s radio show was unique in many ways. As early as his days at WLEA, he began experimenting with sound effects. For example, he would put water in a saltshaker, and while promoting Borden’s Milk, he would shake the water out over a cup of water, saying to listeners that he was milking the cow right there in the studio, so “How fresh can the milk be?” Another sound effect he used was a chicken cackling and an “egg plop,” where he would rate records based on how many eggs would drop into a basket. From there, he graduated to voice impersonations – some famous, some not – and he soon became known as the “Man of a Thousand Voices.” All of these gimmicks, as Bob called them, were interwoven into his radio show, and most of the time, in with commercials, which was unprecedented. By the time he reached KNX, advertisers were paying top dollar for airtime during “The Bob Crane Show,” simply because he could get people to stay put, pay attention to, and actually enjoy the commercials.
Jack Lemmon, Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Jerry Lewis, Soupy Sales, Gypsy Rose Lee, George Jessel, Bette Davis, Pat Boone, The Great Coogamooga, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Phyllis Diller, a chimpanzee, Charlton Heston, Danny Kaye, Gig Young, Barbra Streisand, Gene Krupa, Stephanie Powers, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Eddie Cantor, George Hamilton, Otto Preminger, Keenan Wynn, Jonathan Winters, a shoeshine boy, Steve Allen, Jule Stein, Meredith and Remi Wilson, Alexander King, Arthur O’Connell, Frankie Carle, Robert Goulet, Jane Meadows, Rod Serling, Paula Prentiss, Arthur Godfrey, Carol Lawrence, John Gary, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jaye P. Morgan, Lawrence Welk, Alan Young, Mel Torme, Roger Williams, Doris Day, Henry Mancini, Arte Shaw, Stan Kenton, Eydie Gorme, John Astin, Connie Stevens, Carl Reiner, Shelley Mann, Cesar Romero, Barbara Parkins, Mary Tyler Moore, Omar Sharif, Bobby Darin, Joe Louis, Tony Randall, Terry Thomas, Wayne Newton, Morey Amsterdam, Carl Betz, Ray Conniff, Jerry Van Dyke, Natalie Wood, Frankie Avalon, Tiny Little, Mitch Miller, Barbara Eden, Inger Stevens, Dizzy Gillespie, Allan Sherman, June Foray, Red Skelton, Andre Previn, Ronald Reagan, and Dick Clark.
While they knew they would most likely get a good ribbing from Crane, they also knew it would bring great visibility to their latest movie, television series, record album, or stage performance, and they vied to be interviewed by him.
Instead, Bob’s interest turned to acting. In 1959, he started performing in community theatre, and as soon as his no-acting clause with KNX expired in 1961, he began taking small television and movie parts. One of his earliest television roles was on The Twilight Zone, where he played a radio announcer (and is only heard but not seen). In 1962, he earned a role on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the episode, “Somebody Has to Play Cleopatra,” as Harry Rogers. Donna Reed took notice of Crane’s acting talents, and he soon landed a permanent role on The Donna Reed Show as Dr. David Kelsey. From 1963 to 1965, Bob worked two full-time jobs, running back and forth between KNX and The Donna Reed Show.
During this time, Bob began to take acting very seriously. With Donna Reed’s encouragement, in 1964, Bob took a course in acting taught by Stella Adler. As Bob improved his acting techniques and grew as an actor, he became restless with the premise of The Donna Reed Show. He wanted a show that was not the father/husband/next-door-neighbor role, and instead, wanted a television series that would be very different. He left The Donna Reed Show on December 1, 1964, but he did not leave over wanting an increase in salary; nor was he fired. He was released from the series without incident, and he immediately received offers from producers to consider starring various television series (including My Mother the Car and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies). He turned down all offers except for one. He was approached in December 1964 about a new series being produced set during World War II. At first, he wasn’t sure about the premise, but after reading the script and talking with producer Edward H. Feldman, he decided to audition. On December 22, 1964, Bob did a screen test with Werner Klemperer, and the chemistry between the two actors was instant. Bob Crane was offered the role of Colonel Hogan on Hogan’s Heroes. Bob accepted the role and agreed to film the pilot episode, which was filmed in January 1965. However, he wanted to be sure Hogan’s Heroes would not offend veterans and former POWs. Bob insisted that a trailer (the pilot episode without a soundtrack or laugh track) be sent to veterans’ groups in the Midwest to ask for their feedback. Veterans loved it, claiming that without humor, they never would have made it through the war. Bob was sold. Hogan’s Heroes was picked up by CBS for the 1965 Fall Season, and production on Season one took place throughout the late winter/early spring of that year. Even before the first episode aired on September 17, 1965, Bob Crane had high hopes for the series. In 1965, he gambled everything on the success of Hogan’s Heroes. He resigned from KNX in August 1965 so he could concentrate solely on Hogan’s Heroes.
Hogan’s Heroes was a tremendous success, and Bob Crane was nominated twice for an Emmy Award. While on hiatus during Hogan’s Heroes, Bob sought comedic roles in film (The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schulz, ABC’s Arsenic and Old Lace, and Disney’s Superdad), and on television. Following the cancellation of Hogan’s Heroes in March 1971, Bob took guest-starring roles in various television shows, and he had a brief run of his own series in 1975, The Bob Crane Show. However, he was unable to completely break away from his public image as Colonel Hogan. Perhaps the one role for which Bob never receives enough credit is his guest-starring role on The Love Boat in early 1978. The role Bob performs is a dramatic role, where he must break down and cry, and he performs this role exceptionally well. He was finally starting to apply what he had learned and become a method actor. But because this episode aired so soon before his murder, it has been called depressing to watch and is viewed entirely differently than had he lived.
Having had a keen interest in the theatre since his days in Connecticut, Bob performed in many stage productions from the 1950s through the 1970s. His first tour in 1969 with the play Cactus Flower received critical praise, and he admittedly hoped it would serve as a springboard to Broadway. Bob continued to perform on stage and receive terrific reviews in productions such as Send Me No Flowers, 6 Rms Riv Vu, and Beginner’s Luck, the latter of which he also owned rights, as well as starred in and directed.
Bob kept a close connection with radio long after his days at KNX. In 1973, Bob filled in for former Los Angeles drive-time competitor Dick Whittinghill over KMPC while Whittinghill was on vacation. Bob also never forgot his Connecticut roots, returning back east often. In January 1976, he returned to Bridgeport to help WICC celebrate the station’s 50th anniversary. He also returned to Connecticut several times to work the local portion of the United Cerebral Palsy telethons. In September 1976, Bob once again came back to Connecticut, this time to Bristol to help the city celebrate its Annual Chrysanthemum Festival, in which he was honored as grand marshal. That year also marked the 30th reunion of his high school graduation, and in June 1976, Bob returned to Stamford and celebrated with his high school classmates and friends.
On June 29, 1978, Bob was murdered in Scottsdale, Arizona, while he slept. The crime has never been officially solved. The investigation revealed Bob’s alternate lifestyle, which included consensual sex and amateur pornography with numerous consensual women. Shortly before his death, however, he had admitted to a counselor that he realized he was a sexual addict and wanted to be healed. His counselor described Bob as a “tremendous talent;” someone who “just happened to be famous;” was a “wonderful, wonderful person;” “caring, sensitive, and somewhat shy;” and with “weaknesses and foibles like the rest of us.”