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Still Mourning the Loss of a Father 20 Years Later

After dinner in a Mexican restaurant in Studio City, a waiter brings the check. Robert Crane pays with a credit card.

He sits there with his girlfriend and a friend of hers, waiting to sign the bill and leave.

“Robert Crane?” the waiter blurts, looking at the card. “Hey, man! Aren’t you that guy who got bludgeoned to death in some hotel down in Arizona? That guy from ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ on TV? Remember? The one who got killed and then I guess they found a bunch of videotapes of him with women and stuff?”

He won’t shut up.

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Crane and the women at the table say nothing. They just stare up at the guy, speechless.

In all the time Crane has known his girlfriend’s friend, a TV producer, he has never seen her at a loss for words.

Until this minute.

She finally breaks the awkward silence, answering the waiter with three words:

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“That’s his dad.”

The waiter slinks away, apologizing.

*

June 1978: Twenty years ago this week, Bob Crane, former “King of the L.A. Airwaves” morning man on KNX radio and later star of one of TV’s most enduring shows, left for Scottsdale, Ariz., to appear in a dinner theater production of a play called “Beginner’s Luck,” which he had performed many times in many towns.

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On June 22, he canceled a performance to come to his daughter Karen’s graduation at Taft High School in Woodland Hills.

On June 27, he called his son, Bobby--not “Bob Jr.,” as he is sometimes misidentified--to wish him a happy 27th birthday.

Neither child saw him again.

*

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For sometime on the night of June 28, inside a Scottsdale apartment leased by the theater, Crane was struck--possibly with a camera tripod--and then strangled with a cord.

He was 49.

It was a gruesome killing that involved a popular TV personality, not unlike the one involving Phil Hartman last week. The circumstances were different, the men similar. Hartman also was 49. He, like Crane, came here from Connecticut. Each worked at another trade (advertising in Hartman’s case) before turning to TV comedy.

Easygoing “guy next door” types, both men lived in the Valley, coped with divorces and doted on their kids.

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And met with shocking deaths.

Crane’s kids can’t imagine what Hartman’s kids will be feeling over the next 20 years. They can only relate what it has been like for them.

That summer of ’78?

“I don’t remember it,” Karen says.

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Now 37, she works at an antique dealer in Ventura and is married to Tracy Heflin, whose father, Van, starred in many Hollywood films, most memorably in “Shane.”

Karen is also an actress. In school, she looked forward to spending time with her father, working on her acting, hiring an agent, launching a career. What happened in Scottsdale was so traumatic, the next few years were little more than a blur.

“If my dad were here today,” she says, “well, you know what I think about sometimes? Mira Sorvino. I look at Sorvino and her dad [Paul] with envy. . . . Acting, enjoying each other’s success. If my dad were alive today, I can’t help thinking, that could be me.”

She and her brother just donated 50 hours of Crane’s KNX programs to the Museum of Television and Radio archives in New York.

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And soon they might travel to Germany, where, of all places, “Hogan’s Heroes"--a comedy set in a POW camp--has become a cult hit on TV.

“They think it’s hilarious . . . in Germany,” says Robert, 46, a freelance writer who once appeared on his father’s CBS show. “Now, there’s something I wish my dad could have lived long enough to see.”

*

A special on the E! cable channel (to air June 8) will include the seamy details of Crane’s weakness for women and self-indulgence in videotaping them. That can’t be avoided.

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Nor can the trial, 16 years after the murder, and acquittal of John Henry Carpenter, a friend of their father who literally got away with murder, the Crane kids believe.

Yet so many good memories remain.

At lunch at a Valley deli, Karen pulls out a book of snapshots. A waitress, Sue, notices and says, “Oh, who’s that?”

“Bob Crane,” Karen says.

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“Oh! The guy from ‘Hogan’s Heroes’? I loved him.”

“Us too,” his daughter says.

Mike Downey’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.


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