8 actors who almost played significant roles on 'Hogan's Heroes'
It would have been a much different show with Walter Matthau.
In the early 1960s, an actor and an architect, with no writing experience between them, decided to whip up a script for a television pilot. Bernard Fein at least had played Pvt. Gomez in 137 episodes of The Phil Silvers Show, so he was familiar with the rhythms of a sitcom. His buddy, Albert S. Ruddy, was just looking for a career change. The two crafted a comedy set in a prison. Unfortunately, no network would bite. TV executives were weary of airing a sitcom about criminals. The characters needed to be more sympathetic.
Around this time, Fein and Ruddy learned that NBC was developing a series called Campo 44, which would be set in a laid-back Italian prison camp during World War II. It gave the writing duo an idea. Why not relocate their sitcom to a German prison camp? Thus Hogan's Heroes was born.
The next challenge would be selling the idea to a network. NBC first passed. CBS president William Paley proclaimed, "I find the idea of doing a comedy set in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp reprehensible," according to Brenda Scott Royce's book Hogan's Heroes: The Unofficial Companion. However, Ruddy commenced acting out the script. Paley loved it. Hogan's Heroes was sold.
Now all they had to do was cast the thing.
The premise could not work without the right cast. Filling the roles proved to be unsurprisingly difficult. Some actors balked at the idea. In fact, a couple of men who won roles eventually got cold feet — after filming the pilot. Let's take a look at the Hogan's Heroes that might have been, had the casting gone a different way.
1. Walter Matthau as Hogan
Bernie Fein suggested Walter Matthau. At the time, the New York actor was best known for Broadway, where he played Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, and more dramatic roles on film. Producer Ed Feldman shrugged off the idea, declaring that Matthau could not do comedy. Of course, he would prove that notion wrong a few years later in The Odd Couple.
2. Robert Hogan as Hogan
Robert Hogan as Colonel Robert Hogan? That sounds too perfect, no? Well, Fein had in fact named the lead character in honor of his actor friend. However, at the time, Hogan's resume was a little thin. He had worked some guest roles on The Twilight Zone, 77 Sunset Strip and The Donna Reed Show, as well as soaps like General Hospital. But the producers wanted a bigger name. Hogan would at least show up twice in Hogan's Heroes in bit roles.
3. Van Johnson as Hogan
CBS offered the part to Van Johnson. The leading man had appeared in many war films during the 1940s. In 1957, Johnson starred in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a NBC family musical special that aired over the Thanksgiving holiday. A couple years after saying "No" to the prison camp, Johnson went camp, playing the villainous Minstrel on Batman, a character inspired by his Pied Piper.
4. Richard Dawson as Hogan
Feldman was keen on Dawson for the lead role, particularly after his performance in the movie King Rat. Dawson tested for the network as Hogan. There was one major obstacle with the Brit playing the colonel — Dawson's thick accent. It made far more sense to hire the future Family Feud host to play a, English RAF man, Corporal Peter Newkirk.
5. John Banner as Klink
Feldman knew he wanted Jewish actors John Banner and Werner Klemperer to play his Nazi leads, Schultz and Klink. He just wasn't sure who should play which. He liked Banner as Klink, too. Another writer was asked for an opinion, and the call was finally made — Banner would play Schultz. But it could have very well gone the other way.
6. Werner Klemperer as Schultz
Just picture it, Banner wearing a monocle and Klemperer declared, "I know nothing!" A much different show, no?
7. Leonid Kinskey as Vladimir Minsk
Here we get to the actors who won roles — only to walk away from them. Kinskey, a Russian native who had appeared in Casablanca, was cast as Vladimir Minsk, a Soviet prisoner with a knack for tailoring. Kinskey had a significant role in the series pilot, "The Informer." However, after completing the episode, he became uncomfortable with the prospect of appearing alongside actors pretending to be Nazis. He quit the show. His leaving paved the way for Larry Hovis to join the cast as Carter.
8. Stewart Moss as Olson
Moss also appeared in the pilot episode, playing an American POW named Olson. He has a memorable moment at the opening, when he quiets two German Shepherds on his heels. The producers offered Moss a regular role. After mulling it over, he also turned down the job. He does pop up in a couple other episodes, though. But just imagine the cast chemistry with Bob Crane, Dawson, Kinsky and Moss as the core characters.
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