Perry Mason actress Susanne Cramer had a tragic life worthy of a mystery series itself
A dark cloud hovered over the German actress, despite her marriage to a familiar face from Little House on the Prairie.
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In March of 1967, The Guns of Will Sonnett was on its last legs. The Western neared the finish line of its brief two-season run when it aired "One Angry Juror." The episode told a rather standard courtroom drama leading up to a bloody ending. Young Jeff Sonnett (Dack Rambo) guns down the killer right in front of the witness stand.
But the one notable thing in this episode is not the plot — it is the actress sitting on the witness stand.
Susanne Cramer portrayed a Swede named Christine Anderson. Born and raised in German, Cramer was typecast in European roles thanks to her accent. "One Angry Juror" would also give her one final opportunity to act in a series alongside her husband, fellow actor Kevin Hagen, another guest star in that episode.
However, she would never see the episode. She had died two months earlier in mysterious circumstances.
Before we delve into her demise, let's rewind to 1967. The Newsday press service ran a syndicated column in newspapers across America about the libertine German entertainment scene. The wild Berlin jet-set — or "lebendige lust (living joy) crowd," as the reporter wrote — was scandalous enough to attract the attention of readers in Oakland. Because there was another dead starlet in the story.
"The death of Renate Ewert turned the spotlight on [the German scene] for a moment," it said. The "dark-haired, fine-boned" actress with an "explosive temperament" was 31 and had landed several roles as a bad girl. The writer titillatingly detailed how she enjoyed going shopping in a "leopard coat and nothing else."
More heavy stuff for the morning papers: "They found her surrounded by her stuffed animals and dolls, crumpled on the rug beside her bed, after she had been dead for five days."
Only, it wasn't a "they" who discovered the corpse; it was her close friend Susanne Cramer.
Some reports claim that Ewert had been dead for up to three weeks. Some reports claim that she had died of starvation. Whatever the case, the ordeal was bizarre and tragic.
A dark cloud hovered over those closest to Renate Ewert. Her father killed himself a year later. Her mother followed shortly thereafter, poisoning herself. And Cramer would pass away in early 1969.
But the dark cloud had been there all along. "The had already been 11 sleeping-pill suicides in the living joy crowd," that Newsday article explained. Cramer herself had twice attempted suicide in 1957, a tumultuous year that also saw her divorce her husband of mere months, Hermann Nehlsen. She quickly remarried, to Helmuth Lohner. Then divorced him. Then remarried him. They split again.
It seemed as if Cramer had settled down a bit when she moved to Los Angeles and wed her third husband, Kevin Hagen.
Hagen had carved a successful career in Hollywood playing Western baddies. Later, he shifted gears dramatically, finding a comfortable pigeonhole as a kindly doctor, most memorably Dr. Hiram Baker on Little House on the Prairie.
Hagen and Cramer met working together on Perry Mason, in the mystery "The Case of the Fugitive Fraulein." Cramer played the killer, in what was her second appearance on the show. Around the same time, she popped up on Get Smart, My Favorite Martian, Hogan's Heroes, The Rat Patrol, and other shows, often playing a German character.
In late 1968, Cramer entered a "private clinic" in Hollywood. It was reported that she died there of pneumonia. Rumors surfaced of medical malpractice, but oddly we could find no official obituary published in 1969. Searching the internet and newspaper archives proves rather fruitless, beyond these scant claims and gossip. Her passing is a mystery suited for a Perry Mason case.