John Banner

John BannerOn this day in 1910, the fine character actor John Banner was born. And 63 years later — to the day — he died. He had gone back to visit his home town. So apparently, you can go home — but it will kill you.

Banner is known for one thing: he played Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes. As you may know, I was crazy about the show when I was a kid. And I’ve never really abandoned that, although my interest has become much more about what the show said about American attitudes about its place in the world. There was the bumbling, by-the-book British Colonel Crittendon. There was the mysterious and never quite trustworthy Russian spy Marya. But most of all, there was Sergeant Schultz: the good German who is just caught in the middle of a bad situation.

In one episode where Hogan manages to convince the Nazis that the war is over, we learn that Schultz was the owner of Germany’s largest toy maker before the government took it over to convert it to military uses. He’s probably a social democrat. He doesn’t like the Nazis. But mostly, he just doesn’t like conflict, “When it comes to war, I don’t like to take sides.” But there are times when the plot is used to turn Schultz into a real Nazi as when he takes over as commandant and when he is put in charge of making a movie. As I wrote before, “Schultz was the heart of the show.”

A lot of people seem to have the idea that Banner died during the series run. This is not true. He went on to star in another situation comedy, The Chicago Teddy Bears. I don’t know much about it except that it took place in Chicago during Prohibition. Banner starred with Dean Jones (who by federal law had to star in every Disney movie from 1965 to 1980) as partners in a speakeasy. It sounds like a decent show, but few watched it and it was canceled after 13 episodes. The only thing I’ve found is this terrible copy of the opening credits:

Happy birthday John Banner!

4 thoughts on “John Banner

  1. Schultz is the heart of the show, and Banner is great. The “heroes” range from vaguely likable (Kinchloe, Carter) to dull and, with Hogan, rather creepily smarmy. (Seeing the weird Schrader film about Bob Crane probably didn’t help my estimation of Crane’s charm — it did have a neat bit of mimicry by Kurt Fuller as Werner Klemperer, Fuller nailed that.)

    It’s funny, I’ve been watching a lot of spy-based things lately (from the fun like “Notorious” to the more serious like that Bill Nighy “Worricker” BBC films) and thinking about how spies were traditionally thought of as necessary evils. Which is how intelligence services today regard them, I’m sure. Not how popular culture does, outside of John leCarre.

    Spies were regarded as distasteful because, essentially, what a spy does is win over people’s trust, then betray that trust. It’s a pretty foul thing for a human to do. Necessary, I suppose, on occasion, but foul.

    Fleming’s Bond signaled a change in that. Bond fought Pure Evil (whether Soviets or fantasy bad guys, same difference) and what’s more fun than fooling Pure Evil into trusting you? Not that Fleming’s concept was anything super-original (comic books, radio shows, pulp novels and the like had informants) but it was the first spy I’m aware of presented as being a guy who just digs on betraying trust, and whose delight in screwing over people who trust him is meant for the audience to vicariously share. (At least Hogan’s crew always look out for Schultz, even if they lie to him constantly.)

    I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this; I do think there’s something interesting to it. The Bond character, and how we regard “evil” (enemies, criminals) in pop culture (and, alas, in real life). The thrill many people feel over beating the “bad guys” who are by definition not human. The admiration many people feel for bullies like Limbaugh/O’Reilly who beat down opponents, standing in for every time a conservative’s lost an argument. The way football fans transfer their repressed aggression to their favorite teams.

    Of course spy fiction didn’t create any of this. However we used to think of spies as rather slimy; now we see them as cool, because they get one over on the other side. Think of how spies are portrayed in Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” or James’s “The Princess Cassamassima.” Spying was regarded as debasing to the spy.

    Just a thought, nothing important. Banner is great!

    • Similarly, we used to think of torturers are bad guys and now they are super cool via 24 and Zero Dark Thirty. And we were uneasy about snipers but now they are heroes and the only true victims of war via American Sniper. You can tell a lot about a society by its art. The trend is good.

  2. Crime dramas; on “Perry Mason” the criminals were a tiny proportion of society and so racked by guilt it was easy to force them into tripping up their stories (probably pretty much how it is today.) Now most crime dramas feature twisted killers with no remorse. The current criminal “justice” system should pay royalties to Thomas Harris!

    • Conservatives used to stand for absolute morality, but over the last several decades, they have descended into the most trivial form of postmodern relativism. And it has affected the society as a whole. Conservatism has always had a problem with simplistic thinking: good versus evil. But now, the movement uses William Lane Craig kinds of apologias: an act is good simply because it is the US doing it. If Russia did it, it would be bad. Similarly, an act is good simply because the rich do it. Note how Fox News applauded when Romney said that he was right to use the existing law any way at all to benefit himself. But when the surfer-rocker kid said the same thing, it was an outrage — even though all he was getting was forty bucks a week in food.

      I say it all the time, but it bears repeating: this is how empires decline and fall.

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