Tag Archives: Robert Crane

The Koko and Crane Connection

Hanabiko “Koko,” the gorilla who mastered sign language and taught the world a profound amount about the emotional capacity and cognitive abilities of gorillas, died June 19. The 46-year-old western lowland gorilla passed away in her sleep at the Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in California’s Sana Cruz mountains.

At the preserve Koko met and interacted with a variety of celebrities, including Robin Williams, Fred Rogers, Betty White, and Leonardo DiCaprio. She appeared in many documentaries, on two National Geographic covers, and was also featured in Playboy magazine.


Robert Crane, son of the late actor Bob Crane (“Hogan’s Heroes”), interviewed Koko in Playboy‘s December 1986 issue. In his book, Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder, Robert Crane reveals the backstory of how his interview with the beloved gorilla came about. Here is an excerpt:

Like most people who had read Dian Fossey’s courageous and moving memoir, Gorillas in the Mist, the closest I’d ever been to a real gorilla was sitting in a movie theater watching Sigourney Weaver’s inspired performance in the film of Fossey’s life in the Virunga Mountains.  But now I was proposing a sit-down, face-to-face interview with a gorilla for the world leading men’s magazine. How would Hefner react to having an ape, gorilla gorilla graueri, grace the pages of Playboy?  Rezek shockingly gave me the go-ahead. He was clearly taking a chance but a successful roll of the dice could pay off big in terms of publicity for Playboy.

Dr. Penny Patterson was the director of The Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, and it sounded like she dropped the phone when I requested an interview with Koko, not for Scientific American, but for the legendary publication with a bunny for a logo.

“Are you serious?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” I answered. “This piece will introduce Koko to a whole new audience—an audience with lots of disposable income for donations to research foundations.”

“You know we’re located in the mountains west of Palo Alto.”

“I do. In fact, I think one of your neighbors is Neil Young,” I said, showing my fondness for research.

“Yes,” said the slightly befuddled Patterson. “How much time would you need?  We’re trying to mate Koko with Michael and it’s not going well, so, I don’t want to bother her for too long.”

“An hour and half, tops,” I said, adding, “Koko will enjoy the challenge of the questions.  We’ll need an original photo of her, but nothing too racy.”

“Let me run this by my partner.”  Dr. Patterson sounded both surprised and intrigued by my proposal. She would discuss the matter with fellow gorilla researcher Dr. Ron Cohn, who, it turned out, also happened to be her mate.

[. . .]

Penny Patterson was Koko’s teacher and interpreter in American Sign Language and that aspect of the study was going quite well. Koko was the most celebrated gorilla in the world because she was the first to use any kind of human language.  The interview would go like this: I would ask a question, and Dr. Patterson, using ASL, would sign it to Koko, who would then ponder the question for a bit, sign an answer back to the doctor who would then translate it for me.

In my introduction to the piece in the magazine I wrote, “Koko, 15 years old and 230 pounds, sat poised and ready in her open-air living area. She looked me in the eye and, using American Sign Language, commanded, ‘Show me your teeth,’ which I respectfully did. She was delighted by the enormous amount of gold and silver in my mouth. Her mate, Michael, 13 and 350 pounds, who shares quarters with her, never looked me in the eye—something to do with the fact that I was a stranger and a male.”  During the questioning, I would occasionally glance at Michael who would instantly look away.  At other times, when I looked away, I could feel Michael’s stare boring a hole in me. I asked Koko about her boyfriend.

“Koko, do you think Michael is cute?”

Koko responded, signing with both hands for emphasis.  “Cute, sweet, good.”

“What’s the difference between boys and girls?” I asked.

“Corn there good,” Koko replied, meaning she gets a corn treat because her floor is clean, whereas Michael doesn’t because his is dirty. She added, “Girl people,” since she thought of herself as a person and Michael as an animal.

[. . .]

“Koko, what do you want for your birthday?”

“Earrings. Cookie.”

My time with Koko flew by.  I asked her about being interviewed.

“What do you say when you’re tired of being asked questions?”

“Gorilla teeth. Finished.”

The interview was over. I thanked Koko for her well thought-out responses and for her time. I looked at Michael once more and he quickly turned away.

koko1Weeks later, Dr. Cohn shot a glamorous Koko against a red background for the interview’s accompanying full-page illustration.  Oh, and for those with a more prurient interest in gorilla hook-ups, Koko and Michael never did successfully get together.  Nonetheless, it was a brilliant day in that mountain community, replete with new smells, serious behavioral researchers, and a delightful ape who used communication skills taught to her by humans, but who thought enough of our kind to give us a glimpse into the mind of a gorilla.

On my flight back to Los Angeles, I smiled with amazement and elation as I recounted having been in such close proximity to such an intelligent and majestic animal.  At the same time it was all a bit melancholy knowing that Koko, as pampered as her world was, would never spend two minutes in her wild, natural habitat.

Happy 80th Birthday, Jack Nicholson!

Happy 80th birthday to Jack Nicholson! A prolific actor and filmmaker who has brought to life some of the most iconic characters in American film, Jack is also the most nominated male actor in the history of the Academy Awards.

In this special excerpt from Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder, author Robert Crane steps away from the stories surrounding his father and recounts the time he and coauthor Chris Fryer interviewed then up-and-coming actor Jack Nicholson for their film class at USC:

During the early 1970s the two of us had become great observers of the ascendant star of Jack Nicholson. Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and Carnal Knowledge were big, important films, at least to us. Jack represented an honesty, an abandon that I had seen elsewhere only in old Marlon Brando films. Nicholson crying in front of his paralyzed father in Five Easy Pieces was a landmark moment for me. It was a shocking and spellbinding scene. How could you be a man and allow yourself to show emotion like that in front of millions of people? I was stunned by it, but I felt nothing but admiration. Ultimately I wanted to be like that character. I wanted to be that honest and open with other people. That particular scene spoke to me about my relationship with my dad, because except when I was a really young kid I could never cry in front of him. I wouldn’t allow myself to be that exposed. Seeing Nicholson do that was a revelation.

The semester after the release of Five Easy Pieces Chris and I took a class at USC called The Film Heroes of the ’30s and ’60s taught by screenwriter Steven Karpf, and we had the idea of teaming up to interview Jack Nicholson as the “antihero” for the ages. It never occurred to us that a couple of tyros from Tarzana and USC film school might not be able to talk to Jack Nicholson for their class project. We just didn’t know any better. Hell, we’d been told no by curmudgeonly gift shop buyers in college bookstores all over this great land, but we still managed to sell them license frames. So even though we’d heard the word no umpteen times, it just hadn’t made that much of an impression. We weren’t deterred by the word. We weren’t put off by the word. We just stepped around it, coming at the target from a different direction.

I had seen Jack once on a film panel at USC, and at that point in his career he was a great supporter of film, foreign cinema, and up-and coming filmmakers. He’d been to the Cannes Film Festival with his directorial debut, Drive, He Said, but he was still accessible enough that he could be persuaded to make an appearance at a college. This was well before the curtain of opportunity closed for nobodies to get near Jack Nicholson.

Talking to Jack Nicholson was remarkably easy. Through a family connection of Chris’s we got what turned out to be Jack’s home phone number, though we didn’t know it at the time. I dialed it, and damned if the guy himself didn’t answer the phone on the second ring. I knew who it was, but I still asked for Mr. Nicholson just to be polite. He asked, “Who’s calling?” and I introduced myself and launched into my pitch for an interview. To our incredible surprise and elation, Jack Nicholson agreed to sit down with us and talk film. It was absolutely unreal. Chris and I were bouncing off the walls.

Jack invited us up to his house on Mulholland Drive. To illustrate how different the world was in 1972, there was no gate on the driveway— the same driveway Jack shared with his next-door neighbor, Marlon Brando. We rolled up to the open front door and were escorted into the two-story ranch house as Michelle Phillips, Jack’s girlfriend at the time, passed us in the foyer. Chris and I exchanged looks, trying to be cool, as we stepped down into the living room. We were in a different world. There was a large, plush, brown suede couch opposite the wall of windows that overlooked Franklin Canyon and Los Angeles. The house was comfortable, lived-in. I felt pretty much at ease even though I was about to meet one of my film heroes. Jack came down the stairs wearing a navy blue bathrobe with a bat pin on the lapel. He might have just gotten out of bed, although it was well past lunchtime. As I discovered over the next several hours spent talking about film, Jack’s upcoming projects, his past experiences, and the future of cinema, Jack wasn’t wearing anything under that robe as he inadvertently flashed me several times.

After finally switching off the tape recorder, we took a few commemorative photos—for our benefit, not Jack’s—and left the house on cloud 99. We were so juiced that Chris almost killed us, spinning out his Porsche on a Mulholland curve and doing a 360 into a cloud of dust. We came to a stop between a telephone pole and the edge of a cliff. As the dust settled we could hear our pounding hearts, and then laughed like lunatics. Needless to say, we got As in that class.

Serendipitously, after that first interview, Chris and I, separately and together, began bumping into Jack around L.A. I saw him at a Rolling Stones concert, and we exchanged pleasantries. My date, Barbara Stephens, who had been my government teacher at Taft High School, was suitably impressed. Chris ran into Jack at an antiwar/pro-McGovern rally at UCLA. Jack was always where the action was.

Because these chance meetings made us think we were becoming pals, we did the only logical thing—we decided to write a book about our new best friend. There had never been a book about Jack Nicholson, and we felt it was high time and that we were just the guys to do it. Frankly, in 1972 the name Jack Nicholson wasn’t yet on the American public’s radar screen. On more than one occasion when I mentioned the idea I was told, “Gee, Bobby, I didn’t know you were that interested in golf…”


For more interviews and stories, check out Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder by Robert Crane, now in a new paperback edition.

In this poignant memoir, Crane discusses the terrible day that his father Bob Crane, known to Hogan’s Heroes fans as Colonel Hogan, was discovered brutally murdered and how he has lived with the unsolved murder of his father. But this storyline is just one thread in his tale of growing up in Los Angeles, his struggles to reconcile the good and sordid sides of his celebrity father, and his own fascinating life. Through disappointment, loss, and heartbreak, Crane’s humor and perseverance shine. Beyond the big stars and behind-the-scenes revelations, this riveting account of death, survival, and renewal in the shadow of the Hollywood sign makes a profound statement about the desire for love and permanence in a life where those things continually slip away. By turns shocking and uplifting, Crane is an unforgettable and deeply human story.

Robert Crane is coauthor of My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey through Hollywood, Jack Nicholson: The Early Years, and Bruce Dern: A Memoir, and a contributor to Hal Ashby: Interviews.

Christopher Fryer is coauthor of Jack Nicholson: The Early Years and Bruce Dern: A Memoir, and a contributor to Hal Ashby: Interviews.

Father’s Day Books on Dad Written by their Children

Protective. Goofy. Heroic. Hardworking. Stoic. Knowledgeable. Jovial. There are a number of adjectives that can be used to describe fathers and the significant role they play in their children’s lives. But each father has his own unique story –- a story that may never be told.

Below are some of our favorite books written by children about their dads. Whether a father is interested in sports, film, history, suspense, or the military, he’s sure to find some of the subjects (and stories) interesting and appealing.


More information:

My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey through Hollywood

Portrait Of A Father

My Father, Daniel Boone: The Draper Interviews with Nathan Boone

Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical

Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting

Battlefield Surgeon: Life and Death on the Front Lines of World War II

Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder

Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett


Jack Nicholson is 79 today!


Today is legendary film star Jack Nicholson’s 79th birthday! Before you bust out the cake and start toasting his health, let’s take a moment to see what other Hollywood legends have to say about the life of the A-lister (the following opinions are excerpted from Jack Nicholson: The Early Years by Robert Crane and Christopher Fryer):

Roger Corman – The film director credited with discovering Nicholson
Question: Can you tell us how you first discovered Jack Nicholson?
Roger Corman: As a director I enrolled in an acting class of Jeff Corey’s,feeling I wanted to know a little bit more about acting. I wasn’t trying to be an actor, but just to add to my working background as a director, and Jack was in the class and I was very much impressed by his work. So Jack and I became friends, and we worked together in a number of films. This was about ten or twelve years ago [side note: this book was originally published in 1975].
Question: Where do you think Jack Nicholson ranks among American actors today?
Corman: I think he’s one of the most important American actors for this reason: he’s one of the few leading men who will take a chance on extremely unusual and offbeat material, and I think that’s one of the reasons he will probably stay a major actor for most of his life, or as long as he wants to work. He will not run the danger of being typecast and tossed aside when that particular type of film fades from favor. His willingness, if not eagerness, to go to offbeat material will stand him in good stead. I think somewhere along the line he will make a mistake, and one or two of those films will be unfortunate choices, but I think this is the nature of the game.

Bruce Dern – Well-known Hollywood actor and close friend of Nicholson
Question: Do you think at this point you could pick out one performance and call it his best?
Dern: Easy Rider.
Question: Why?
Dern: It was the first time that we’d seen him. He was definitely the character. He was more a deep part of Jack than what we’ve seen before. Now his overall performance in Five Easy Pieces was outstanding, but it was closer to Jack. He didn’t have to reach as far. I think probably the years will tell us that the work in Five Easy Pieces was greater than Easy Rider. But for me, Easy Rider was the World Series for him, and he won the car. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. For me, Marvin Gardens is the World Series, and I won the car. They may not know I won the car, but I won the car, because I know I was great in the film. I’ve never done as good work in my life. And we’re talking about two guys that always do great work, but somehow the thing that’s the most gratifying is when a guy does it under the pressure of knowing that this is his shot. A guy like Redford will always have a shot, that’s why his work ain’t never worth a shit. He’s good; he’s always good, but he ain’t never great. Beatty’s the same way, only I think Redford is a good deal better actor than Beatty is. He’s always Warren Beatty. He’ll give you a couple of variations, but Jack was not just Jack in Easy Rider, nor was he in Five Easy Pieces, and there’s no way he’s Jack in this, and there’s no way I’m Bruce in this. But there’ll be a whole new flock of fans that will see this movie and say, “That’s Jack Nicholson, and that’s Bruce Dern.” That’s why I think Easy Rider was the best thing.

What Jack Nicholson had to say about himself:
Question: How important were your early films to the advancement of your career?
Nicholson: Very important. Any work that you do as an actor is important to you as an actor in learning it. This is how you develop; you have to work. Very few actors have been any good in movies before they’ve done a few. What’s happened in the commercial marketplace is that only the young people are pulling the people into the theaters right now. John Wayne, or any of these guys, aren’t really pulling people. This has caused the young actor to be more prominent than he would be normally. I always felt that I was lucky to be doing all those movies, even though I felt that at least half of them were really stinky. A lot of actors are having to learn—like I was having a conversation with Warren Beatty, and it’s hard for someone like Warren to have to learn the acting while doing it at a very important commercial level. It’s a painful and difficult experience—one that I’m glad I didn’t really have to go through. Warren did it very well, I think. He did mostly good, interesting films.Question: Can you characterize Jack Nicholson in one sentence?
Nicholson: He just wanted to make it nice.

We sincerely hope Mr. Nicholson has an enjoyable birthday today. If you would like to learn more about his life, be sure to check out the only biography he has actively taken a part in, Jack Nicholson: The Early Years.

Crane Giveaway!

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It’s the first day of Spring! To celebrate this momentous occasion and hopefully banish the cold weather for good, we are having a book giveaway! Remember Colonel Hogan from Hogan’s Heroes? Well we have an entire book discussing his life from his start on public radio to his untimely death.

On June 29, 1978, Bob Crane, known to Hogan’s Heroes fans as Colonel Hogan, was discovered brutally murdered in his Scottsdale, Arizona, apartment. His eldest son, Robert Crane, was called to the crime scene. In this poignant memoir, Robert Crane discusses that terrible day and how he has lived with the unsolved murder of his father. But this storyline is just one thread in his tale of growing up in Los Angeles, his struggles to reconcile the good and sordid sides of his celebrity father, and his own fascinating life.

For your chance to win a free copy of this exciting and well-written book, click here!

To learn more about Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved murder, click here!