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Kinnear: Turning the focus on the Hollywood nice guy

September 10, 2002

It's fitting that Greg Kinnear, the good looking talk-show host turned movie actor, plays self-proclaimed nice guy Bob Crane in Auto Focus. From the movie's voiced-over opening scene to the end, Kinnear, as Crane, works hard to convince the audience that he's really "just a likeable guy."

The technicolour introduction, set in the Los Angeles of 1964, takes the audience from Crane's goofy radio morning show, to church and Sunday supper with his wife and three kids. It all looks like a scene out of a family sitcom from that bygone era and works hard to establish Crane as an earnest, likeable guy.

Here's the catch. Nice-guy Bob Crane, embraced by America as the star of the hit sitcom Hogan's Heroes, was a sex addict. Fueled by his buddy, hanger-on video technician John Carpenter, the well-known television star embarked on a behind-the-scenes life of affairs, swinging and porn. It's a path that cost the real-life actor his career, his family and ultimately, his life. Crane was murdered in 1978, a crime that remains unsolved.

Kinnear, who was three when Hogan's Heroes made its network television debut in 1965, was hand-picked by Auto Focus' producer to portray Crane in the film. He was cast for his physical resemblance to the late actor, but the fact that he's banked his career playing a bunch of nice guys himself didn't hurt either.

"I think everyone that knows Greg thinks it's interesting casting," says Kinnear's co-star Willem Dafoe, who plays Carpenter, the character that acts as a catalyst for Crane's downfall.

Interesting casting it is. Kinnear brings his trademark light touch to the role - eschewing a more obvious portrayal of Crane as entirely a dark character. It's a tightly crafted, and highly ironic performance, that delves more into the how than the why.

"I don't think Bob was necessarily full of great introspection," Kinnear says. Still, a generation of film-goers raised on round-the-clock pop culture analysis is likely to find the omission unsatisfying.

"I was trying to find certain nuances about who he was and incorporate them and hope that they would stick with an audience," Kinnear says. He worked hard at capturing the cadence and resonance of Crane's voice, and especially at recreating Crane's Hogan's Heroes performances.

"That was the most important thing," Kinnear says. "The only thing people remember about Bob is that show. Outside of the show we had, oddly enough, some leeway as to interpretation, but the show has such clear resonance with audiences that it was vital that Paul (Schrader, the movie's director) and I try to be as close to, not mimicking or parodying, but be as close to what that Hogan's Heroes experience was that we could be."

"If it was that off the mark I think the risk is that it would be distracting for an audience and they would feel like, 'Well if they're that far off on this portion, how am I supposed to go with you on the rest of the story?' So we worked hard on that."

That 1960s TV earnestness is also a major part of Kinnear's portrayal of Crane's behind-the-scenes persona, especially through the early stages of Crane's unraveling. It shifts the focus onto Crane's desperate need to believe that his life is, in fact, normal and he's "a likeable guy."

"He says repeatedly in the film, 'I'm just a normal guy.' Normal is the mantra," Kinnear says. "I think that the fact that he was a nice guy, or whatever that definition of a nice guy is something you hear about all the time. Everybody has their mask that they wear for their social appearances and stuff."

"I think this movie very much is a portrait of people who are clueless of what their actions are, what's going to happen, that road they're going down," Dafoe says.

Still, with all of the implications of stardom, it is hard to believe Crane's secret life remained a secret for long.

"There wasn't the kind of reporting (about stars) that there is today and so he was able, oddly enough to live in a bit of a vacuum. I think it was spoken in quiet hushed tones around town but wasn't quite, it certainly wasn't the liability it would be today," Kinnear says.

"Celebrity fodder wasn't quite the issue back then that it is now. There weren't as many channels dedicated to it, there wasn't this sort of voracious appetite on the part of the audience and people in terms of following celebrities."

He jokes that now, Crane's actions would have landed him on a trashy talk show - ironically, it even could have made him fodder for the show Talk Soup, which Kinnear used to host. But back then, Hollywood and its audience largely turned a blind eye to stars' transgressions.

"Anybody I've talked to, older actors, or people who knew Bob will say, 'Yeah, we kind of knew about it but it just wasn't discussed. We knew something kind of shady was going on,' but it just wasn't a thing that was dealt with like that back then," Kinnear says.

"It wasn't coffee table talk like it is today."

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