“Spike Lee to make an all-Black version of Hogan’s Heroes,” trumpeted the headline in Variety.
As I breathlessly absorbed those sweet words that I’d waited almost 50 years to read, a lump the size of a Sherman Tank began to grow in my throat. Could this really be happening? I mean it wasn’t the Beatles getting back together, but it was close. One of my fondest boyhood memories was cozying up to the TV on Friday night at 8:30 to watch experience Hogan’s Heroes. The show had everything the pure heart of a 6 year old boy yearned for: good army men outsmarting bad army men, a bunch of secret agent GI Joes camping out in a barrack, and plenty of pretty frauliens inexplicably parading about in a backwater POW camp – who cared if it didn’t make sense? It made me happy. Still does. This new Spike Lee Hogan’s Heroes would make me even happier.
I’ll always carry a torch for that show. Sometimes I daydream about creating a Hogan’s Heroes Fantasy Camp where adult soldier-boys like me can relive their childhood fantasies and safely sabotage a quasi-Nazi war machine from the risk-free confines of a spartan barrack – a sleep-away camp with red, white and blue paintball. Sign me up for that. In fact I’ll enlist. And give me the top bunk, just above the concealed tunnel entrance.
My crowdfunding business plan for underwriting the fantasy camp was put on hold while I focused on the enormity of my beloved Hogan’s Heroes returning to life – and on the Big Screen to boot. And not just any Hogan’s Heroes, but an all-black version of Hogan’s Heroes. Hallelujah! Praise the lord and pass the ammo. There really is a Heaven and its name is Stalag 13.
A Shared Joy
With the announcement of this movie, I can finally understand the unalloyed joy Star Wars geeks revel in whenever that franchise releases a prequel or a sequel. Of course my level of joy is much more sophisticated than that silly Star Wars hysteria with its nerdy nirvana of Death Stars and lightsabers. My refined appreciation of Hogan’s Heroes involves meaningful things rooted in reality; like using a hollowed-out tree stump as an entrance to a vast network of interconnected tunnels, or incarcerated POWs repeatedly blowing up munitions trains while operating undetected deep within the heart of enemy territory – those ditzy Nazis were such dummkopfs.
What? It could happen. It could.
Whereas Star Wars groupies possess the stunted mentality of costumed trick-or-treaters, Hogan’s Heroes camp followers are bold, make-believe warriors who are right-shifted towards the manlier end of the fantasy spectrum associated with Civil War battle reenactors. These make-believe combatants put it all at risk by possibly soiling their hand-sewn, starched uniforms as they pull the phony triggers on replica firearms while shouting, “Diddly-diddly-dow. Diddly-diddly dow.”
There’s not a Renaissance Faire harlequin or Comic-con wannabee in our bunch. I mean you’ll never catch me in a Chewbacca mask. Maybe in an all-black cat burglar’s outfit as I prepare to exit through the double-secret tree stump on an pretend mission to spike the Third Reich’s new anti-aircraft guns near Dusseldorf. But a C-3PO costume…forget it. We Hogan’s Heroes fans live in the real world.
The Movie’s Backstory
The Variety article indicated that the story line and most of the casting for Hogan’s Heroes: Black Ops was set. At a time when the United States’ armed forces were segregated, an intrepid band of brothers from the Tuskegee Institute volunteer to be captured (by virtue of a planned abortive bombing raid near Hammelburg) and placed into nearby Luft Stalag 13 as POWs. In reality they were on a top-secret and daring mission to create a platform deep within Germany’s borders from which they could sabotage, disrupt and destroy the Third Reich’s ability to prosecute the war. Using the POW camp as a base of operations our Heroes endeavor to undermine, cripple and otherwise thwart the Nazi war machine; which, if you think about it, is exactly the same thing I said in the previous sentence.
This Spike Lee Hogan’s Heroes universe was a slightly altered version of the original show. For example, the cast morphed from white to black. Whereas the old cast consisted of beloved Hogan, Carter, Newkirk, LeBeau and Kinchloe (who was the token black in the original series); the new cast would be comprised of 4 stout black Tuskegee Airmen and 1 US Army Air Corps veteran (Sgt. Kinchloe). Col. Hogan would remain Col. Hogan and my hunch was that trusty GI and skilled radioman Sgt. James Kinchloe (Kinch) would quietly pivot from black to white in the new movie.
My hunch was right. The actors were all racially inverted and the part of Kinch would be cast as a Caucasian. Instead of a black guy he’d be a white guy. If I landed that role of a lifetime part, I could be that token white guy? And so for David “charged-but-never-convicted-of-loitering” Hardiman, opportunity knocked.
Spike Lee achieved a major coup in signing Will Smith for the lead role of Col. Robert Hogan. Mr. Smith’s self-evident sangfroid and easy bonhomie with the rest of the cast (his Heroes) made him the unanimous choice for the part. That and $10 million convinced him to enlist in the project. The Tuskegee airmen cast for the part of Hogan’s crew were Dennis Haysbert (the baritone-voiced Allstate Insurance guy), Don Cheadle (has Allstate insurance policies) and Kanye East (white-sheep brother of Kanye West). In show business it’s important to know your Laurence Fishburnes from your Samuel L Jacksons.
Taking their cue from the multi-racial casting of the record-breaking musical Hamilton, and in order to provide more acting jobs for deserving black actors, in this version of Hogan’s Heroes even the Nazis would be black. And who else would you expect to appear in a cameo role as black Hitler but the peerless Morgan Freeman? He doesn’t, but who else would you expect? Spike Lee took no chances with the production. If the movie didn’t score well with test audiences, he planned to simultaneously film a lighter-skinned version featuring Drake, Bruno Mars, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and a few of the old Cosby Kids. For contrast sake and to maintain chromatic continuity, the Kinch role would be played by an albino.
Immersion into the Character.
My pulse quickened, my breath grew shallow and my mind raced as I considered the possibilities of this landmark event now emblazoned into high-relief before my awed consciousness. I resolved then and there to aim high and be that token white guy in this new all-black Spike Lee Hogan’s Heroes epic. The part of Kinch had to be mine; or as Nicholas Cage might say, “How am I not in that movie.”
My agent informed me that Spike Lee’s casting office would be holding auditions for the Sgt. Kinchloe character in about 4 weeks. I immediately prepared for the part by immersing myself in all things Kinchloe. I slept on an army cot every night – sans my stuffed animals. I roughed it in other ways too. For example I poured my Starbucks Caramel Macchiato into a dingy tin cup before quaffing its caffeinated nectar. To familiarize myself with Hogan’s Heroes code names I began calling my wife “Goldilocks” and asked her to call me “Papa Bear.” That was actually way more fun than I expected, but that’s another story.
Discovering My Inner Kinch
I wanted to bring a nuanced flavor to this cookie cutter role. Regardless of what the script said or the story editor decreed, I’d ensure the audience knew Sgt. James Kinchloe was more than just background radiation designed to give color to supposedly more important characters. I had a hidden agenda for my character in khaki. In more contemporary parlance: Kinch’s life mattered. He would not be dismissed as an amiable grunt whose pack-mentality instinct was to blend in with the herd. No – my Kinch would be heard. My Kinch had an inner world and movie goers would know it just by glancing at his “can-do” countenance or by reading the descriptive body language writ large in his posture. Not only would people want Kinch in their foxhole; they’d want him packing their parachute.
In preparing for the role I employed the Stanislavsky method of acting and channeled my Inner Kinch. We all have an Inner Kinch that mentors us and it’s up to each of us to find it. To find mine I began to adapt Kinch’s customs and habits. For example I learned Morse Code and began to telegraph friends instead of texting. But I was 160 years too late and people seemed to be more interested in bits and bytes than dots and dashes.
In order to mirror the privations POW Kinchloe suffered, I rustled-up grub befitting his straitened circumstance. It was a type of German Cuisine (which already sounds like a contradiction in terms) and it usually consisted of sour sauerbraten and the worst liverwurst that zookeepers would’ve rejected as unfit for animals. And, like so many WWII GIs did, I began using cigarettes as a form of currency. That is until Wells Fargo refused to accept the 100 cartons of Marlboros I bundled together as a mortgage payment. By now my house had become a bleak barrack of roll calls, honey buckets and brown outs. At one point I even collapsed part of the front porch while digging a practice escape tunnel. All this purposeful mimicry was undertaken to elicit and then incorporate into my character the strong emotions of an incarcerated Allied POW. I would be ready for my audition. But at what price?
I was beginning to crack-up like Heath Ledger did in assuming the role of the Joker in Batman – and we all know how well that ended. I even went so far as to call Spike Lee’s office to alert them to my preparedness for the role. Disguising my voice as Norma Desmond’s in Sunset Boulevard I waited for the beep and haughtily announced: “Tell Mr. Lee I’m ready for my close-up.” Clearly I had to dial it back. In the final week prior to the audition I channeled my best Ivan Dixon (the black actor who portrayed Kinch) by attempting to relive his life experiences. First I tried “sitting in” at the lunch counters of black-owned restaurants until I was served. It wasn’t easy. Not because they wouldn’t serve me, but because I really don’t like collard greens. Later I applied for a job at a downtown barbershop in Oakland. I had to work twice as hard as the black barbers just to prove myself; plus it was hard learning to use relaxer on the fly.
The day of the cattle call came and I strode confidently into the audition, deeply in character and waited my turn in a room full of white Kinches. It was like Christmas and I was ♫Dreaming of a White Kinchmas♫. An assistant called me in to read. Spike Lee (whose eyes may or may not have been open – you can never tell with him) was sitting at a long table along with Will Smith and some other members of the production staff. They were there to assist and assess auditioning actors. When they called me up to read for the part, I felt as if all eyes were on me. And then I realized; all eyes were on me and I was glad because to be in the Stanislavsky zone. I had become blue-eyed Kinch. The reading was one for the ages and proceeded flawlessly:
Mr. Lee cued Will Smith as Hogan who began reading from his script: “Kinch, get this off to London and tag it urgent. Tell the high command the mission is too risky, but we’ll do it anyway damn it. Oh yeah, and use the emergency code.”
Me as Kinch: “Right, Colonel.”
Boom! They all dropped their scripts, stared at me in disbelief as Spike peered out over those heavy eyelids, smiled and said: “Well I guess we’ve got our Kinch. Tell the others to go home.”
Shee-it! I was in. I was going to be a hero – a Hogan Hero. My boyhood fantasy would come true – it really was going to be a White Kinchmas. I was the chosen one – chosen to perpetuate a reverse stereotype of a peripheral character whose skin color (in this case white) made it all possible. And kids, it just goes to show you, if you work hard, practice regularly and have the right skin color, sometimes dreams really do come true.
I’ll reserve the filming of Hogan’s Heroes for another story (along w/that whole Goldilocks-Papa Bear thing). Suffice to say it was a life-changing event. I actually slept on the set, in my bunk for the 2 months we filmed at Minot AFB in North Dakota. It’s been a whirlwind. My newfound celebrity knows no bounds, and my growing fan club has supporters in almost 3 of the 50 states – 2 actually, but that’s almost 3. What greater satisfaction can I express except to say if I had to do it again, I’d do it exactly the same way.
A Success that Halos to Other Projects
After playing the role of Kinch in Hogan’s Heroes: Black Ops I was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Token White Guy in a Forgettable Role. Critics generously noted how my presence really stood out in the picture – especially when compared to the rest of the cast. The David Hardiman brand was now firmly established in the public mind and there was no shortage of typecast roles offered to me; including the part of an unfortunate onion farmer who gets it in the neck in a remake of the blaxploitation film classic Blacula. I’m also up for the part of a fruit-throwing apple tree in The Wiz II.
My association with these roles and my high-profile tokenism has prompted certain “shady” ladies to take note of my theatrical skills and seek my company. It’s no accident I’ve received a call from Rachel Dolezal (the white woman who was exposed for trying to pass as black). She suggested we meet me at a spray tanning salon for a little pigmentation augmentation action; then she wants to go to the Olive Garden. Halle Berry tweeted, “Who is this irrelevant little scenery-chewer all the A-listers are talking about?” Sorry ladies. I’m happily married to a wonderful rose-tinted woman – at least that’s what she looks like to me through the glasses I wear.
Life is Not Black and White
Some people believe we each have a God-inspired destiny or role to fulfill here on Earth. At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find existentialists who believe you live your life and then leave the stage forever. What do I know from spectrums? I’m just thankful I’ve found my role and that it pays so well. Thank God…and maybe Kinch too.