Sunday, 5 June 2005

Leon Askin 1907-2005

The past several weeks have taken a heavy toll on character actors. Frank Gorshin and Howard Morris were both taken from us. Those of you who have even watched a few episodes of Hogan's Heroes may remember Albert Burkhalter, the Luftwaffe general who would threaten Col. Klink with "I will send you to the Russian front!" The actor who portrayed that character is now gone. Leon Askin recently died in Vienna, Austria at age 97.

Leon Askin was born Leo Aschkenasy, the son of salesman, on Sept. 18, 1907 in Vienna, Austria. He displayed talent early, reciting a 17 verse eulogy in honour of Emperor Francis Joseph before the city hall of Vienna's ninth district when he was all of nine years old. By age 18 he began to seriously consider becoming an actor. Askin received the best education in acting he could ever want. While he started his studies at the People's Academy in Vienna, he would soon work under directors Max Reinhardt and Louise DuMont.

With the arrival of 1933, the next few years would see Askin on the move. The Nazis having taken power, Askin found himself thrown out of the theatre for being a Jew. Not long after he would be arrested and imprisoned. Over the next few years, Askin would find himself in Paris (performing as part of the political cabaret, Künsterclub Paris-Vienne) and then in Austria again (as one of the founders of the political cabaret, ABC, and as stage manager and one of the actors at the State Theater of Upper Austria in Linz).

In 1938, when the Nazis siezed control of Austria, he once more fled for Paris. Unfortunately, France would also fall to the Nazis and Askin would be placed in the internment camp at Meslay du Maine. From there he would make his way to New York City. He would initially perform with the Civic Theatre in Washington D.C. Once the Civic Theatre closed, Askin enlisted in the U. S. Army. While serving in the military, Askin applied for citizenship in the United States.

Following the war, Askin became both an acting instructor and a director on Broadway. He also served on the executive board of the Equity Library Theatre. In 1952, however, Askin's career would see a dramatic change. Askin would be signed to play a part in Assignment Paris for Columbia Pictures. Eventually he would play in over 60 movies made in the United States. His speciality was the comic villain or the comic German or Russian. Over the years he would appear in such movies as The Road to Bali, Son of Sinbad, One, Two, Three, Do Not Disturb, and Airplane II: the Sequel. He would also continue to make movies in Europe, most notably Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. He made his last film appearance in Kubanisch rauchen in 1999.

Askin also performed a good deal on television. Beyond his role as General Burkhalter on Hogan's Heroes, he made many guest appearances. He first appeared on American television on Biff Baker, U.S.A. in 1952. He would eventually appear on such diverse shows as The Adventures of Superman, Studio 57, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Monkees, McMillan and Wife, and Happy Days. Besides Hogan's Heroes, he was also a regular on The Charles Farrell Show in the Fifties. He would also appear in the mini-series Alma--a Show biz ans Ende in Europe.

In the Nineties, Askin returned to Vienna where he continued his career not only in film and television, but on stage as well. He played in the original stage version of Alma and the play Der Vater.

Askin would be bestowed with various honours by his native Austria. He was endowed with the title "Professor" by the President of Austria. He also received the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, Veinna's Gold Cross of Honour, and the Austrian Cross of Honour, First Class, for Science and Art.

Many might be misled by Leon Askin's best known, comedic roles, such as Burkhalter on Hogan's Heroes and Peripetchikoff in One, Two, Three, into thinking he was simply a comedic character actor. As an actor, however, Askin had a much wider range from that, playing everything from dramatic roles to villains. Indeed, on stage he played both Shylock and Faust. It was perhaps Askin's great range that made him so good in comedic roles. He could evoke laughter with the most subtle facial expressions or nuance of voice. And his timing was perfect. Although he will be best remembered for his role on Hogan's Heroes, his career extended far beyond that show and he accompished much, much more. It is truly sad that he is now gone.

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