Saturday, June 04, 2005

Leon Askin - 1907-2005

Leon Askin died in Vienna on Friday at age 97.

Probably best known to North Americans as General Burkhalter, Askin's professional career actually began in Austria in the 1920s. Born Leon Aschkenasy, his first stage appearance was in 1926, and he worked steadily through the 1930s both in theater and doing political and literary caberets in Vienna, Dusseldorf, and after the rise of the Nazis and later the Anschluss in Austria, in Paris. At the start of World War II he was interned in France as "an enemy alien". He emigrated to the United States in 1940 - before the German invasion of France, and did stage work as both an actor and director with Washington DC's Civic Theater. His production of Shakespeare's anti-war play Troilus & Cressida had the misfourtune to open on December 5 1941. Following the U.S. entry into the war, Askin joined the U.S. Army Air Force and rose to the rank of Technical Sergeant writing orientation material for soldier going overseas, and eventually serving in England. During this period he became an American citizen. At the end of the war he was able to travel to France in an effort to locate members of his family. He learned that his parents had been sent to the concentration camp at Teresienstadt and later learned that they had been executed. Returning to the United States, Askin returned to directing this time on Broadway, where he was also a founding member of Actors Equity.

In 1952 Askin went to Hollywood to work in the Columbia film Assignment Paris. He remained in Hollywood until 1993 and appeared in over 60 movies, usually as a foreign "villain". Among the films he was in were Road To Bali with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, The Robe with Richard Burton, Knock on Wood with Danny Kaye, Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three with James Cagney. He also worked in Germany in the period, notably in the 1962 remake of the Fritz Lang classic The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. His IMDB entry lists over 60 TV appearances, including The Adventures of Superman, My Favorite Martian, Daniel Boone, a two part episode of Switch (with Eddie Albert), Happy Days, and Three's Company. He did voices on Scooby and Scrappy Doo. His last American TV appearance was in an episode of Different Strokes, although his final TV appearance was in an Austrian miniseries, Alma - A Show biz ans Ende. In 1993 Askin returned permanently to Vienna where continued to work occassionally in film and theatre with his last film credit coming in 2001. In 2002, at the age of 95 he married media specialist Anita Wicher.

It is a General Burkhalter that Leon Askin is likely to be best remembered. Although most people writing about the series describe Burkhalter as a Nazi, it is more complex than that. Burkhalter would probably be better described as an old imperial officer who just happened to be working for the Nazis. He's sufficiently apolitical to not care who is in charge just so long as he has the best wine, the best food and the best women. Burkhalter was an opportunist, but he was also at least vaguely competent, certainly more competent Colonel Klink but it also makes him less sympathetic than Klink, and much less sypathetic than Sergeant Schultz. (Of course Howard Caine's character - Gestapo Major Hochstetter who really was a Nazi - was the least sympathetic of the lot.) Nevertheless Burkhalter was an immensely funny character to watch, alternating between the impeccable Prussian martinet who constantly threatens Klink with a one way trip to the Russian Front, and the jolly aristocrat who is enjoying the war because of the food and the wine and the beautiful women. What made it work of course was that Askin was an excellent actor, and had both the face and voice to make the character work.

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