Paris-born actor and singer Robert Clary, who survived 31 months in Nazi concentration camps but later co-starred in “Hogan’s Heroes,” the US sitcom set in a German World War II prisoner of war (POW) camp, has died at the age of 96.
Clary, who played strudel-baking French Corporal Louis Lebeau on “Hogan’s Heroes” during its six seasons from 1965 to 1971, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, his granddaughter told the Hollywood Reporter.
“Robert was an amazing gentleman and incredibly talented not just as an actor but also a performer and a gifted painter,” said David Martin, his former manager.
Clary was 16 in September 1942 when he was deported from Paris to Nazi concentration camps with 12 other members of his Jewish family. He was the only one who survived. Clary spent 2.5 years in the Ottmuth, Blachhammer, Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald concentration camps, enduring hunger, disease and forced labor.
He was freed when American troops liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, but then learned that his family members, including his parents, had died in the Holocaust.
It was with some irony that Clary achieved his greatest fame playing for jokes in a TV show set in a German POW camp. He said he had no concerns about being in a show that mocked the Nazis.
His character was one of the POWs who outwitted their dimwitted German jailers and conducted espionage and sabotage to aid the Allied cause.
“The show was a satire set in a stalag for prisoners of war, where conditions were not pleasant but in no way comparable to a concentration camp, and it had nothing to do with Jews,” Clary told the Jerusalem Post in 2002.
“Showbiz is like a roller coaster and you take what roles are offered to you,” Clary added.
“Hogan’s Heroes” starred Bob Crane as American Colonel Robert Hogan, with Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis and Ivan Dixon playing other POWs. The main German characters were bumbling camp commandant Colonel Klink, played by Werner Klemperer, and pliant guard Sergeant Schultz, played by John Banner. Both actors were Jews and had fled Europe because of the Nazis.
Clary’s character was known for his burgundy beret and his cooking skills, which were used to distract German officers with delicious cuisine while his fellow POWs were up to mischief.
“Hogan’s Heroes” was popular with TV viewers during its run on the CBS network and for decades afterward in syndication even though some critics considered it in bad taste.
Clary was born as Robert Max Widerman on March 1, 1926, the youngest of his Polish tailor father’s 14 children from two marriages. He became a professional singer as a teenager.
In the camps set up by the Nazis to eradicate Europe’s Jews, he was tattooed with the number A-5714 and forced to dig trenches, work in a shoe factory and sing for his captors. The singing earned him a few extra morsels of food, Clary said.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” he told the Asbury Park Press in 2002. “First of all, because I survived. Secondly, because I was in camps that were not as atrocious as others. I did not suffer. I did not work as hard as people were working in salt mines on quarries. I was never tortured. I was never really beaten. I was never hanged. But I saw all these things.”
After the war, Clary’s singing career took off in France. He moved to the United States in 1949 and comedian Eddie Cantor gave him national TV exposure. Clary later married Cantor’s daughter Natalie.
Clary performed on stage, in small film roles and in guest spots on TV before being cast in “Hogan’s Heroes.” His biggest film role was in director Robert Wise’s “The Hindenburg” in 1975, starring George C. Scott.
In 1980, alarm over people trying to deny the Holocaust prompted Clary to end his self-imposed silence about his experiences. He spent years traveling to schools in the United States and Canada speaking about the Holocaust. He also wrote an autobiography, “From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes.”
“We must learn from history,” Clary told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2002, “which we don’t.”