Robert Clary, Who Took a Tragic Journey to ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ Dies at 96

Robert Clary, a Parisian Jew who survived concentration camps as a youth and went on to star on “Hogan’s Heroes,” the hit 1960s sitcom set in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, died on Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., He was 96.

Brenda Hancock, a niece, confirmed the death.

The diminutive Mr. Clary was best known for his role on “Hogan’s Heroes,” broadcast on CBS from 1965 to 1971, as Cpl. Louis LeBeau, a beret-wearing French prisoner in the fictional Stalag 13. LeBeau, who whipped up Gallic culinary delights in the barracks when not blowing up bridges, was a member of a camp-based band of wisecracking Allied saboteurs led by Bob Crane’s Col. Robert E. Hogan. Mr. Clary was the show’s last living star.

Mr. Clary in an episode from the first season of “Hogan’s Heroes.” His character, Cpl. Louis LeBeau, whipped up Gallic culinary delights in the barracks when not blowing up bridges.Credit…CBS Photo Archive, via Getty Images

“Hogan’s Heroes,” which made its debut only 20 years after the end of the war, raised questions of taste, even in the often absurdist context of 1960s sitcoms. But few viewers at the time were aware that the show, which lampooned German soldiers and SS officers as bumbling, vainglorious buffoons, starred several actors of Jewish heritage who had experienced Nazism firsthand.

They included Werner Klemperer, who played the pusillanimous camp commandant, Col. Klink, and who was the son of the renowned orchestra conductor Otto Klemperer; his family fled Berlin for Los Angeles when Mr. Klemperer was 13 to escape persecution. John Banner, who played the doltish Sgt. Schultz, fled his home country, Austria, after Germany annexed it in 1938.

But no one involved in the show had a more searing memory of Nazi atrocities than Mr. Clary, who spent nearly three years in German concentration camps during his teens and lost 10 of his 13 siblings, as well as his parents, in the Holocaust.

After he was deported to Ottmuth, a concentration camp in Upper Silesia, and eventually to Buchenwald, what helped him survive, he later said, was his skill as an entertainer; he would perform song-and-dance routines for other prisoners, and often for SS guards as well.

“That was second nature to me — singing, dancing, clowning around,” Mr. Clary recalled in “The Last Laugh,” a 2017 documentary directed by Ferne Pearlstein that explores the role of humor in regard to the ultimate taboo topic, the Holocaust. “That helped me tremendously when I was deported, because automatically, even in the first camp, I started to sing for the people who were there, the prisoners.”

“For the 10 minutes that I worked, or the 15 minutes that I sang,” he added, “they had forgotten where they were. And that was the most important thing.”

Mr. Clary at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2014. For decades, he refused to speak about his wartime experience in concentration camps, but he eventually delivered talks about the Holocaust at high schools and colleges.Credit…Chris Pizzello/Invision, via Associated Press

Mr. Clary was born Robert Max Widerman on March 1, 1926, in Paris. His parents, Moishe and Baila Widerman, were from Poland but moved to Paris after World War I. His father, a tailor who was 15 years older than Mr. Clary’s mother, brought six children to the marriage from a wife who had died in childbirth. The couple had an additional eight children together, including Mr. Clary, the youngest.

He spent much of his childhood living in a cramped apartment in a building on the picturesque Île St.-Louis, nestled in the Seine River near the Notre-Dame cathedral, that was owned by a rich widow who provided housing for Jewish families in need.

A showman from an early age, Mr. Clary learned to dance by watching Fred Astaire’s movies and copying his moves. By age 12, he was singing in a backup chorus with five other children on a weekly Parisian radio show.

His show business aspirations ground to a halt after the Germans stormed into Paris in 1940 and Jews were banned from parks, hotels, restaurants and theaters.

His fears of deportation were realized on Sept. 23, 1942, he recalled in his 2001 autobiography, “From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes,” when French police officers and Gestapo agents arrived to herd the Jews in Mr. Clary’s building off to the camps.

The young, able-bodied men who were deemed capable of work were separated from the women and children; Mr. Clary, who was 16 but looked 12, managed to stay behind with the men. He would recall his mother’s last words that day, before she was sent to Auschwitz to die: “Do what they tell you to do,” she told him. “Tantrums won’t work anymore. I won’t be there to protect you.”

After he had been shipped to a nearby concentration camp, Blechhammer, he began to perform in weekly Sunday revues with other prisoners. “Because I entertained, sometimes I would receive an extra piece of bread and another bowl of soup,” he wrote. As if poised for stardom, he adopted the stage name Robert Clary, taking his surname from the 1942 French film “Le Destin Fabuleux de Désirée Clary.”

By January 1945, the Russian Army was pouring in from the east, so the SS evacuated Blechhammer and herded 4,000 prisoners on a two-week death march through the snow toward another camp, Gross-Rosen, and ultimately the infamous Buchenwald camp near Weimar, Germany. “If you sat down to rest or were too weak to go on, you were shot by one of the guards,” Mr. Clary wrote. “Twice during those two weeks, they gave us a piece of bread.” Fewer than 2,000 prisoners made it to their destination.

Finally, on April 11, 1945, Mr. Clary and the other prisoners awoke to the sight of empty guard towers. The SS guards and officers had fled, just before Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army would roll in to liberate the camp.

After the war, Mr. Clary returned to Paris, where he carved out a career as a nightclub performer and singer. Records he made in those years attracted a following in the United States, particularly his rendition of “Put Your Shoes On, Lucy.”

In 1949, he followed his show business dreams to the United States, where he continued performing in nightclubs. In the 1950s, he appeared in Broadway musicals and occasionally in movies, including the Technicolor adventure film “Thief of Damascus” (1952).

Fame, however, proved elusive. Mr. Clary’s career was at a nadir in the mid-1960s when he heard that Edward H. Feldman, the producer of “Hogan’s Heroes,” was looking for an actor to play a Frenchman on his new show.

“Hogan’s Heroes” had a talented cast and clever writing, but the initial reviews were mixed. Those who hated it really hated it. “There’s something a little sick about ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ an insensitive and misguided extension of Hollywood television’s all-too-prevalent belief than anything and everything can be converted into cheap slapstick,” the television critic Jack Gould wrote in The New York Times.

Mr. Clary always shrugged off such criticism. “‘Hogan’s Heroes’ was about prisoners of war in a stalag,” he said in “The Last Laugh.” “It was not about genocide. It was not Jews going to the gas chambers.”

The year the show debuted, Mr. Clary married Natalie Cantor Metzger, the daughter of the singer and comedian Eddie Cantor. They remained together until her death in 1997. Mr. Clary’s survivors include a stepson, Michael Metzger, and Mr. Metzger’s three daughters, who Ms. Hancock said regarded Mr. Clary as a grandfather.

After “Hogan’s Heroes” went off the air, Mr. Clary took a year off from acting, but he soon drifted to soap operas, beginning a 15-year run on “Days of Our Lives” in 1972. In 1975, he had a role in the George C. Scott disaster film “The Hindenburg.”

Mr. Clary in 2017. Credit…Amanda Edwards, via Getty Images

For decades, Mr. Clary refused to speak about his wartime experiences. He eventually decided to tell his story, in part to combat Holocaust skeptics and deniers; he delivered talks about the Holocaust at high schools and colleges for the Jewish human rights organization the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“His point was always: Never hate,” Ms. Hancock said in a phone interview. “Despite his experiences in the concentration camps, he always looked for beauty, and to make life joyful for everyone else.”

It turned out that recalling his experiences became a form of therapy for Mr. Clary. “I used to have nightmares I’m going to be arrested again, and this time they’re not going to catch me,” he said in a 2016 video interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “But as soon as I talked, the nightmares disappeared.”

Back to top button