LOS ANGELES — Robert Clary, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps who later played Cpl. Louis LeBeau, the feisty French prisoner of war in the 1960s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” died Wednesday. He was 96.
Clary died of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, his granddaughter, Kim Wright, told The Hollywood Reporter.
“Robert’s passing is incredibly sad,” Clary’s former manager, David Martin, said in a statement to Entertainment Weekly. “He retired from acting a number of years ago and so there was no reason to continue our 20-plus years-long managerial relationship. Robert was an amazing gentleman and incredibly talented, not just as an actor but also a performer and a gifted painter.”
“Hogan’s Heroes,” in which Allied soldiers in a POW camp outwitted their German army captors with espionage schemes during World War II, aired on television from 1965 to 1971.
Clary played LeBeau, a witty cook who would distract Sgt. Schultz (John Banner) to “see nothing” with tempting pastries and dinner delicacies while his colleagues sabotaged German facilities near Stalag 13. Clary would hide in small spaces, had a good relationship with the camp’s guard dogs, and used his culinary abilities to keep Col. Wilhelm Klink (Werner Klemperer) from losing his command.
Clary was the last surviving original star of the sitcom that included Bob Crane, Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis and Ivan Dixon as the prisoners. Klemperer and Banner were European Jews who fled Nazi persecution before the war, according to The Associated Press.
Clary was born Robert Max Widerman in Paris on March 1, 1926, the youngest of 14 children in a strict Orthodox Jewish family, according to The Hollywood Reporter. When he was 16, he and his family were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Nazis.
“My mother said the most remarkable thing,” Clary told The Hollywood Reporter in late 2015. “She said, ‘Behave.’ She probably knew me as a brat. She said, ‘Behave. Do what they tell you to do.’”
Clary’s parents were murdered in the gas chamber that day, according to the entertainment news outlet.
At Buchenwald, Clary sang with an accordionist every other Sunday to an audience of SS soldiers. He was incarcerated for 31 months and was the only member of his family to survive, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
“He never let those horrors defeat him,” his niece, Brenda Hancock, told the AP. “He never let them take the joy out of his life. He tried to spread that joy to others through his singing and his dancing and his painting.”
Clary remained publicly silent about his wartime experience until 1980, according to the news organization. That was when Clary said he was provoked to speak out by those who denied or diminished Nazi Germany’s effort to exterminate Jews.
A documentary about Clary’s childhood and years of horror at Nazi hands, “Robert Clary, A5714: A Memoir of Liberation,” was released in 1985. The forearms of concentration camp prisoners were tattooed with identification numbers, with A5714 as Clary’s lifelong mark.
“For 36 years I kept these experiences during the war locked up inside myself,” Clary once said. “But those who are attempting to deny the Holocaust, my suffering and the suffering of millions of others have forced me to speak out.”
It seemed incongruous that a Holocaust survivor would star in a comedy about Nazi prisoner-of-war camps, but Clary said there was a difference.
“I had to explain that (”Hogan’s Heroes”) was about prisoners of war in a stalag, not a concentration camp, and although I did not want to diminish what soldiers went through during their internments, it was like night and day from what people endured in concentration camps,” Clary wrote in his 2001 memoir, “From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes: The Autobiography of Robert Clary.”
Clary began his career as a nightclub singer and appeared on stage in musicals including “Irma La Douce” and “Cabaret,” the AP reported. After “Hogan’s Heroes,” Clary worked on soap operas including “The Young and the Restless,” “Days of Our Lives” and “The Bold and the Beautiful,” according to IMDb.com.
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