Robert Clary, last of the ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ stars, dies at 96

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Robert Clary, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp in France during World War II who played a prisoner of war in the unlikely 1960s sitcom “Hogan’s Hero,” has died. He is 96.

Clary died Wednesday of natural causes at her home in the Los Angeles area, niece Brenda Hancock said Thursday.

“He never let that horror beat him,” Hancock said of Clary’s wartime experiences as a youth. “He never let them take the joy out of his life. He tried to spread that joy to others through his singing and dancing and painting.

When he talks about his life to the students, he tells them, “Don’t always hate,” Hancock said. “She doesn’t let hate defeat beauty in this world.”

“Hogan’s Hero,” in which an Allied soldier in a POW camp defeats a clownish German army captor with an espionage scheme, played the war strictly for laughs during its 1965-71 run. The 5-foot-1 Clary sported a beret and a sardonic smile as Cpl. Louis LeBeau.

Clary was the last surviving original star of the sitcom that included Bob Crane, Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis and Ivan Dixon as prisoners. Werner Klemperer and John Banner, who played their captors, were both European Jews who fled Nazi persecution before the war.

Clary started her career as a nightclub singer and appeared on stage in musicals including “Irma La Douce” and “Cabaret”. After “Hogan’s Hero,” Clary’s TV work includes the soap operas “The Young and the Restless,” “Days of Our Lives” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

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He considered musical theater the highlight of his career. “I like to go to the theater at 8 p.m., put on stage makeup and entertain,” he said in a 2014 interview.

He remained publicly silent about his wartime experiences until 1980 when, Clary says, he was provoked to speak out by those who denied or downplayed Nazi Germany’s organized efforts to exterminate the Jews.

A documentary about Clary’s childhood and years of horror at the hands of the Nazis, “Robert Clary, A5714: A Memoir of Liberation,” was released in 1985. The concentration camp prisoners’ forearms were tattooed with identification numbers, with A5714 becoming Clary’s lifelong mark.

“They wrote books and articles in magazines denying the Holocaust, making 6 million Jews – including a million and a half children – die in gas chambers and ovens,” he told The Associated Press in a 1985 interview.

Twelve members of his immediate family, his parents and 10 siblings, perished under the Nazi regime, Clary wrote in a biography posted on his website.

In 1997, he was among dozens of Holocaust survivors whose portraits and stories were included in “The Triumphant Spirit,” a book by photographer Nick Del Calzo.

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“I ask the next generation not to do what people have done for centuries – hate others because of their skin, the shape of their eyes, or religious preference,” Clary said in an interview at the time.

Retired from acting, Clary keeps busy with her family, friends and her paintings. His memoir, “From Holocaust to Hero Hogan: The Autobiography of Robert Clary,” was published in 2001.

“One Of The Lucky Ones,” a biography of one of Clary’s sisters, Nicole Holland, was written by Hancock, her daughter. Holland, who worked with the French Resistance against Germany, survived the war, as did other brothers. Hancock’s second book, “Talent Luck Courage,” chronicles Clary and Holland’s lives and their impact.

Clary was born Robert Widerman in Paris in March 1926, the youngest of 14 children in a Jewish family. He was 16 when he and most of his family were taken by the Nazis.

In the documentary, Clary recalls her happy childhood until she and her family were forced from their apartment in Paris and put into an overcrowded cattle car that was taken to a concentration camp.

“No one knows where we’re going,” Clary said. “We are not human anymore.”

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After 31 months in captivity in several concentration camps, he was freed from the Buchenwald death camp by American forces. His youth and ability to work kept him alive, Clary said.

Returning to Paris and reunited with her two sisters, Clary worked as a singer and recorded songs that became popular in America.

After coming to the United States in 1949, he moved from club dates and recording to Broadway musicals, including “New Faces of 1952,” and then to movies. He appeared in films including 1952’s “Thief of Damascus,” “A New Kind of Love” in 1963 and “The Hindenburg” in 1975.

In the new year, Clary recorded jazz versions of songs by Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim and other greats, said his nephew Brian Gari, a songwriter who worked on a CD with Clary.

Clary was proud of the results, Gari said, and delighted by the complimentary letter she received from Sondheim. “He hung it on the kitchen wall,” Gari said.

Clary doesn’t feel worried about the comedy in “Hogan’s Hero” despite the tragedy of her family’s terrible war experience.

“It’s very different. I know they (POWs) have terrible lives, but compared to concentration camps and gas chambers it’s like a vacation.

Clary married Natalie Cantor, daughter of singer-actor Eddie Cantor, in 1965. She died in 1997.

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