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Robert Clary, ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ actor, dies at 96

He was a survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II and late in life spoke about his experiences, including the killing of 12 of his family members

Robert Clary as Cpl. Louis LeBeau filming a "Hogan's Heroes" episode on July 14, 1965. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Robert Clary, a French-born survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II who played a feisty prisoner of war in the improbable 1960s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” died Nov. 16 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 96.

His niece Brenda Hancock confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

Mr. Clary began his career in Paris as a nightclub singer and appeared onstage in musicals and had small film roles before appearing in “Hogan’s Heroes.” The CBS comedy, in which Allied soldiers in a POW camp bested their clownish German army captors with espionage schemes, played the war strictly for laughs during its 1965-71 run. The 5-foot-1 Mr. Clary sported a beret and a sardonic smile as Cpl. Louis LeBeau.

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

Mr. Clary remained publicly silent about his own wartime experience until 1980 when, Mr. Clary said, he was provoked to speak out by those who denied or diminished the orchestrated effort by Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews. Twelve of his immediate family members — his parents and 10 siblings — were killed under the Nazis, Mr. Clary wrote in a biography posted on his website.

A documentary about Mr. 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 to be Mr. Clary’s lifelong mark.

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

Mr. Clary was born Robert Max Widerman in Paris on March 1, 1926, and was the youngest of 14 children. He was 16 when he and most of his family were taken by the Nazis.

In the documentary, he recalled a happy childhood until he and his family were forced from their Paris apartment and put into a crowded cattle car that carried them to concentration camps.

Following 31 months in captivity in several concentration camps, he was liberated from the Buchenwald death camp by U.S. troops. Returning to Paris, where he was reunited with two older sisters who had avoided the death camps, he 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 “Thief of Damascus” (1952), “A New Kind of Love” (1963) and “The Hindenburg” (1975). He also acted in soap operas such as “The Young and the Restless,” “Days of Our Lives” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

Mr. Clary married Natalie Cantor, the daughter of singer-actor Eddie Cantor, in 1965. She died in 1997. He had no children.

He said he didn’t feel uneasy about the comedy on “Hogan’s Heroes” despite the tragedy of his family’s devastating war experience.

“It was completely different,” he once explained. “I know they [POWs] had a terrible life, but compared to concentration camps and gas chambers it was like a holiday.”