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

Actor, artist and singer Robert Clary (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Actor, artist and singer Robert Clary (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Robert Clary, a French-born survivor of Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War who played a feisty prisoner of war in the improbable 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, has died aged 96.

Clary died during the night on Wednesday of natural causes at his home in Beverly Hills, California, niece Brenda Hancock said.

“He never let those horrors defeat him,” Ms 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 his dancing and his painting.”

When he recounted his life to students, he told them “Don’t ever hate,” Ms Hancock said.

“He didn’t let hate overcome the beauty in this world.”

Hogan’s Heroes, 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 5ft 1in 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 the prisoners.

Werner Klemperer and John Banner, who played their captors, were both European Jews who fled Nazi persecution before the war.

Clary began his career as a nightclub singer and appeared on stage in musicals including Irma La Douce and Cabaret.

After Hogan’s Heroes, Clary’s TV work included the soap operas The Young And The Restless, Days Of Our Lives and The Bold And The Beautiful.

Actor, artist and singer Robert Clary
Actor, artist and singer Robert Clary (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

He considered musical theatre the highlight of his career. “I loved to go to the theatre at quarter of eight, put the stage make-up on and entertain,” he said in a 2014 interview.

He remained publicly silent about his wartime experience until 1980 when, Clary said, he was provoked to speak out by those who denied or diminished the orchestrated effort by Nazi Germany 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 to be Clary’s lifelong mark.

“They write books and articles in magazines denying the Holocaust, making a mockery of the six million Jews – including a million and a half children – who died in the gas chambers and ovens,” he told The Associated Press in a 1985 interview.

Twelve of his immediate family members, his parents and 10 siblings, were killed under the Nazis, 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.

“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,” Clary said in an interview at the time.

Retired from acting, Clary remained in good health and busy with his family, friends and his painting.

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

In the documentary, Clary 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.

“Nobody knew where we were going,” Clary said. “We were not human beings anymore.”

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

Returning to Paris, where he was reunited with two older sisters who had avoided the death camps, 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.

He did not feel uneasy about the comedy on Hogan’s Heroes despite the tragedy of his family’s devastating war experience.

“It was completely different. I know they (POWs) had a terrible life, but compared to concentration camps and gas chambers it was like a holiday.”

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