Robert Clary, the last main cast member of the '60s comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes,” died on Nov. 16 at the age of 96. First aired in 1965, the unusual sitcom has remained enormously popular through the years despite the sobering setting in a German POW camp.
“We had a great crew and I enjoyed the six years we were together,” Clary told me from his Los Angeles home in 2016 and who played the diminutive Corporal LeBeau. “I didn’t have any problem when my agent told me I was wanted for a comedy series about a Nazi stalag. Acting is a tough business, and if you’re lucky enough to get work and have the talent, you do your best to make a show successful.”
Clary knew about survival. In 1942, along with a dozen members of his immediate family, 16-year-old Robert was dragged from his apartment in occupied France and thrown into a series of Nazi concentration camps over three years. When the war ended, he was the only member of his captured family to walk out alive.
“I was young, so they put me to work in a factory making 4,000 wooden shoe heels a day,” he recalled. “The noise was unbelievable, so I sang while I worked and that’s how I survived.”
Clary had been in the entertainment business in his native France since the age of 12 and never considered another profession. While detained, he and other musical inmates performed for their fellow prisoners.
“At one camp we would perform every second Sunday while the SS came and watched,” he said.
The guards, however, were notoriously brutal. “The first time I saw a hanging, it was petrifying. They would hang people for nothing most of the time and the beatings were unbelievable.”
Then there were the death marches where thousands of exhausted and sick prisoners were forced to march for days in the cold to new camps.
“We left Blechhammer with 4,000 people and arrived at Buchenwald camp with less than 1,500,” Clary told me. “The rest died on the road along the way.”
Even after American troops arrived at Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, and liberated the prisoners, Clary’s Holocaust hell was far from over. “I couldn’t talk about what happened for 36 years and had nightmares fearing I was going to be taken away again.”
After watching a documentary on a woman’s experience at Auschwitz, Clary began to discuss his experience publicly in 1980.
“When I did, the nightmares disappeared,” he said. “I traveled across North America for over 20 years talking to groups so that no one could deny these atrocities ever happened.”
After his liberation, Clary returned to the arts — performing in plays, painting, and recording numerous jazz albums. In 1949, he came to the U.S. and developed a friendship with entertainer Eddie Cantor and his daughter Natalie, whom he married in 1965.
“She was the love of my life,” he said of his wife who died in 1997. “And (Eddie) was my mentor who helped me break into nightclubs here, which led to film and television.”
Clary was quick to point out that despite his own horrific war experience, his involvement in “Hogan’s Heroes” didn’t trigger traumatic memories.
“It was set in a POW camp,” he said. “While life in real camps was terrible, it was quite different to the concentration camps.”
But working on “Hogan’s Heroes” posed its own challenges.
“All the episodes were set in winter because I suppose they thought the [artificial] snow on the sets just looked better,” Clary suggested. “But we had to wear coats and jackets, so it could get awfully hot filming in California.”
And, he noted, his on-screen behavior to the “cold” varied from the rest of the cast.
“I’m always rubbing my hands and arms and moving around, acting as if I’m trying to keep warm,” he said. “The others didn’t do that, but having lived in Germany I knew how cold winters could get.”
Clary appeared in a half dozen feature films, one having another connection to wartime Germany. Although lean on historical accuracy, Robert Wise’s 1975 “The Hindenburg” depicted the final journey of the ill-fated German passenger airship and featured a stellar cast, including George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft.
“At one time, Scott had a reputation for drinking and being intimidating, but he was the complete opposite on this film,” said Clary. “Anne Bancroft had the same sense of humor as her husband, Mel Brooks. I asked her one day, ‘How’s Mel?’ and she answered ‘Short!’”
Despite the heartbreaking tragedy of his early life and post-wartime trauma, there were moments of joy in Clary’s off-screen life such as when he was reunited after the war with siblings who had escaped and survived.
“My brother was a tailor and suggested I go into the business,” he said. “I told him ‘You must be crazy! I’m going back to show business.’ So that’s what I did and have loved every moment of it. There is a lot more to Robert Clary than just Louis LeBeau!”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over many magazines and newspapers (see getnickt.com).
This article originally appeared on Mansfield News Journal: Robert Clary's journey from the Holocaust to Hollywood