Thursday, November 24, 2022

Robert Clary: A REAL Hogan’s Hero

Last week Robert Clary died at the ripe old age of 96. As we celebrate a holiday dedicated to thankfulness and brimming with nostalgia for times gone by, it seems appropriate to salute this pixie-ish Parisian who was so much more than his acting career.

 I was first aware of Robert Clary because of his role on an improbable hit sitcom (1965-1971) called Hogan’s Heroes, which was one of my father’s favorites. The series, which seemed to tickle those who had served in the U.S. military during World War II, was set in a POW camp behind the German lines. Bob Crane, as the American Colonel Hogan, led a ragtag group of international prisoners (a Brit, a Frenchman, a Black American, a hillbilly) who took delight in sabotaging the German war effort. It was a bit like Billy Wilder’s great Stalag 17 (1953), but in a much more light-hearted vein, with no one coming anywhere close to dying. On a weekly basis, the “heroes” pit themselves against the fuss-budget  German camp commander, Col. Klink, and his doofus sidekick, Sgt. Schultz, and hilarity ensues.

 Personally, I always found the success of Hogan’s Heroes disturbing. Knowing something about the horrors inflicted by the Nazis upon Jews and others, I was not ready to laugh at them as essentially harmless dummkopfs. (Others, I know, have felt the same way about Mel Brooks’ treatment of Hitler enthusiasts in The Producers. Brooks makes a good case, though, in describing his comic skewering of Nazis as a form of victory over oppressors who’ve gone down in flames.) 

 Years after Hogan’s Heroes went off the air, I was surprised to learn that Clary—the series’ feisty, beret-wearing LeBeau—was in fact Jewish. Moreover, he had first-hand knowledge of Nazi atrocities during World War II. Clary, then known as Robert Max Widerman, was born in Paris to an emigré couple from Poland, the youngest of 14 children. When he was 16, the family was forced by the Nazis from their cramped but picturesque apartment and herded into cattle cars, bound for death camps. Though his parents were quickly murdered in Auschwitz and most of his siblings also perished, Clary used his musical comedy talents to gain favor and improved rations. On April 11, 1945 he was one of those liberated by General George S. Patton’s Third Army from Buchenwald. Eventually his theatrical skills brought him to the Broadway stage (via the New Faces of 1952 review) and then to television.

 Clary was not the only Jewish member of the Hogan’s Heroes cast. Ironically, the series’ two main Nazis were played by Jews who had fled Europe when the Nazis came to power. Werner Klemperer, who won two Emmys for playing Col. Klink, was the son of world-famous orchestral conductor Otto Klemperer. The family left Berlin for Los Angeles, one step ahead ot the Nazis, when Werner was 13. John Banner, who hilariously played the obtuse Sgt. Schultz, was a Viennese Jew who left Nazi-occupied Austria for the U.S. in 1938. I’ve never run across their comments about the comic bad-guy roles they played to perfection. Clary never spoke of his background either, until in 1980 he recognized that—in the face of Holocaust denial by many—he had a moral obligation to speak out. Working through L.A.’s Simon Wiesenthal Center, he became a frequent speaker at high schools and colleges. In 1985 there was the release of a documentary Robert Clary, 85714: the title reflected the number tattooed by the Nazis on his arm.

 Despite his past, Clary was never one to look back in anger. All hail! 





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