December 12, 2018

Still a ‘Hero’

Robert Clary doesn’t really enjoy sitcoms.

Even though he played the French sidekick on one of television’s most unusual sitcoms, "Hogan’s Heroes," the POW situation comedy (1965-71) set during World War II.

"I prefer more dramatic shows," said Clary, 75, who enjoys watching "The Practice" and "The West Wing."

His just-released autobiography, "From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes" (Madison Books, $26.95), not only retraces his career from Capitol Records recording artist to sitcom star but also an ominous part of his life many did not realize he had survived: the Holocaust.

"When the show went on the air, people asked me if I had any qualms about doing a comedy series dealing with Nazis and concentration camps," Clary said. "I had to explain that it was about prisoners of war in a stalag, not a concentration camp … they were not guarded by the SS, but by the Wehrmacht."

"I was an actor who was asked to play the part of a French corporal prisoner of war and not a little Jew in concentration camp, and I never felt uncomfortable playing Louis Lebeau."

Of Polish Jewish descent, Clary (ne Robert Max Widerman) was born and raised in Paris. In his memoir, he recalls with vivid detail his life of living hand-to-mouth after being taken to Drancy and then to concentration camps — Blechhammer, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald — not knowing when death would come for him.

"I tried to write it the way I talk," said Clary of the book.

And he’s not paying lip service. "From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes" isn’t a sugar-coated, selective hagiography. Clary is brutally frank about every facet of his life, such as his own developing teenage sexuality while interred in a concentration camp.

"My sex was a piece of bread," Clary said.

As an actor in postwar Hollywood, Clary never dwelled on his Holocaust past. "I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me," Clary said. "I wanted them to love me for what I brought to my craft."

Clary enjoyed his long marriage to his soul mate and his late wife, Natalie, whom he was introduced to by his friend, Merv Griffin. She died in 1997, and last year, Clary also lost his most enduring friendship from "Hogan’s Heroes" when Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink) lost his struggle with throat cancer.

Today, Clary prefers the chirping birds and sunshine at his quiet Beverly Hills home over the smoky Parisian piano bars of his youth.

"I don’t like big cities anymore," Clary said. "New York, London, Paris. They’re all great cities, but I don’t enjoy living in the rat race."

If there’s one message that Clary wants readers to extract from his memoir, it’s to "stop wasting time hating. Do something with your life that’s positive, not negative."

Which is exactly what Clary has done in his post-"Hogan’s Heroes" years. With the help of Simon Wiesenthal Center, Clary fell into an unintended role as lecturer, taking his Holocaust experience and turning it into a relative positive by using it to enlighten public school students. Clary even ends his book with an appreciative letter from a Spanish teacher who heard Clary speak.

Despite recently losing his wife, Clary’s appetite for life continues undiminished. Aside from promoting his book this year and the occasional Holocaust lecture, Clary enjoys his off-camera existence.

"All I want to do is paint and do a CD every year," Clary said. "I always said I will not be in the business unless somebody calls me with a great part."

"All my life I’ve been close to death," he continued. "Either you join them or you’re going to live. I just live."

Robert Clary will sign copies of his book on Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 10850 W. Pico Blvd.,Los Angeles, (310) 475-4144; and on March 20 at 8 p.m. at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110.