Robert Clary, who has died aged 96, brought laughs to a worldwide audience in the American TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, as Louis LeBeau, the proud, patriotic Frenchman among allied prisoners of war. In the second world war comedy, set in Germany and running from 1965 to 1971, his character’s skills lay in gourmet cooking – and training the Germans’ guard dogs at Stalag 13 to be friendly to the prisoners.
LeBeau was a corporal among captured air crew under the command of the American colonel Robert Hogan (played by Bob Crane). Using the camp as a base for sabotage and espionage operations, they aided the allies by sending back intelligence under the noses of their incompetent captors.
The story was set permanently in winter, with artificial snow and the cast wearing coats in the California heat while filming on a studio backlot. “I’m always rubbing my hands and arms, and moving around, acting as if I’m trying to keep warm,” Clary said in a 2016 interview. “The others didn’t do that, but, having lived in Germany, I knew how cold winters could get.” Clary had survived Nazi concentration camps as a teenager during the second world war.
In contrast to the cheerful, wisecracking Hogan, LeBeau was the most mean-spirited in his attitude towards the German officers, led by Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer) and Sergeant Schultz (John Banner). His disdain was reinforced by his ability to extract information from Schultz by plying him with gourmet delights such as strudel.
The programme was derived from a 1950s Broadway play and film, Stalag 17, a serious drama with comic undertones. When Hogan’s Heroes was launched as a sitcom, both Jewish people and the American Nazi party claimed it was a mockery of history. But viewers warmed to what Variety magazine described as the producers’ “desire to soften the brutal memories of the conflict by making all of the Nazis endearingly stupid and the prisoners an ingenious bunch who live it up at their captors’ expense”.
Clary had no qualms, despite his personal memories of Nazi horrors. “Stalag 13 is not a concentration camp,” he said. “It’s a PoW camp, and that’s a world of difference. You never heard of a prisoner of war being gassed or hanged.”
The youngest of 14 children in an orthodox Jewish family, he had faced his own ordeal in 1942, aged 16, when many of his family were arrested by the police and Gestapo in occupied France. He was sent to concentration camps in Poland, at Ottmuth and Blechhammer, and in Germany, at Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald, where he performed as a singer for the SS soldiers. “Singing, entertaining, and being in kind of good health at my age – that’s why I survived,” he said. But he added: “The way they treated us, what we had to do to survive – we were less than animals.”
The other 12 close relatives arrested with him, including his parents, died at Auschwitz, while three of his brothers and sisters avoided capture. “I couldn’t talk about what happened for 36 years and had nightmares fearing I was going to be taken away again,” Clary said.
In the early 80s, after watching the 1979 British TV documentary Kitty: Return to Auschwitz, he opened up. Becoming involved with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish human rights association, he spoke at schools, universities and synagogues.
He was born Robert Widerman in Paris, to Polish immigrants, Berthe (Baila, nee Stulman) and Maurice (Moishe) Widerman, a tailor. Aged 12, Robert started singing on the radio and studied art at the Paris Drawing School. After the war, adopting the name Clary for fear of antisemitism, he sang with orchestras in dance halls. In 1948, he recorded songs such as Johnny Get Your Girl that as well as being hits in France were also popular in the US, and he moved to live there the following year.
Clary made film appearances as Burt Lancaster’s Arab orderly in Ten Tall Men (1951) and Aladdin in Thief of Damascus (1952), starring Paul Henreid. Then, for his Broadway debut, Clary took his singing talents to the revue Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952 (1952-53) in a cast that included Eartha Kitt. He returned to Broadway as Fleegle in the musical Seventh Heaven (1955) and for the revue La Plume de Ma Tante (1958-60).
Small TV parts followed and, after Hogan’s Heroes ended, Clary had regular roles in three American daytime soaps: the nightclub co-owner Robert LeClair in Days of Our Lives (on and off, 1972-87); the singer Pierre Rolland in The Young and the Restless (1973-74); and the saloon singer Pierre Jourdan in The Bold and the Beautiful (1990-92).
He played himself in the 1982 TV movie Remembrance of Love, starring Kirk Douglas in a drama about a gathering of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
His 2001 autobiography was titled From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes.
In 1965, Clary married Natalie Cantor, daughter of his mentor, the singer Eddie Cantor; she died in 1997. He is survived by his stepson, Michael.
Robert Clary (Robert Max Widerman), actor and singer, born 1 March 1926; died 16 November 2022

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