Rescued from Facebook: In which I prattle on about Hogan’s Heroes

Here I am, being an Old, but bear with me.

I grew up watching “classic TV” reruns. They ran ALL THE TIME in the afternoons, owing largely I suspect to the lack of content available at the time. Obviously MASH was the king, but a longtime ever-present option was Hogan’s Heroes.

Even late GenX folks may not remember, but this weird little sitcom — it ran from 1965 to 1971, and was waning in syndication by the time I went to college — about a German POW camp was kind of delightfully subversive, and the cast included some pretty wonderful actors. The most famous after the show was probably English actor Richard Dawson, who went on to game show fame with Match Game and Family Feud, but the bench was much deeper.

John Banner played the loveable, oafish, somewhat dim Sergeant Schulz (“I know nothing! NOTHING!”). Banner was born Johann Banner to Jewish parents in Austria-Hungary, in an area that is now part of Ukraine. He fled Europe in 1938, when Hitler annexed Austria, and eventually enlisted in the the Army Air Corps. Banner died young (by modern standards) at 63, back in 1971.

The camp was run by the imperious but only marginally competent Colonel Klink, played by German-born actor Wener Klemperer. He and his family emigrated to the US in 1933, where his father was the conductor of the LA Philharmonic. He acted in the thirties, but joined the Army when the war began. When Hogan’s Heroes came along, he accepted the role only if the Colonel was to be played as a fool incapable of succeeding; the writers obliged. He lived to be 80.

What moved me to write this today [which was, at the time, 17 November 2022] was the news that Robert Clary, the French actor who played the diminutive Corporal LeBeau and the last surviving principal cast member, passed away at the ripe old age of 96 yesterday.

What I had not appreciated was that Clary — born Robert Max Widerman — was a Holocaust survivor. Born in Paris in 1926, he was the youngest of 14 children. He was already singing professionally by the age of 12 — but then, of course, the war came to France.

In 1942, at 16, he and his family were abducted by the Nazis, and he was sent to the camp at Buchenwald. His parents and 10 of his siblings were sent instead to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. Clary survived, he believed, because he could entertain his SS captors. He was liberated in 1945, and was able to resume his entertainment career successfully enough that he made his way to Hollywood and TV immortality in Hogan’s Heroes.

Comments are closed.