Werner Klemperer in 1969 as Col. Klink in the "Hogan's Heroes" television show.

 

Werner Klemperer, Col. Klink in TV's 'Hogan's Heroes,' Dies at 80

By Bernard Weintraub,, December 8, 2000

Werner Klemperer, an Emmy Award-winning actor in television, film and theater whose role as the bumbling Nazi Col. Wilhelm Klink on "Hogan's Heroes" dominated an eclectic career, died on Wednesday at his home in New York. He was 80.

The cause was cancer, said John A. Anderson, his manager.

A love of music dominated the life of Mr. Klemperer, the son of the conductor Otto Klemperer, who was the music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The younger Mr. Klemperer performed in many opera productions and, in the last two decades, served as narrator with virtually every symphony orchestra in the United States. His narration of Mozart's "Impresario" with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra was broadcast by PBS on "Live From Lincoln Center."

But what stamped his career, and made him famous, was his role in the lowbrow "Hogan's Heroes," the successful and unlikely sitcom set in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The show, which ran on CBS from 1965 to 1971, starred Mr. Klemperer as the monocled and inept Nazi commandant of the camp in which the American prisoners, led by Col. Robert Hogan (played by Bob Crane), actually controlled the camp.

Mr. Klemperer, whose Jewish family had escaped Germany in the 1930's for Los Angeles, found the role a double-edged sword. "He sometimes felt he was too identified with that character," his wife, Kim Hamilton Klemperer, said. "But it had such a major impact on his career. He loved it when people stopped him on the street. The fan mail he still gets is unbelievable." (The series has been rebroadcast on TV Land).

Mr. Klemperer was nominated for Emmys for each of the six years he appeared on the show, and won twice, in 1968 and 1969, in the category of best supporting actor.

What plainly dogged Mr. Klemperer was the criticism that a show based on the concept of bumbling Germans running a prisoner-of-war camp was simply not funny given the actual events of World War II.

When the idea of a movie version of "Hogan's Heroes" was discussed two years ago, and then dropped, a writer in The Boston Globe, Renee Graham, wrote: "Call this political correctness if you like, but under no circumstances should a film of `Hogan's Heroes' be made. For those who don't remember, this was the 1960's World War II comedy starring Bob Crane, Werner Klemperer and John Banner that presented the Nazis as the biggest cutups since the Keystone Kops. Let's be clear here: Nazis are never, ever funny. Ever. So it's with great joy that I report that the film version of `Hogan' is on ice, at least for now."

Such criticisms through the years bothered Mr. Klemperer. "The show was never intended to be viewed in a serious light," he said in 1999. "Whenever anyone tries to overanalyze `Hogan's Heroes' I merely tell them that it was a funny show, a wonderful show, and I'm very proud of it. And that's the end of that."

But Mr. Klemperer also had early misgivings about the series. He was offered the role as the Nazi commandant by CBS but his agent failed to tell him that it was humorous. When Mr. Klemperer learned that the show was a comedy, he said he was stunned.

"I had one qualification when I took the job: if they ever wrote a segment whereby Colonel Klink would come out the hero, I would leave the show."

Mr. Klemperer played other Germans in two of his more memorable films. He was a Nazi on trial for war atrocities in "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961) and Adolf Eichmann in "Operation Eichmann" (also 1961).

 

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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov