Werner Klemperer was in an L.A. restaurant a few years ago when his nervous waiter nearly dropped a saucer. Klemperer’s blue eyes narrowed. “For that you will face the wall for 100 minutes,” he announced with the haughty disdain of Col. Wilhelm Klink, the buffoonish German POW camp commandant Klemperer played on Hogan’s Heroes from 1965 to 1971. A moment later Klink’s forbidding glower vanished, replaced by Klemperer’s own mischievous grin.
“He loved being recognized as Colonel Klink,” says Kim Hamilton Klemperer, 55, of her husband, who died on Dec. 6 at 80 after a three-year battle with tongue cancer. And, she adds, “he never had any regrets” about the role, which earned him two Emmys, despite some critics’ complaints that a sitcom about Nazis was tasteless at best. But as Klemperer, a German Jew, told PEOPLE in 1996, “I don’t see Hogan’s Heroes as a comedy. I see it as a satirical parody. We were parodying human weaknesses and strength.”
Robert Clary, 74, himself an Auschwitz survivor, who played POW Louis LeBeau and remained good friends with Klemperer, agrees: “We never dealt with the Jewish situation. We just made fun of Nazis.”
That fun ended in 1971. Though Klemperer was inundated with offers to play pompous prigs, “I vowed to myself that I would not take those jobs,” he told PEOPLE. “I was happy that I could afford to do it.” Still, his residuals from Hogan (which airs in reruns on cable’s TV Land) ran out after six years, and eventually so did the job offers. In the 1980s, Klemperer launched a second career as a narrator of live operas and concerts with major orchestras around the country.
Music was already in Klemperer’s blood. His parents, conductor Otto Klemperer and opera singer Johanna Geisler, introduced Werner and his sister Lotte, now 77, to visitors such as Igor Stravinsky at the Klemperers’ home in Berlin. Though the children were raised as Roman Catholics (Otto had converted in his 20s), the family’s fear of Nazi anti-Semitism led them to flee Germany in 1933.
They eventually resettled in California, where Klemperer, a self-described “lazy kid,” got hooked on acting while attending prep school. In 1942 he earned a diploma from the Pasadena Playhouse—and then got his draft notice, spending most of his stint in the South Pacific performing in an Army theatrical troupe.
Back in Hollywood after the war, Klemperer stood out as a movie villain. In 1961 he played both Adolf Eichmann in Operation: Eichmann and an unrepentant Nazi judge in Judgment at Nuremberg. When the role of Colonel Klink came along in 1965, “I was stunned when they said it was a comedy,” he said. “I made it very clear that if Klink was ever the hero, I would leave the show.”
He soldiered on happily, but his domestic life became another kind of war zone as he and Susan Dempsay, the third of his four wives, coped with son Mark’s schizophrenia. (Now 41, Mark lives in New York City.) What Klemperer called a “problematic” relationship with their daughter Erika, 37, a San Francisco dermatologist, was “completely changed,” she says, after both attended a parent-child workshop at Esalen, a West Coast holistic retreat, in 1996. “It was a wonderful thing for us.”
In 1975, seven years after divorcing Dempsay, Klemperer met actress Kim Hamilton at an Actor’s Studio production in Manhattan. “We started dating a year or so later,” she says. But they didn’t wed until 1997.
That same year doctors found a tumor at the base of Klemperer’s tongue. After going into remission, the cancer returned in 1999. Chemotherapy proved ineffective, and in his final months Klemperer (a former smoker who had quit years earlier) was bedridden in the couple’s Manhattan apartment, forced to eat through a feeding tube. “He didn’t take pleasure in anything anymore,” says Erika. “It was the saddest thing.”
At the end his wife was at his bedside. “He went peacefully,” she says. “For the elegant man he always was, this was just no way to live. When he died, it was a blessing.”
Michael A. Lipton
John Hannah and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles and Bob Meadows in New York City