Hardy Kruger, German-born Hollywood star, is dead at 93

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Hardy Kruger, German-born Hollywood star, is dead at 93
Escaping execution by the Nazis for “cowardice” as a soldier, he found success in films because he found ways to portray “the new, good German.”

by Stephen Kinzer

NEW YORK, NY.- Hardy Kruger, the first German actor to become a Hollywood star after World War II, died Wednesday in Palm Springs, California. He was 93.

His agent, Peter Kaefferlein, confirmed the death.

For much of the 1960s and ’70s, Kruger — tall, blond and ruddy-cheeked — was the most visible German-born actor on American screens. He appeared in dozens of movies, among them “Flight of the Phoenix” (1965), with James Stewart; “Barry Lyndon” (1975), with Ryan O’Neal; “The Wild Geese” (1978), with Richard Burton and Roger Moore; and “A Bridge Too Far” (1977), with an all-star cast that included Sean Connery, Robert Redford and Laurence Olivier. But his screen presence had significance beyond the box office.

Kruger, who was nearly shot for cowardice as a teenage soldier in Nazi Germany’s army, had left his war-ravaged homeland to pursue an acting career in Britain, where he initially met hostility in a country whose own war wounds were still raw. But he went on to play an important role in soothing the anti-German feelings that had spread during the war.

“Hardy Kruger was more than an actor,” said the citation accompanying his Legion of Honor, which the French government awarded him in 2001. “He was an ambassador for Germany.” German film critic Herbert Spaich said Kruger had succeeded in American films because he found ways to portray “the new, good German.”

“Against the background of the disastrous Third Reich, he helped Germany create a new image for itself in the world,” Spaich said. “It was because he also had something international about him. He wasn’t restricted to only playing a German. He also had some of the sporty young-guy style that was so in demand in the U.S.”

After leaving Hollywood (his last American role was as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the 1988-89 miniseries “War and Remembrance”), Kruger became an adventurer and conservationist, wrote novels, bought a farm in Africa, hosted a popular television series and campaigned against neo-Nazi movements.

Eberhard August Franz Ewald Krüger (his surname originally had that umlaut) was born April 12, 1928, in Berlin, to which he felt deeply connected throughout his life. His parents, Max and Auguste (Meier) Krüger, enthusiastically supported the Hitler regime and sent him to a Nazi boarding school. There he developed a lifelong interest in flying, which led to his selection as an actor in a 1944 propaganda film, “Young Eagles.” During the shooting, Kruger met two young Jewish actors, whose stories about Nazi crimes moved him.

Along with his schoolmates, he was forcibly inducted into the army in 1945, then failed his first combat test, a firefight with American soldiers in which half his unit was wiped out.

“When brown dots far away shot at me, I shot back,” he said later. “When the dots came closer, I couldn’t shoot anymore because I saw the faces of human beings.”

After a summary court-martial, Kruger was convicted of “cowardice in the face of the enemy” and sentenced to be shot. Just before the sentence was to be carried out, an officer took pity on his youth — “I was 16 but looked like 12” — and pardoned him. Soon afterward, he abandoned his unit and lived in a forest. He ended the war in an American prisoner-of-war camp.

“My generation was robbed of its youth,” he later said.

Amid the devastation of postwar Germany, Kruger found work in theaters, acting in productions of “Bus Stop” and “The Glass Menagerie.” After a few years, he decided to seek a film career abroad. He moved to London, dropped the umlaut in his last name and practiced his English.

No German actor had sought a career in Britain since the end of the war, and Kruger at first found himself unwelcome. He recalled a British actress telling him, “You have to understand, there is hardly anyone here at Pinewood Studios who hasn’t lost a lover, a husband, a son, a brother at the front, in an air raid or at sea.”

In 1957, Kruger landed a lead role as a pilot in the film “The One That Got Away.” The news of his selection set off an uproar, but the director, Roy Ward Baker, stood by him.

“I will always be grateful to him, first for giving me a role in the film in the first place and second for the way he dealt with a problem during filming,” Kruger recalled years later. “I was having a war of words with the British press, and the producers wanted to abandon the film. But Roy Baker threatened to terminate his seven-year contract if they did.”

The film’s success made Kruger famous and allowed him to begin fulfilling his American dream. He refused to play Nazi war criminals, he said, and “cliche figures like what you see in Otto Preminger’s ‘Stalag 17.’” Yet, war is the background in many of his films. Several times, he played a German troubled by conscience — for example, a monk living in occupied France in the 1968 French film “Franciscan of Bourges.”

“I only played six or seven Germans in uniform, and none was a Hollywood cliche,” he said. “Why should I not try to show the world that there were also Germans who were good people?”

Kruger was married three times. Survivors include his wife of 46 years, American writer and photographer Anita Park, and three children from his previous marriages: Christiane, Malaika and Hardy Jr. Both Christiane and Hardy Jr. have acted in films.

Kruger won three lifetime achievement awards in Germany: at the 1983 German Film Awards, the 2008 Bambi Awards and the 2011 Jupiter Awards. “Sundays and Cybèle,” a 1962 French drama in which he starred as an emotionally wounded war veteran, won the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

In 2013, shortly before his 85th birthday, Kruger joined with several friends and colleagues to launch a project that uses sports and recreation to lure young Germans away from right-wing extremism.

“I decided I had to do something,” he said. “We can’t forget that the seed is there.”

In the 1980s and ’90s, he hosted a series of television documentaries in which he introduced Germans to faraway places such as Chile, Macao, Tanzania, the Marquesas Islands and Utah. He described the episodes as “short stories written with a camera.”

He enjoyed telling stories from his Hollywood years.

During the filming of the 1962 adventure film “Hatari,” Kruger famously defeated his co-star, John Wayne, in a drinking bout. Years later, he admitted that he had prepared himself beforehand.

“I knew he could hold a lot, so I stopped in the kitchen and drank several spoonfuls of cooking oil,” he recalled. “That helped. At the end I had to carry him to his room.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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