R.I.P. Rene Auberjonois

I felt myself disconcerted by the superficiality of most of the memorializing about the late character actor Rene Auberjonois (1940-2019). As will happen, he was spoken of almost exclusively as “Star Trek actor” or “from Benson“. I enjoyed him on both Benson and Deep Space Nine, but his body of work was deep and broad and deserving of much wider acknowledgment. It’s the curse of the modern age, I guess — your fame is often not reflective of your best work, only that which has reached the most eyeballs. I’m sure Auberjonois liked the job security, but surely the decades prior to his television success were more artistically rewarding for him. 

When I think of Rene Auberjonois, it is primarily as an early member of Robert Altman’s stock company. He was the original Father Mulcahey in MASH (1970), and as such owned some of the film’s funniest and most memorable moments: his awkward uselessness in the operating room, his embarrassment at overhearing Frank Burns and Hot Lips having sex over the P.A. system (initially mistaking it for the radio show The Bickersons), his enlistment of Hawkeye to help the Painless Pole (John Schuck) out with his sexual dysfunction, and the immortal riposte, spoken to Hot Lips when she wonders aloud how a degenerate like Hawkeye ever got in the army: “He was drafted”. In Brewster McCloud (1970) he had a prominent role as “The Lecturer”, a narrative framing device in this expressionist fable. The film makes maximum use of Auberjonois’s gawky, bird-like qualities (long neck, beak-like nose) for comedy. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Auberjonois was at the center of the plot, against type as an Irish barman in a frontier town in the Pacific Northwest. Here, the actor stretched the outer limits of how unappealing he could be, both self-important and smelly. In Altman’s Bergmanesque experimental film Images (1972), Auberjonois co-starred with Susannah York. (For more on all these films go here.)

The actor was not among the cast of The Long Goodbye (1973) or any other subsequent Altman film with the exception of a cameo in The Player (1992). But he was to do lots of equally interesting film work over the next decade in such things as Martin Ritt’s Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972), a TV adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy (1973), and films like The Hindenburg (1975), The Big Bus (1976), King Kong (1976), The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Where the Buffalo Roam (1980). During the same years he did tons of TV guest starring shots in shows like The Mod Squad, McMillan and Wife, Night Gallery, Harry O, The Jeffersons, Ellery Queen, The Bob Newhart Show, The Rookies, Rhoda, The Bionic Woman, Starsky and Hutch, The Rockford Files, Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Mrs. Columbo, and Tenspeed and Brown Shoe.

It will not have escaped your attention that Rene Auberjonois is an unusual name for an American actor. Most actors with multi-syllabic foreign names change them for professional reasons, at least they did in his day. But Auberjonois had good reason for regarding his surname with pride. His father was an important Swiss journalist; his grandfather (his namesake), an important Swiss painter. His mother, who bore the title of Princess, was descended from Napoleon’s sister, and there was also Russian nobility in the family. Denying his heritage was just something he wasn’t going to do. At any rate, his elite Gallic air, and finished manners were not a put on. It’s how he was raised. It was in his blood.

Auberjonois grew up in London, Paris, New York, and an upstate New York artists’ colony, then studied at what is now Carnegie-Mellon. He was a founding member of numerous regional theatre companies in the early ’60s, including the Mark Taper Forum. Early movies included Lilith (1964) and Petulia (1968). Also in ’68, he starred as The Fool to Lee J. Cobb’s Lear in Broadway’s longest running production of King Lear. A dozen Broadway shows followed over the years, including his Tony-winning turn opposite Katharine Hepburn in Coco (1969) and another long run in the original production of Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor (1973-74).

His career took a different turn when he was cast as the persnickety Clayton Endicott on the hit sitcom Benson (1980-86), then the not dissimilar Odo on Star TrekDeep Space Nine (1993-99). Starting in the ’80s he did lots of cartoon voice-over work for television. His most high profile voice-over credit was the character of the Chef Louis in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). Some later notable films included The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), and The Patriot (2000). Then came his third major role on a hit series, as a senior law partner on Boston Legal (2004-08). He was working right up ’til the end, including the recent movies Windows on the World and Raising Buchanan, both 2019. At this writing there are at least two films due to be released posthumously.

So you see where it’s kind of drag to talk about this career, embracing over 200 separate screen credits, strictly in terms of two or three roles, however prominent. I gushed about him once on Twitter, and to my delight he responded — with characteristic grace and humility.