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Lives & Times of Valley Folks: René Auberjonois

I met with René Murat Auberjonois (English pronunciation: oh-BUR-zhen-WAH) a week or so ago at his beautiful home with quite stunning Valley views from the foothills on Deer Meadow Road, east of Boonville. He kindly served up some delicious cold roast chicken and tossed Italian salad, along with a bottle of Pinot Noir from Navarro Vineyards and our conversation began.

René is an American character actor perhaps known best for portraying Father Mulcahy in the movie version of ‘M*A*S*H’ and for creating a number of characters in various long-running television series, including Clayton Endicott III in ‘Benson’ (for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award), Odo on ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’, and in more recent times, attorney Paul Lewiston on ‘Boston Legal.’

René was born in New York City. His father, Swiss-born Fernand Auberjonois (1910-2004), was a Cold War-era foreign correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer. His grandfather, also named René Auberjonois, was a French Swiss post-Impressionist painter. His mother, Princess Laure Louise Napoléone Eugénie Caroline Murat (1913-1986), was French and a great-great granddaughter of Joachim Murat, King of Naples, and his wife Caroline Bonaparte, sister of the Emperor Napoléon. His maternal grandmother, Hélène Macdonald Stallo (1893—1932), was an American, from Cincinnati, Ohio; his maternal grandfather's mother was a Russian noblewoman, Eudoxia Michailovna Somova (1850—1924), and his maternal grandfather's paternal grandmother, Caroline Georgina Fraser, was also an American, from Charleston, South Carolina.

René’s mother came to the States from France in the thirties where, as a debutante “looking for a wealthy American husband,” she met the French-speaking Fernand and they were married and settled in New York. René has a brother, Michael, two years younger, and a sister, Anne, fourteen years younger, and also two half-sisters from his mother's first marriage. René’s father served as an intelligence officer in World War 2 and landed on the Normandy beaches in 1944, later publishing the first newspaper in liberated France. After the war, Fernand worked as the Time life correspondent in Paris and moved his family there for a few years before moving back to the U.S. in 1948 where they joined an artists' colony in Rockland County, New York.

“We were there from when I was eight to sixteen years old — the longest period of my childhood that we were ever settled, and for me the happiest. It was about thirty miles outside of New York City and there was no real town to speak of. I attended the local public school in a little red brick building and also went to junior high and high school there for a couple of years. The nearest town would be Nyack, near to the Tappan Zee Bridge that was being built over the Hudson at that time.”

“We lived on what was a country road whose residents were a ‘Who’s Who’ of American theater at the time, including actors Burgess Meredith, John Houseman, Helen Hayes, and Lotte Lenya, playwright Maxwell Anderson, and the composers Alan J. Lerner and Kurt Weill, amongst others. We lived in a pre-Revolutionary War Inn over-looking the Hudson River. We were neighbors of many people in the theater business and I would baby-sit their kids when I was in my early teens. Being in that environment confirmed my decision to act. I loved the outdoors and rode my bike everywhere and with my mother being the den mother of the local cub-scout group, looking back it was an idyllic, Norman Rockwell-like life for that eight years.”

“I had known I wanted to be an actor since I was six years old, while not knowing exactly what that was. My father had always encouraged any artistic pursuits and my grandfather and namesake, René was a famous Swiss painter whose works appear in most Swiss museums. My father, apart from being a writer/journalist, was a poet and very good illustrator. My parents encouraged my actor’s temperament and I’d entertain them with my imitations of the local church minister.”

“I also met one of the most influential people on my life during this period — the actor/director John Houseman, who was to become a major mentor to me. He gave me my first job in the theater at sixteen years of age as an apprentice at a Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut where I was credited as ‘spear carrier.’ We worked together again later, when I taught under him in the Drama Department at the Juilliard School in New York City.”

However, by the early to mid-50s many residents of this artistic community were blacklisted as a result of Senator McCarthy’s communist ‘witch-hunts.’ “My father was cleared of all charges but nevertheless, following his years of service to the country, which included being decorated, he became very disillusioned and could not avoid feeling betrayed by a country that he had served so well. He found work as the foreign correspondent for a group of newspapers in the mid-West, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and in 1956 the family moved to England where I was to complete high school while studying theatre there.”

“In the US at the age of 16, striving to be an actor and with what was seen as a girls’ name, I was somewhat alienated from many of my contemporaries. Although I loved reading I did not like schoolwork and was doing poorly academically. I had been performing in plays at various colleges along with Hendrick Hertzberg, now editor of the New Yorker magazine, Marlon Brando’s nephew, and Adam Saroyan, William Saroyan’s son, but apart from that I was in something of an adolescent fog before going to England.”

In England René attended a private school in Welwyn Garden City about twenty miles outside London where he attended a local school and was boarded with Maude and Harry Edwards, who were the refectory housekeeper and the gardener at the local White Horse pub respectively. “My parents lived in Earl’s Court in London where my father continued his foreign correspondent work and my mother looked after my sister. I’d visit them there and go out with a friend, Lindsay Clennell, to various dives where we’d listen to jazz and smoke cigarettes. He remains a dear friend and is now a yoga teacher in New York. However, most of the time I was in the countryside and going to school. I ironed my own trousers, shined my shoes, and rode my bike to school every day. I was two years behind the other kids in my education but fortunately the headmaster was a theater buff. I became a School Prefect and Head of House and I had a wonderful time. In the States I had been an uncomfortable outsider whereas in the UK, with my European and artistic background, I was seen as being somewhat exotic and my desire to act was applauded by my friends. Although I knew I wanted to return to the US, my time in England was very influential, a ‘life-saving’ experience in a sense, giving me exposure to theater and wonderful acting. When much younger I had leaned towards becoming a clown in the theater and had learned a lot about make-up, but seeing Alec Guinness and some other great actors perform in England made me realize I wanted to be a character actor.”

René returned to the states in 1958 although his father, apart from brief visits never did go back. “He continued to travel all over the world in all the hot spots, becoming the dean of American Foreign Correspondents based in London. He eventually moved to Ireland where he died in 2004 at the age of 94.”

René wanted to go to university with a strong drama department but his academic qualifications were poor. However, John Houseman gave him a strong recommendation and the head of the Drama Department at Carnegie-Mellon University, then the Carnegie Institute of Technology and one the top three schools offering such a course, had seen him in a play at the age of 14. As a result, René was accepted in the fall of 1958 and spent four wonderful years getting his bachelor of fine arts degree.

“In theatrical terms, by my senior year I was the ‘the big man on campus.’ I should blush for saying that but I had certainly made my mark. One evening at the beginning of my final year in the fall of 1961, I was at the Holiday Bar and Grill drinking ten cent beers and watching the new crop of freshmen dancing. One adorable creature was doing a marvelous ‘twist.’ Her name was Judith Mihalyi. We started dating and we were married a couple of years later in 1963. She was 19 and still at school and I was 22 — ‘a cradle robber as she has often reminded me. We have now been married for 47 years but just recently she pointed out that I’m pushing 80 and she’s just past 60. Not strictly true but she made her point.”

Following an act passed by President Kennedy, as a married man, René avoided the draft. “I would have gone to Canada, not to war. Judith’s father, a cabinet-maker from Hungary and a marvelous man, had said he would pay for her education but not for another man’s wife’s education, so we kept our marriage quiet. Then when Judith graduated in 1965 we made it official with family and friends.”

Upon graduation in 1962, René landed a job with the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. doing three seasons of ten shows each. “I played a huge range of roles and worked with some wonderful actors. It was the golden age of regional repertory theater and lots of money was being invested. It was a magical three years. In 1965 I left to join the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) with Judith joining the company too and we sort of wallowed in the wilderness for six months or so, performing anywhere we could. In the summer of 1966 we did a performance of Charlie’s Aunt’ at Stanford in Palo Alto and members of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce were in the audience. They invited us to be the resident theater group at the Geary and Marine’s Theaters in SF and we embarked on a very intense two years in which I was continually acting and/or directing. We did some amazing stuff and had a great time but I was burnt out after a couple of years.”

In the spring of 1968, René left the ACT and moved to Los Angeles where he worked with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy for a few months. A movie role had fallen through and there was no more theater there, so after six years in regional theater, it looked like he would turn to television or film. However, he suddenly landed a role on Broadway so he moved to New York City and was soon appearing in three plays at once: as Fool to Lee J. Cobb's ‘King Lear’ (the longest running production of the play in Broadway history), as Ned in ‘A Cry of Players’ (opposite Frank Langella), and as Marco in ‘Fire!’ The next year, he earned a Tony Award for his performance as Sebastian Baye alongside Katharine Hepburn in Coco. “I had actually played ‘Lear’ with the ACT in Pittsburgh a few years earlier when I was 25 — far too young to really capture the role. Over time, the role of Edgar in that play became my favorite and the version filmed for PBS television is the role of which I am most proud — I gave my best performance ever, with James Earl Jones as Lear. Working with Katherine Hepburn was a wonderful experience. She was so generous and supportive and always very self-confident. Thanks to her support, my role in ‘Coco’ became far more significant than originally planned and I was fortunate enough to win a Tony Award.”

“As for the critics, most of the harsh ones like Walter Kerr and John Simon eventually decided I was OK. I remember John Simon of New York Magazine saying of my role as a mad man in an asylum — ‘The People’s Actor, René Auberjonois, is too obviously mad,’ and he said of my performance as Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that it was ‘Shakes without peare.’ That is very funny. Later when I appeared with Mikhail Baryshnikov in ‘Metamorphosis’ he said my role was ‘courageous’ and he had come round to admiring my work at that point.”

His first movie work was a small, unaccredited role in 1964's Lilith with Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg but then prior to appearing in ‘Coco’ on Broadway, and during rehearsals for another show on Broadway, René met with a relatively unknown film director, Robert Altman. They talked and Altman told him there was a very small part as a priest in an anti-war film he was making. “He asked me how I would play this priest. Well I had a friend who was a priest and I thought of him — a shy, bubbling, and sweet-natured man. Altman thought that would work, very different from the red-haired robust character in the original screenplay. He said he hoped the play would be a flop so that I could appear in the film. The play was — lasting just five days — and so I flew to LA in June 1969 to work on the movie ‘M*A*S*H,’ playing the part of Father Mulcahy.”

“Bob Altman loved actors, many directors don’t. He also loved acting. The film was made for $5 million, shooting in Malibu Canyon with mostly unknown actors, even Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, and Sally Kellerman were not well-known at that time. The studio wasn’t really paying much attention to the film and it turned out quite different from the original screenplay by Ring Lardner and very much removed from the book. Before it was released there was a screening for the critics in New York and when Pauline Kael, the most important critic in the country at the time, was asked what should be done with the movie, she said ‘Are you nuts? Release it!’ It became a huge hit. It was a very different time in filmmaking. You could walk into Altman’s office any time and have a chat with him or whichever actors were hanging around. Not these days. You never get to see the director, it’s all done by phone, text, or e-mail.”

“We met up two days prior to shooting and most actors probably thought that was how movies were made. There was lots of improvising on the set, but always off camera, before the take. On Robert Altman films actors can claim to have made up most of what they said, and I worked with him on four movies. Certainly everyone, from the actors on down to the prop guys, could put forward ideas for the film and these would be accepted or passed over in the rehearsal stage, but, by the time the cameras were rolling, the dialogue and scenes had been set and it was all Altman, who then showed such confidence in his own sense of things.”

As mentioned above, René appeared in four films directed by Robert Altman. “The second one was ‘Brewster McCloud’ with Bud Cort in which I played a bird expert who gradually turns into a bird. I did that in one day — thirty scenes. Then it was ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, both of whom I’d worked with earlier. It is Altman’s best film, when he managed to assemble the perfect confluence of actors, something he always strived for... Then in 1971, with Judith eight months pregnant with our daughter Tessa, he called me and asked if I could fly to Ireland and appear in his film, ‘Images’, opposite Susannah York. I said ‘no’, that I had to be with Judith for the birth, but Judith said ‘Don’t they know how to have babies in Ireland?’ So we flew over, I made the movie and was on set every day apart from the day when Tessa was born, following five days of hospital care during which Judith drank a Guinness stout every day and learned to make Irish soda bread.”.. René has been quoted as saying, ‘I've been thinking about this. My wife, Judith, is the best person in the world.’

René did not make any more movies with Altman, who would make one a year with little money in them, but he continued to perform in plays on Broadway with appearances that included Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1972) and he received another Tony nomination for Neil Simon's The Good Doctor in1973, opposite Christopher Plummer. Nevertheless, René decided he needed more regular work so he turned to television. His first role was on ‘Mod Squad’ and in those early days he also appeared on ‘Starsky and Hutch’ but turned down both the Father Mulcahy role on the television version of ‘M*A*S*H’ and the Bosley role on ‘Charlie’s Angels’. “We bought a house in Beverley Hills and our son Remy was born in 1974. I continued to make movies such as ‘The Hindenburg’ with George .C Scott and Burgess Meredith; Pete ‘n’ Tillie with Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett; and the ‘King Kong’ remake with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange.”

During the seventies he was a guest star on many different television series, including The Rockford Files, Charlie's Angels, Starsky & Hutch, The Jefferson’s, The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, Matlock and still doing theater whenever he could. The films continued with ‘The Big Bus’ (1976), ‘Eyes of Laura Mars’ (1978) with Faye Dunaway, and ‘Where The Buffalo Roam’ (1980) but it was getting to be too much. “We were certainly moving around very often in those years, too much for the kids to settle down in fact. So, in 1980, when I was offered a part in the second season of a show called ‘Benson’, which would mean a guaranteed run of twenty-two shows and therefore lots of stability, we certainly considered it but were still leaning towards taking on a new play instead. However, a therapist friend of ours was there for the conversation Judith and I were having and she interjected with some thoughts of her own about our situation with the result that we changed our minds and I entered the world of the television sitcom.”

“It was the most wonderful job and for six years I worked a sitcom schedule. This meant that I could make the kids breakfast and lunch, drive them to and from school and then rehearse and shoot the show. It was a wonderful company of actors, all out of the theater — Robert Guillaume, James Noble, Inga Swenson. We could not believe it. ‘They’re paying us to do this?’ It was a dream job and of course between seasons there was a long hiatus each year so I continued to do repertory theater, appearing in plays such as Richard III, The Misanthrope, and on Broadway I did the Big River musical about Huckleberry Finn.” (For which he won a Drama Desk Award in 1984). Meanwhile his role as Clayton Endicott III, the Governor’s prickly Chief of Staff, kept him busy from 1980 to when Benson came off the air in 1986 and it was one for which he received an Emmy nomination in 1984.

After six successful years, the television sitcom ‘Ben­son’ was taken off the air in 1986 and for the next several years René continued to work in all three medi­ums — television, film and theater, in which he received another Tony nomination for his role as Buddy Fidler/Irwin S. Irving in City of Angels (1989). On tele­vision he appeared in two episodes of Murder, She Wrote; an episode of LA Law along with his son, Remy; Matlock; The Burning Zone; Tracey Takes On; and CBS's Chicago Hope. As for films during this period, he appeared in Walker (1987), filmed in Nicaragua, Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach (1988), My Best Friend Is a Vampire (1988), and The Ballad of Little Jo (1993).

I had flops of course but very few fallow periods in terms of work. I’ve been very fortunate, not many have had my luck. I have been in the right place at the right time — in theater during it’s golden age; working with Altman during the new age for cinema in the early sev­enties; and then the three successful and long-running television series in which I have appeared. I guess I have some sort of instinct for knowing how to portray a char­acter both for the ‘black void’ of the theater and the ‘black void’ of the camera lens. I do feel that a really good theater actor would have no problem performing in front of a camera; I cannot say that the opposite is true, although there have been many exceptions of course. It is a much bigger canvas to project to when on the stage. Katherine Hepburn was the best at this. I hide behind my characters; I am basically quite a shy person really. I am very comfortable in a mask — I started out as a clown after all. I am full of admiration for those who can pro­ject their own personalities — the great ones like Kate Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Betty Davies. People ask me what was Katherine Hepburn like — well, they already know.”

By 1993, René’s daughter was at Sarah Lawrence College and son Remy was about to graduate and wanted to go to Wesleyan University — both very expensive schools. “It was a choice of selling the house or I get another television series. Well along came the part of Odo on ‘Star Trek — Deep Space Nine.’ I loved the con­cept of the character — a ‘Changeling,’ a species that is able to change its shape. Odo is very rigid, emotionally masked, and yet vulnerable. That ran from 1993 until 2000 and I directed a number of the episodes. It has become the gift that keeps giving as I have continued to attend Star Trek conventions all over the world.”

On such trips he is able to supplement his volunteer work for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Fron­tières, the humanitarian group that provides emergency medical care in underdeveloped nations. ”It is not entirely altruistic as I get well paid, meet the fans and sign my autograph etc. Just in the next few months I shall be in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Vancouver, and then over to Europe. The fan base is worldwide and it has put our kids through university.”

With his grandfather and father both artists, René fol­lowed in their footsteps in the sense that he has always enjoyed doodling and drawing, and his artistic talents have also spread to photography. When on location in Nicaragua, filming ‘Walker’ in 1987, he started a pho­tography project entitled ‘Atmospheres’ — a series of photographs of extras, who are known as ‘atmospheres’ on the sets of movies. He always has his camera on set and whenever possible takes pictures of these ‘back­ground artists’, often just sitting around, and he’s devel­oped quite a portfolio at this point.

During his days in San Francisco with the American Conservatory Theater from 1966-68, René would make trips up the coast to what was then a barely developed Sea Ranch area, a couple of hours north of the City. Occasionally he would go a little further north and this was his first journey into Mendocino County. “Thirty years later, in March 1997, a friend of mine was trying to raise money for the Community Theater in Ferndale, northern California, and I asked several of my ‘celebrity’ friends to donate various pieces of memorabilia. We drove up the coast with this stuff and when we were in the town of Mendocino there was a rare double-header — a visit by the Comet Hale-Bopp and a lunar eclipse on the same night. Quite amazing, a very auspicious night we thought. So the next day we decided to take Highway 128 inland through Anderson Valley, a route we had never taken before. It was absolutely beautiful; we couldn’t believe our eyes. As arranged, we continued on to Sonoma to stay with friends but the next day, instead of going back to San Francisco, we came back to the Valley and met with Tim Mathias of Rancheria Realty and he showed us around this wonderful place. It had not been in our minds at all to buy here but Judith pointed out that Star Trek would end one day, the kids were gone from the home, and we should have something solid to show for all the years of work. We came back three times, staying at the Boonville Hotel each time, and finally decided to buy this 42 acre parcel with no water, no power, and no road… First we built the barn, where we stayed on our early visits, and then sought help from an architect for the house, but Judith basically designed it herself and we were blessed to have Dennis Toohey performing all the construction work. These days we are envious of those who live here full-time, but I still have some commitments to work in Los Angeles, although I no longer have a steady gig so we are probably here about one third of the time, visiting for three or four weeks at a time.”

A couple of years after Star Trek came off the air, in the fall of 2004, René was offered a recurring guest role on a new TV project created by producer David Kelley, ‘Boston Legal.’ As the weeks went by, René's character, Paul Lewiston, appeared in more and more episodes until, in early 2005, he was promoted to being a regular on the show.

For portraying attorney Paul Lewiston on Boston Legal, René received three Screen Actors Award nomi­nations and one win — the Prism Award for Best Per­formance in a Drama Series. In June 2007, however, it was announced that he would no longer be a regular beginning with the show's fourth season. Nevertheless, he returned to the series as a special guest star on four occasions, including the last two episodes of the final series, which were aired together as a two-hour series finale on 8 December 2008.

In addition to being a regular on three TV shows in three different genres (Benson [situation comedy]; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine [science fiction]; and Boston Legal [legal drama]), and the shows already mentioned above, René has made guest appearances in Frasier, Judging Amy, The Bob Newhart Show, Star Trek: Enterprise, Stargate SG-1, Warehouse 13, L.A. Law, The Practice (for which he received another Emmy nomina­tion, playing a different character than the one he has played on The Practice spin-off Boston Legal), Sav­ing Grace and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Televi­sion movie credits include Disney's Geppetto, Gore Vidal's The Kid, the remake of the classic, A Connecti­cut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and the miniseries Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000). He received a third Emmy Award nomination for his per­formance in ABC's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He has also has directed some TV shows, including Marblehead Manor and several episodes of Deep Space Nine. As for cinema his most recent significant role was as Reverend Oliver opposite Mel Gibson in the 2000 American Revolution epic The Patriot. Then there has been his work in video games, radio and other voice work — too numerous to mention here. He has also been active in radio drama, has also recorded a number of novels on tape and on Public Radio International he has been featured numerous times on Selected Shorts, read­ing works of dramatic fiction. As for film voice-overs, perhaps most famously he was heard in Disney's The Little Mermaid (receiving alphabetical top billing as Chef Louis).

“I have been very blessed. I still like to work and I do work but it is pretty much my choice when and where. I started out in this business 48 years ago aged 22 with the Arena Theater earning $85 a week. I asked for a little more money and got it, but as everyone will say, it is never enough! I have been very lucky to have had earned a steady living as an actor, most do not. Fortunately Judith runs all of our finances, I can’t do that. Mean­while, both of our kids are actors and then they married actors. Our son Remy has a daughter and Tessa our daughter has two sons — all three grandkids are under five. They both attended Yale Drama School as post­graduates and have had consistent work ever since. Remy has been a regular on Weeds on the Showtime channel and more recently Boardwalk Empire on HBO as well as a recurring role on The Good Wife. In fact he is just starting work on an HBO Film about Hemingway that is being filmed in San Francisco. As for Tessa, she is a stage actress and she appeared in five plays in Los Angeles this past year. They have both done very well. The business is very hard these days. It seems that every university has a drama department, shoveling actors out and there is nowhere near enough work for them all.”

“We love it here in the Valley. It provides a retreat for Judith to work on her various projects. I am more social but we both enjoy going to Lauren’s for dinner. I guess we are ‘Hill Muffins,’ as the AVA’s Bruce Ander­son calls people like us, but we wear that title as a badge of honor and declare that any artistic endeavors we do up here are produced at ‘Hill Muffin Studios.’ I still get to Los Angeles quite often but I’ve never been one to hang out in the ‘scene’ down there nor have I had a press agent — my best friend is a sound engineer. I remember when I was nominated for a Tony Award on Broadway at twenty-nine that I was advised by actress Sylvia Miles to ‘enjoy the period between the nomination and the announcement of the winner — that’s the best time.’ Well I did. I found myself really wanting to win but when I did, later that night I had the feeling of ‘so what? The real high was to be nominated and I have been sev­eral times, for Tonys and Emmys. My friend, the actor Frank Langella was up for an Oscar for his portrayal of the President in ‘Frost/Nixon’ and he stayed with us at our home in Los Angeles during the week or so before Oscar night. He really wanted to win and yet previously he had teased me about my desire to win. I advised him that it was not about winning or losing, it was all about being a recipient or not. Then, when he lost, I called him and said, ‘Hey loser, how’s it going?’ That’s o.k., we’ve been friends our whole professional lives.”

I asked René for his thoughts on his profession and his favorite memories. “Well for me, the project I am currently working on is always my favorite. As for acting in general, there is a certain childish arrogance that actors have — ‘Watch me! Watch me!’ There is a vul­nerability we all have; a giving of oneself. The possibil­ity of failure is very real and to this day it can be very nerve-racking. You are putting yourself out there and asking for approval, which can be refused by the audi­ence and/or the critics. Katherine Hepburn would prepare for months in advance ‘I need all this lead time’ she would say. I need that kind of time myself now, although it is very rare that I do a full schedule of performances, which is seven days a week, two on Sundays. Film and television are much less stressful and can be quite boring at times with all of that sitting around for hours on end. Overall most character actors want to see other character actors succeed, although it seems that wanting others to fail has become more prevalent in recent times.”

I asked René to give me a strong image he has of his father. “Well what immediately comes to my mind is of him working with a scythe to cut down the grass and bush on our property on the country road all those years ago. He never came here to Anderson Valley but he did see a photograph of me with a motorized weed-wacker working here on the property and he would have loved to have had the use of one of those.” And what is a favorite memory of his mother? “In those happy years in the late 40s and 50s. She was a princess, literally, and had her aristocratic ways, yet she wore her blue jeans and was our Cub Scout den mother. She died at seventy-one in 1986, basically smoking and drinking herself to death. It is regrettable that our children never got to see her at her vibrant best.”

I asked René for his very brief opinions of the winer­ies and their impact on the Valley. “Well, my father’s house in Switzerland was surrounded by vines in every direction so this is not anything like that. I understand some of the arguments about the water and the monoculture nature of the wineries domination here, but it does not seem to be that bad to me.”

The AVA? “We buy it here and subscribe to it in Los Angeles and read it from cover to cover. God bless David Severn for keeping it here and Bruce Anderson for coming back.”

I posed a few questions to my guest;, some from a questionnaire featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” — a show on which René has not appeared.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “My grand­children — Julian, Olivier, and Sunde.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Fox News.”

What sound or noise do you love? “The silence up here in the hills.”

What sound or noise do you hate? “Fox News.”

What is your favorite food or meal? “Italian food — pasta with lots of olive oil and garlic.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “John Lennon.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “A drawing pad and pen; a wooden Mexican flute that I could teach myself to play; some Irish music, some Vivaldi music, and songs by the Beatles. I used to sing their songs to the kids to get them to go to sleep.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “Well, for a film how about ‘Throne of Blood’ by Kurasawa — an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth; a song would be ‘September Song’ by Frank Sinatra, written by Kurt Weill; and a book would probably be ‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colm McCann about the 1974 Twin Towers walk by Philippe Petit and much, much more.”

Favorite word or phrase? “Well the f-word is one that most of us use often and at this point it is not really a swearword at all. I like ‘wanker’ and ‘bollocks’ too, or perhaps ‘brilliant’ and ‘adorable,’ although I tend to over-use them both!”

Least favorite word or phrase? “That would be ‘snot.’ I used to dislike ‘belly-button’ but I kind of like it now that I have grand-children.”

Favorite hobby? “Photography.”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “A photographer. I am influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photo-journalism, a real-life photographer. Hence the photographs of people in everyday life in my ‘Atmospheres’ project.”

Profession would you not like to do? “A worker at McDonald’s.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “It was in London when I was 17. I went to an Indian restaurant with Jane Harris. We are still friends.”

Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “My acceptance speech for my Tony Award. I didn’t thank anyone. I should have thanked so many, particularly Katherine Hepburn and John Houseman — people who had helped me tremen­dously. I remember at 16 wanting so much to be an ap­prentice in Houseman’s Shakespeare Festival. One eve­ning the phone rang at home and my father answered and said, ‘It’s John Houseman for you.’ I said ‘Hello’ and John said, ‘René, I am happy that you are going to join us.’ It was a wonderful feeling. He was so generous and supportive. I should have mentioned him, and others. It is not often that you are in the right place and time to thank people and I missed my chance.”

Something that you are really proud of and why? “Being married for nearly 48 years.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “Those eight years in my childhood from the age of eight to sixteen. Then there have been the intense highs of opening nights of course. And, if you are on Broadway, reading good reviews in the NY Times the next day.”

Saddest day or period of your life? “Perhaps when I was living in a rough neighborhood in Washington DC when President Kennedy was assassinated. I sat all night on the stoop as the line of people slowly walked by on their way to see his body lying in state. People from all over the country had come. It was so sad and moving.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “My sense of humor.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well if he said ‘What took you so long?’ it would mean I had led a long and rich life so that would be very good.”

Epilogue. No doubt many of you are aware of the ‘game’ played by film buffs called ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,’ a trivia game based on the concept of the small world phenomenon that rests on the assumption that any individual can be linked through his or her film roles to actor Kevin Bacon within six steps. The game requires a group of players to make such a connection as quickly as possible and in as few links as possible.

Well, I believe that this can be taken to a whole new level with a new game entitled ‘Six Degrees of René Auberjonois.’ This version is opened up to include any name in all three ‘disciplines’ — stage, television, and film — and I’m sure that in the majority of cases, after six or less links have been made, you will quite possibly find yourself at René. Quite an achievement on his part, wouldn’t you say? ¥¥

To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be District Attorney David Eyster.


  1. Bill Kalenborn November 23, 2011

    I saw him in “Charley’s Aunt” when ACT visited Stanford. It was the most screamingly funny show I have seen in my life.

    • Eunice Knecht November 17, 2013

      I agree with you, Bill,but I saw him as Charley’s Aunt in the ACT production at the Geary. We took my teen-age son and he had the three of us, in chorus with the rest of the audience, laughing histerically, especially during the tea party scene. Even De Ann Mears, who played opposite him, had to fight for control, but we all understood. I would put that right up there with his “Edgar” role with James Earl Jones in “King Lear”, even though I have not had the privilegde of seeing that.

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