Smile When You Call Him a Creep

This article, written by Lisa See, was originally published in the
April 16-23, 1983 issue of TV Guide magazine.
  • The Benson costar was considered an oddball outcast as a child; now he makes a good living playing the same role in prime time

He dances about like a demented toe-dancer. His squinty little raisin eyes are way too close together. His nose, chin and eyebrows perpetually threaten to rendezvous. If that weren’t enough, his voice sounds like a violin made of cement. Every office has one, every class has one and every weekly episode of Benson has one: the full-on creep, the peculiar-looking weirdo, the meticulous fussbudget with strong paranoid tendencies. René Auberjonois–Governor Gatling’s prissy chief of staff, Clayton Endicott III, foil to Robert Guillaume’s Benson–has put together a brilliant career by portraying these eccentricities.

René Auberjonois pronounced (Re-nay oh-Bear-zhon-wa) has played these lunatics straight across the board–in movies, theater and television. Little children come up to him in markets, wanting the autograph of the mad scientist in King Kong who raved about certain unmentionable gorilla acts. Theater aficionados know him best as the vindictive fop in Coco. Television audiences love to hate this man who has played countless paranoid-schizophrenic mad killers.

Toward the end of this interview he will say, “I have never told so much about myself.” Maybe just because he does tell so much, the pieces don’t quite fit together. What I hear is a man who is at once shy and flamboyant, easygoing and pretentious. He loves the theater and hates television, or is it the other way around? He’s had mentors but is aloof, a loner. He says he’s close to his family; yet he works, well, like a maniac. To say he’s a split personality may imply good guy/bad guy. It might be more accurate to say that he breaks like a cookie, right down the middle, neatly in two, with a few inexplicable crumbs left on the table.

René Auberjonois fills his cramped Benson dressing room with energy, exuberance, dramatic gestures. “I’ve always had acting jobs. Work begets work.” Despite his intensity, Auberjonois seems just a trifle exhausted. While the rest of the cast has gone home after full days on Benson, week after week, he has trekked across town to Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum and alternately played the tortured Alceste in The Misanthrope or the jealous, flamboyant Spanish aristocrat, Carlos Homenides de Histangua, in the Feydeau farce A Flea in Her Ear. He hasn’t had a day off in eight months.

Auberjonois’s life could be considered a story of fear and shyness and growth. His father came from an aristocratic Swiss family; his mother, Princess Laura Murat, was a descendant of Napoleon’s sister. Although his parents were American citizens, the Rockland County, NY, school children considered René and his parents “foreigners.” Auberjonois didn’t play baseball or any team sports. He was too “weird.” As added torture, his classmates taunted and teased René for having a girl’s name.

“So I became the class clown,” Auberjonois reminisces. “Acting was a socially acceptable way of saying me! Me! ME! Then, my parents took me to see Marcel Marceau in his first American performance. He totally arrested my attention. It was magic!”

From then on he lived a double life: a creep at school and an actor at home, where he was accepted by the adults. “The neighborhood was like a Who’s Who in American Theater: Burgess Meredith, Lotte Lenya, the Saroyans. During the summers I worked as a glorified lifeguard for Alan Jay Lerner’s kids and took coffee to the men in the music room when they were working on My Fair Lady.”

By the time he was 11, Auberjonois was already a trouper, working with other local kids in a variety of productions. John Houseman, another venerable and distinguished neighbor, cast him in his first professional play in Stratford, Ontario. When René was in high school, the family moved to England, but René returned to the States to study at Carnegie-Mellon University, graduating in 1962. Then he went to work in repertory theater, where he perfected playing character roles. “I wanted to be an actor, not a star.” Auberjonois paused for a second, then says, “Well, some part of me has always wanted to be a star. Mainly I wanted to be working, not looking for work.”

After three seasons and 27 productions with the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Auberjonois moved on to San Francisco, where he was founding member of the American Conservatory Theatre. By this time, he was already married to Judith Mihalyi, a young repertory actress. When offered a five-picture deal, Auberjonois and his wife moved to Los Angeles.

“I learned my first hardball lesson. The pictures all evaporated. I went from playing King Lear at 25 to trying to get a bit part on Get Smart. I went back to New York with my tail between my legs.”

A trying period of highs and lows followed. Simultaneous with his winning the Tony Award for his role in Coco, he and Judith separated. Auberjonois then met Robert Altman, the enfant terrible who has come up with filmland’s best imitation of repertory. Auberjonois did his next four pictures (including M*A*S*H, in which he played the chaplain) with Altman.

“There was the assumption that I would work with Bob forever.” He pauses; it is the only time that Auberjonois is still. “During Brewster McCloud I was still separated from Judith. Bob was like a father. He was my mid-life mentor. I reconciled with my wife on location for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. My daughter was born in Ireland when we were shooting Images. After that, I don’t understand what happened between Bob and me. I guess we grew apart. I simply ceased working for Bob Altman.”

A week later, on the Benson set, the cast has very little to say about their colleague despite the fact that he’s known most of them since the old repertory days. “He’s brilliant and volatile,” says Robert Guillaume. “René would be a terrific director for us,” says Inga Swenson, who plays Gretchen Kraus on the show. “René is a puzzle solver,” says Jim Noble (Governor Gatling), who later makes the only personal remark. “He’s always poring over brochures on backpacking or skiing, or he’s out running during the lunch break, or telling us about a new book or restaurant.”

Auberjonois, apparently, does have another life away from cameras and audiences. A symphony of dahlias, zinnias, snapdragons and delphiniums lines the path leading to his modest Hollywood Hills home. He answers the door wearing a NOW T-shirt, a cup of Red Zinger tea in hand. Light streams in through the windows and skylight. A Persian rug lies in front of the fireplace; a loom is in one corner; a dance barre runs the length of one wall; artful pictures of his family appear throughout the house.

Judith Mihalyi Auberjonois, now a theater critic and on-site reporter for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Theater Program, calmly works in the kitchen.

Auberjonois shows his basement studio. Here, alone, he draws cartoons and does yoga. The studio has no chairs for guests and we return to the living room.

“I’m thankful for Benson’s half-hour format,” Auberjonois says. He reclines into pillows made from antique Middle Eastern embroideries. “I literally have bankers’ hours. I treasure my family life. Judith and I have been married 19 years, but because of the separation, it’s like we’ve been married twice. We have two kids. Tessa, my little girl, is 11. My son, Remy-Luc, is 9.”

When asked the inevitable question–does he do Benson only for the money?–he responds with charming double talk. Perhaps all of the answers are true.

“People ask me all the time if I think Benson’s beneath my talents, and if I’m only in it for the money. Of course it’s not beneath me. I’m not above any of the other actors. As for the money? That was a major consideration.

“To make my agent nervous, I used to let my beard and hair grow when I didn’t have a job. I had very long hair and I had just signed a contract to do The Ruling Class in upstate New York for $500 a week when my agent told me I’d been asked to audition for Benson. I refused, because I knew it would be a waste of time. Two weeks later, he called again. By then I’d shaved and gotten a haircut for the play, so I didn’t have an excuse. The audition was in a tiny room. They looked at me, we were nice to each other, then they asked me to read.”

Auberjonois jumps up and paces. “Reading in a situation like that has nothing to do with what I do! You know, you stand there with your hands shaking, in this tiny room. I had a feeling like it didn’t really matter and I just started talking. You could say I seized a theatrical moment. They said I could have the part. But I’d already signed up to do The Ruling Class.

“Judith, a friend and I sat around the kitchen table trying to decide what to do. My wife and I looked at this as an artistic choice. Finally our friend said, ‘Are you kidding? You’ve got a house and a New York apartment to keep up! You’ve got two kids!’ Now I make more money in a week than I ever dreamed possible and it gives me the freedom to do repertory.”

And if he’s said one thing 20 minutes before, he completely contradicts himself now. “I will always work in the theater. A sitcom is 22 minutes. It’s like Chinese food. It’s not work. On some episodes of Benson I only say three lines. That’s not enough for me. Benson doesn’t use all my instrument. In theater, the body is trained like a dancer’s.” Auberjonois begins to move like a cat. “Acting becomes ritualistic and religious. The audience sees something they’ve never seen before and they’ll never see again. They buy a ticket to a miracle!”

So let’s take it from the top: why does he work in television?

Auberjonois contracts his body and makes a small “o” with his fingers. “This is a camera lens. Television is a different medium altogether. At first, Clayton Endicott III was Benson’s nemesis, dangerous, dark and gloomy, petty and vicious. Now I’m trying to bring more of myself into Clayton. The audience still knows I’m a creep, but they can laugh at me now. For Clayton, I’ve distilled something in myself that I really despise….”

So there you have it. The actor who dreams of performing miracles, the detestable little creep. Things haven’t changed that much since his days as class clown. Auberjonois rephrases the line about the kid back in Rockland County. “Acting is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. ‘René’ means reborn. I’m a Gemini.” Auberjonois puts his hand up to his face to divide it in two. “Both sides of my face are completely different.” He shows one profile and then the other, then shrugs this all away with a small smile.

“I don’t want to zen out, but life is always changing,” Auberjonois says. “Right now my family is the most important part of my life. I’m not naive. From the moment my daughter started crawling, I couldn’t help but notice that she was going away from me… If you had asked me what was the most important part of my life last summer, I probably would have said the opening of The Misanthrope. Tonight? I might have to say it’s the scene I’m doing on Benson with a live skunk….”