Interview: Nostalgia, 1996

An Interview with René Auberjonois

by Bill Harris on Nostalgia

This is the text of an interview with René Auberjonois conducted in 1996 by Bill Harris of Nostalgia, shown on that cable channel during presentations of Panache, a 1976 movie pilot starring René in the title role.

Bill Harris – We have a very special guest. From the big screen, and from the small screen, where his TV series work has ranged from Benson to Star Trek. He’s a Tony award winner on Broadway, and much, much more, as we’re about to hear. This month, here on Nostalgia, you’re invited to watch and enjoy the excitement and the fun of Panache starring our friend René Auberjonois.

BH – A proud tradition here of the Three Musketeers in Panache. You knew that, of course, from the moment you saw the script.

René Auberjonois – Yes, I did, yes indeed. It’s also Cyrano de Bergerac. The character actually, it’s sort of… there are the three guys, they’re the Three Musketeers, but Panache, the title character, the part I played is… I think Duke Vincent, when he wrote this script, was… oh, I know he was passionate about the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Rostand, and so that was what was in his mind about the character and the white plume that’s featured.

BH – It’s very grand. A feathered hat is just something very grand.

RA – Yes. It takes a lot to get away with something like that (chuckles). I’ll tell you, the willing suspension of disbelief when you take a hat off like that (mimes sweeping off a hat), you have to go for it.

BH – Well, everything takes disbe… I mean fencing is not a natural habit of men….

RA – Not any more.

BH – Well, no. You must have had to train, you looked very good, I thought.

RA – Well, I was, I had a classical training in the theater, and that was… for four years I studied real fencing. This is not real fencing, this is stage fencing, actually saber, because, you know, real fencing is very tight, and very small, but this has to be grander, and with more panache, more style. So I had, I had had a certain amount of training, and at that time, this is twenty years ago, I had been doing a lot of theater, so it was still part of my repertoire, and it was the thing that I was most challenged by and most excited about doing. It’s something I’ve always loved on the stage and to get a chance to do it in film, and this was all choreographed by a man named Al Cavins, he and his father before him were responsible for all the really great fencing in Hollywood films, from… all the way from the very beginning, from silent….

BH – From Fairbanks.

RA – From Fairbanks, exactly. From Fairbanks. And Al Cavins did Cyrano de Bergerac, and was actually in it, he was the partner to… help me, Cyrano de Bergerac…

BH – José Ferrer.

RA – José Ferrer. And whenever you see José Ferrer fighting, the hand that’s on the other side, off camera, is Al Cavins’. He just… and Errol Flynn, and he had done them all, and so… it was the end of his career, I don’t even think he’s alive any more, he was quite elderly then… so to get a chance to work with someone like that, who was just steeped in the history of film fighting, which is really a lost art, and you see it every once in a while in a film, and it’s always wonderful to see.

BH – Now, did you ask him, here I go immediately then… did you ask him who was the best of all the ones that he coached?

RA – Yes, I did, of course.

BH – And who was that?

RA – Guess.

BH – Flynn.

RA – Basil Rathbone.

BH – Was it?

RA – Yes. Basil Rathbone, he said, was the great…. Flynn was wonderful, had tremendous style, again, but could only do three or four beats at a time, you know, bump bump bump, one two three four one two three four (miming fencing). He said Basil Rathbone could do seventy, he could go on and on and on, he could just, he remembered… because you know, when you’re doing a fight like that, it is, it’s like a dance, but it’s dangerous, because if the other person forgets and you’re assuming they’re going to be there for it, you can slash them. The blades are not sharp, but they’re pointy….

BH – But they have a point, yes.

RA – You can put someone’s eye out, like that (snaps fingers).

BH – No, thanks!

RA – Anyway, Basil Rathbone was the best, was the great one.

BH – René, the chance to ask you… the team that they put together for Panache, Charles Siebert, gee, I remember him back on the old game show days, he won a friend of mine a hundred thousand dollars on Password.

RA – You’re kidding! Really?

BH – No! A huge amount of money.

RA – Well, that doesn’t surprise me, he’s a very bright guy. Actually, Charlie and I started together in the theater, we were founding members of a company called the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. And he and I did Tartuffe together, Beyond the Fringe together, we did many plays together, and so when… but this was the first time we got to act in film, and the last time, now that I think of it, so it was great fun, because we had that wonderful fight at the end, which we worked on like crazy….

BH – Well, he was the evil prince.

RA – Yes, he was the evil guy, the bad guy, and he sort of thought of himself as the Basil Rathbone, so we had a wonderful sort of competition going to see… well, actually it was a teamwork competition, to see if we could do as many beats, as… when we were talking about Basil Rathbone, as… so we tried to do long stretches of fighting at a time. We had a great time.

BH – Well, it was also long stretches of fun. I mean, you have David Healy…

RA – David Healy. Wonderful British actor.

BH – He’s quite charming. That was a full wig he’s wearing?

RA – Yes. We all were. We were all in full wig.

BH – All bewigged. And Charles Frank.

RA – And Charles Frank. A little tidbit about that was that was the part that… well, we all had to screen test for this, because of the fencing, and so there were scenes that we did, and one of the actors who tested for the Charles Frank role was Don Johnson.

BH– No! Which means… “nice, leave your photograph, we’ll call you if we need you,” but not that time.

RA – No, he had gotten that far, there were only three people tested, so he got right down to the wire.

BH – Now, I see the name Michael O’Keefe in the credits, who’s known from Roseanne as the husband of Jackie.

RA – Yes, married to Bonnie Raitt.

BH – Bonnie Raitt in real life. But he comes through just twice, real fast on the horse.

RA – He’s the young kid on the horse. “King’s Messenger!” or something like that.

BH – Upsetting the applecart.

RA – Upsetting the cart of cabbages and things. Yeah, I think that was his first gig.

BH – What fun! What about horsemanship? You must have to have lessons there, or… whoops…. (seeing René’s expression)

RA – Ohhhhhh. (chuckles wryly). I had to do one shot in there where I have to run, and jump on the horse, and ride away, and I have never, never been a horseman. I’ve never lied about it, because I actually learned… the first film I ever did, the first time I was ever in a movie, a little tiny part, was Lilith. Yep! And all I had to do was stand holding this horse, waiting for Warren Beatty to come up and take it from me. I remember I was getting paid a hundred dollars a day, it was unbelievable to me, I was in the theater working in Washington Arena Stage. Anyway….

BH – Could there have been anything better than a hundred dollars a day?

RA – It was supposed to be one day, and it went on for nine days, for him walking through this fairgrounds to get down for me to hand him the horse. All I had to do was hand him the horse. Nine days, I made nine hundred dollars. My wife-to-be, who is my wife now, to this day, and I spent two months in Europe on that nine hundred dollars.

BH – Isn’t that a nice memory?

RA – Yes. Robert Rossen was, and Jean Seberg, I mean those are great memories, to have had a chance to work with those people in that film, yeah.

BH – What a memory that was!

RA – Yes. Amazing.

BH – As you put the crowd together…. So horsemanship then was not your….

RA – Horsemanship was not my big… oh, that horse just kept, every time they would call Action! and I would start running towards the horse it would move its behind out of the way so there was nothing for me to jump onto. And eventually the trainer sort of took the horse around the back and did something very rude to it, I’m sure, and then it came back and stood very still for the rest of the time, but….

BH – Well, René, thank heavens he didn’t do the same thing to you, to make you…

RA – I was afraid that might be the case, but in this… it wasn’t my fault, so.

BH – …this question, and I didn’t quite understand… who came first in your life, John Houseman, who always spoke much and dramatically, or Marcel Marceau, who did not?

RA – Ah. Interesting. You know, that’s a difficult question to answer, because when I was a kid, we… I grew up on a little road called South Mountain Road which ran along the Ramapo Mountains near the Hudson River, and John Houseman lived a few, about a mile down the road, it was a country road, and he was a very good friend of my family’s, and… actually, the mailboxes on that road read like Who’s Who in the American Theater and Film. And I used to see John Houseman all the time and eventually he gave me my first job, when I was sixteen years old I was an apprentice at Stratford… Connecticut, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival… and then, years later, I taught for him at Juilliard when he was the head of the drama department at Juilliard. But at that time I was part of a bunch of rag-tag kids and we used to put plays on in peoples’ garages, really, and the man who taught us… he was a painter, he was a young man, young painter, and that’s how he made extra money… and he took us to see Marcel Marceau performing in his first, the first time Marcel Marceau came to the United States, it was at Princeton, and I saw him perform and I thought that’s what I would be. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I… originally I wanted to be a clown, and then I was moving towards acting, but then Marcel Marceau… it was such a revelation, it was sort of a clown, but it wasn’t a circus clown, and it was… it really was a revelation, so….

BH – Did you spend the next few months doing the moves of a mime?

RA – It influenced me really deeply. For many years I thought I would be a mime, and studied mime, and… it’s still very much a part of my, I believe, my repertoire as an actor.

BH – I find it interesting, you have never been far away from the theater. There’ve been times when you were doing two or three productions at once, even while you were on television. And I found it especially interesting… when you were doing King Lear once, a very famous actor, a co-star, taught you… accidentally taught you… that you can get rusty.

RA – Oh, yeah.

BH – Do I lead to your Lee J. Cobb story?

RA – Yes, my goodness. Well, that was fascinating too. That was… actually, I came to do The Fool in King Lear with Lee J. Cobb at Lincoln Center, it was my first performance in New York City although I had been out of university for a few years and been at ACT and other repertory theaters around the country, but this was my time to come to New York. I was in Hollywood at the time, when I got the job we had just moved down here from San Francisco and I got the job, really, based on my work in regional theater, but Lee J. Cobb had final approval and he came to visit me… my wife and I were living in a little apartment in Hollywood and scraping by, and….

BH – You still had some of that nine hundred left, probably!

RA – (Laughs) I was so nervous about him coming because, what he was concerned about was that I was taller than he was and he didn’t want the Fool to be taller than he and I… and I didn’t know whether I was taller than he was and…

BH – (Slumping down in his chair)

RA – (Laughs) That’s right! He walked in the door with a cigar in his mouth and I sorta was like (also slumping) crimping down to say hello to him like this. Anyway, he was very nice and we talked for a while and then… it was okay, and I was going to be coming to New York to do it. Now, he had not been on the stage for, I think, twenty years, and I think the last… one of the last major things he’d done was Death of a Salesman. I think. Anyway, it had been a long time. And then to come back to do a role like King Lear which is the Mount Everest of roles, was a difficult task, and he really only gave one great performance of it. He was lucky, there was a critic from Newsweek or Time there and he got one great review, and that was the only… by that time he was a film actor, and he could only… he did it once. And then after that the performance tended to get very tired, and would drag on and on and on and on, it got longer and longer and longer, and it was a sad thing to see because he’s a great actor, he was a great, great actor, but he had waited too long and he was… you know, the theater is a sport, it’s a… you’re in front of that audience and the curtain goes up and there is no “Cut! Let’s try that again!” You just have to do it, and he had just waited too long and was out of shape. But it’s a thing that I think about constantly. I haven’t been on the stage… well, I did something in London last summer, briefly, for a week, a week’s engagement of Don Juan in Hell with Ed Asner….

BH – But you were there, at least.

RA – I was there, but I knew at the time that the last time I was really on stage was City of Angels and that’s been, you know, that was ’90, you know, and now it’s ’96, so it’s been a while.

BH – It was also real enjoyable, I have to tell you….

RA – Oh, it was great, and I had a great time, but I….

BH – You had a good role, and you did it well.

RA – But I have to get back, you know, I know that I have to get back.

BH – Let me speak of theater again. That is, four times Tony nominated, and a Tony winner, but a Tony winner opposite Katharine Hepburn in Coco. How better does it get?

RA – Not much better than that.

BH – What memory do you have of her, of working with her?

RA – Well, Kate. You know, people always say, “well, what is… what is Katharine Hepburn….” To have gotten a chance to work with Katharine Hepburn, just amazing, “what is she like, what is she like?” The answer to that is Katharine Hepburn is exactly what you think she is. What she projects, it’s what has made her, for all these many years such a great star, is that she projects herself in such total dimension and such truth, and she is there. You know, I’m a character actor, I hide in characters. Someone like Katharine Hepburn just comes through (snaps fingers) and so when people say “what is she like?” I say “you know, you probably know her as well as I do if you’ve loved her for years and watched her films.” That’s who Kate is, the sort of, the toughness and sometimes that spoiled thing, and sometimes the… the good and the bad… there’s no real bad about Katharine Hepburn, it’s just all glorious, but the naughty, and the kind of “tetchiness” that she has, it’s all there and she gives it to the audience and that’s why she’s so great.

BH – So just being in her presence has to be special.

RA – Oh, it was amazing. She was… it was because of her that I won a Tony award. It was a small part, you know, Alan Jay Lerner was one of the people… he wrote the show, and he wrote My Fair Lady of course, everybody knows all that… but he was one of the people that lived on South Mountain Road. I took care of his kids around the swimming pool in the summer, for two summers I was sort of a baby-sitter lifeguard and….

BH – You used to deliver drinks while they were writing My Fair Lady.

RA – You got it! That is right, yes indeed. I used to take them juice and cantaloupe in the mornings, and he and Fritz Loewe were sitting there writing My Fair Lady, indeed. And so years later I got to be in a Broadway musical, but it was a small part, it was my first Broadway show, and… that’s not quite true, but there was one that lasted just a week… but it was the first hit that I was in, and to be in this show was just amazing. But it wasn’t a big part, and….

BH – How does she contribute to…?

RA – Well, because the director, Michael Benthal, was very much her director, she had brought him in, and he thought it was his job to protect Kate, and, you know, in Broadway musicals there’s always one part that sort of… there’s the star, and then there’s always one part in a Broadway musical that might get a, you know, might get one great number, or might have a little pizzazz to it, and he wasn’t… he was a British director who’d never done a musical and he wasn’t, like, into that and so he kept trying to, to put me down and make the part smaller and Kate one day said (does Katharine Hepburn impression) “What are you doing? This is the only funny thing in the show!” And she continually supported me and my part got better and bigger not because of… I mean, I was contributing, obviously I don’t mean to be cute or coy about this, but she saw it and she has such confidence in her own… in herself, she wasn’t nervous for a minute that I was going to steal the show from her. She knew, she’s… it’s a sport and it’s a team and you’d better get a good team going behind you and she was right there for me and she was incredible.

BH – Robert Altman, one of the great film directors, discovers you… or vice versa… and….

RA – Weirdly, weird, I don’t know, weird….

BHBrewster McCloud, I mean, one of those films… M*A*S*H….

RAM*A*S*H. I actually had made M*A*S*H before Coco. The summer before I went… in fact, I auditioned for Coco in Hollywood. God, I remember that audition because they were all sitting against a mirror in a dance studio. There was a whole wall of mirrors and they were all sitting with their backs to the mirror and I had to stand in front of them and sing a song. I sang “Lady Madonna, baby at your breast…” or something and I had never done a singing audition in my life. I’d been in musicals, but in college and in summer stock, and stuff, but I’d never had to audition for a Broadway musical, and even… you know, Alan Jay Lerner, I’d known him since I was a kid, but it was still Alan Jay Lerner, and Katharine Hepburn, and….

BH – So she’s sitting there, and you’re singing a song, like a dope….

RA – And I’m looking in the mirror at myself! Yeah! (Laughs)

BH – I picture this as painful.

RA – It was spooky.

BH – How much later do you hear that you’re that good, that you’ve got the job? How long do you wait?

RA – I don’t even remember. I don’t remember.

BH – Doesn’t matter, does it? “I got the Tony!”

RA – I don’t remember. I had to go back one more time, to meet Michael Bennett, to dance for him. But that’s, that was right after we had finished shooting M*A*S*H, that summer. I had done King Lear in New York, and then met Bob Altman, I was doing this, my first Broadway show which was a play called Fire, which was a dramatic play that didn’t run, and in fact when I met him, if the play had been a hit I wouldn’t have been able to do the film, and he said “Well, I hope it flops.” And it did.

BH – Thank you very much!

RA – Thanks. Yes. And it was… in retrospect, all things happen for a reason.

BH – Do you, as a truly seasoned and talented professional, do you think you can ever tell how good a movie’s going to be or how it’s going to stand up, while you’re in it, making it?

RA – No.

BH – You didn’t see M*A*S*H as anything more than just fun at the time, did you?

RA – Well, because that was really the first time I was… I had been in Lilith, one line, and I had been in Petulia, with even less to do, I think… I sat on a hard-boiled egg to show George C. Scott something about a cushion or something in a hospital scene, and…

BH – I think I’ll pass that by!

RA – Those were all one-day things, so, you know… I was a theater actor, and I would go in, and it was all just a total mystery to me. Then M*A*S*H, although my part was not large, it was throughout the entire film….

BH – The chaplain.

RA – I was there… yeah, Dago Red or Father Mulcahy… I was there from beginning to end, and… and it was… in a way, it spoiled, I think, all of us. Because all of us were neophytes, almost everybody in the film had either never done a film or had not really done very much. I mean, Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland had the most experience. Everybody else was really just beginners. It’s the nature of the way Bob Altman works that he brings everybody together and it becomes a very collaborative… and he just… he loves actors, and he loves their input, and this was his big break, although I don’t know whether he thought of it as a big break, it was a job, and it was a little film that was only being made because Catch-22 was in the news and this was sort of… Fox said “well, we’d better do a war film” to sort of, an exploitation kind of thing, and it was a very low budget, they didn’t pay any attention to it because they were all worried about their big budget, I think Doctor Doolittle was in production or something and costing millions of dollars, and so nobody paid any attention to this film and we just became a family, we were all on the set all the time so that we would be available to come in. Bob would say “Well, maybe you should come in and do something here” and I’d say “oh, look what I found in this little prayer book, there’s a prayer for a jeep” and he’d say “yeah, why don’t you do that? You can bless the jeep” and so I would go down and do… so, that’s the way we all, we were all there all the time. And so when you say, “Did we know?” We thought, I mean, it was magic. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t going to be a great film. Now, after that, as I started… did more films and more television, and things, I came to realize that you… when you’re in the process it’s very intense and you, it’s… you always think you’re doing the best you possibly could and nobody ever comes to you afterwards and says, the next day and says “Boy, dailies were terrible.” They always say, “oh, dailies were wonderful.” So you learn to go “Huh huh, great, that’s great, dailies were wonderful.” And then later you see the film and you go “Ohhh….”

BH – There must be an easy answer, the best thing and the worst thing about the weekly grind. Surely it is a grind, it becomes a routine that’s pretty constant.

RA – Ah, yeah. Right now I’m doing Star Trek. That is more of a grind in the sense that it’s a one-hour show and I have a very heavy makeup, a prosthetic makeup. That adds to it, the hours are very, very long. In a sitcom, especially one that gets its wheels greased and is really on the right track, you know, it just goes… we were eventually doing it… I mean, after the first couple of seasons we were doing it in four days, and we’d do three shows and then we’d take a week off which would actually be ten days off because of the four-days situation, so, you know, you’re working twelve days a month and, for me, being a theater actor, it was… we did it in front of an audience, we rehearsed it like a play, so it was… it never was a drag.

BH – Never?

RA – Never.

BH – Does Robert Guillaume set the tone for that? Does… the star generally….

RA – Absolutely. Absolutely. Set the whole spirit of it. I’m going to see him tonight. I had worked with him in the theater in the first job I had out of college, at the Washington Arena Stage. And he was a guy… he is a guy… who has very high standards and could be very difficult with the producers if he felt something was not up to snuff. He let people know. But his rapport with the rest of the company was always wonderfully generous and it was just a joy to be on that set. You know, I hear about sets that are unhappy, and I know that that happens… I’ve been in situations like that, luckily never in a situation where it goes on for years, as these two jobs have for me. But yeah, he definitely sets the tone. As does Avery Brooks in our show, in Deep Space Nine.

BH – Our thanks to René Auberjonois for a great series of visits, here on Nostalgia! I’m Bill Harris at Planet Hollywood, with thanks to you and yours. We’ll talk again.