René Auberjonois obituary

The Sunday Times

Chameleonic actor who made his name in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and years later reinvented himself as a shapeshifter in Star Trek

In the early 1970s René Auberjonois was one of Robert Altman’s go-to actors, starring in four of the director’s movies, starting with playing Father John Mulcahy in M*A*S*H. “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,” he recalled. “Altman thought that would work, very different from the red-haired robust character in the original screenplay.”

Auberjonois not only shaped his character, but also contributed one of the film’s most famous lines to the script when asked how someone as unsuitable as Hawkeye Pierce, played by Donald Sutherland, could have been given a position of responsibility in the US army. “He was drafted,” Auberjonois’s priest responded.

“I actually made that up when we were rehearsing the scene,” he said. “And it became a kind of an iconic line for the whole film.”

The film’s anti-war satire fitted Auberjonois’s politics. As a married man he was exempt from the draft, but said that if he had have been called up he would have refused to go to war and moved across the border to Canada.

He was invited to reprise the role two years later in the television version of M*A*S*H , but was reluctant to commit to the demands of a long-term series and turned the offer down. He went on to appear in three more Altman movies — Brewster McCloud (1970), in which he played an ornithologist who gradually turns into a bird, McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, and Images (1972), in which he played opposite Susannah York.

René Murat Auberjonois was born in New York in 1940, the son of Swiss-born Fernand Auberjonois and Princess Laure Louise Napoléone Eugénie Caroline Murat, a great- great-granddaughter of the Emperor Napoleon’s youngest sister, Caroline, who served as the Queen of Naples.

His father was a newspaperman and Pulitzer prize-nominated writer who landed on the Normandy beaches in 1944 and after the war moved his family to Paris, where he worked as Time Life’s correspondent.

By 1948 the family were back in America, living in an artists’ colony in upstate New York, where neighbours included Helen Hayes, Lotte Lenya, Alan J Lerner and Kurt Weill. Auberjonois described the eight years he spent there as “an idyllic, Norman Rockwell-like life” and developed his performing skills, earning five dollars an hour as a clown at children’s birthday parties.

His first job in the theatre came at 16, when the director John Houseman, another neighbour, who became his mentor, put him on stage in a Shakespeare festival. Auberjonois was credited in the programme as “spear carrier”. By then his father had fallen foul of the McCarthyite witch-hunt, and although not a communist he felt so betrayed by a country that he had served during the war that in 1956 he moved the family to England.

Auberjonois completed school in Welwyn Garden City, boarding at the White Horse pub while his parents lived in London. He found that his education was two years behind his English classmates, but the headmaster was a theatre buff who recognised his talent and encouraged him. He later called his time in Britain a “life-saving experience” and decided to become a character actor after seeing Alec Guinness on the West End stage. He returned to America at the age of 18 to study drama at Carnegie Mellon University, but his parents never went back.

In 1961 he met Judith Mahalyi, a fellow drama student, and they married two years later when she was still a teenager, but did not tell their friends and family until 1965. They had two children, Tessa and Remy, both of whom are actors.

In what he called the “golden age” of Broadway in the 1960s, Auberjonois played the Fool in a long-running production of King Lear and won a Tony award for best actor for his performance alongside Katharine Hepburn in Coco. His Brutus in Julius Caesar was less acclaimed. John Simon, the notoriously waspish drama critic of New York magazine, called his performance “shakes without peare”.

After he had worked in film off and on for much of the next decade, by 1980, having two young children to support, the stability of a TV series seemed more appealing to Auberjonois, and he accepted the role of Clayton Runnymede Endicott III, the hypochondriac major-domo of a widowed governor’s mansion in Benson. “For six years I worked a sitcom schedule, which meant that I could make the kids’ breakfast and lunch, drive them to and from school and then rehearse and shoot the show,” he said.

His children were also the reason that a decade later he accepted a role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. By then his daughter was at Sarah Lawrence College and his son was about to go to Wesleyan University, and the fees were crippling. “It was a choice of selling the house or I get another television series,” he joked.

Auberjonois played Odo, the chief of security on the eponymous space station located on the far side of the galaxy in the 24th century. His character was a “changeling”, an alien capable of assuming any form, but who chose the shape of a male adult humanoid. The actor found that the part perfectly reflected his temperament.

“As a changeling, Odo represents the very thing I believe I am, an actor who changes and plays many different kinds of characters,” he said. “I’m a shy person and never expected I would be a movie star. So being given the opportunity to create a character like Odo personifies the kind of work I do as an artist.”

Although he claimed he could “hide” behind the characters he played, his disguises did not always work. Even when his face was completely hidden by a latex mask in Star Trek, his fellow actors reported that he invested so much of himself in his performance that you could “see his soul”.

“Every inch of him was trained to tell stories, his body, face and voice,” said Nana Visitor, who played alongside him in Deep Space Nine over seven seasons during the 1990s.

He had watched the original Star Trek in the 1960s as a fan long before he joined the cast, and he credited it with helping to shape his world view. “It influenced my life since I was a young person in the lessons that it teaches and the precepts that it puts forward of searching for a universe in which people can live in understanding with one another, no matter how alien we may be to each other,” he said. “We have to find a way to live together in peace; that’s the most important thing.”

His politics were liberal and idealistic, and he was an activist for many causes, including Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières, for whom he raised funds while attending Star Trek conventions around the globe. “It’s incredibly encouraging to come halfway across the world to find an audience that still cares about your work and has a response to it,” he said.

The money he earned from Star Trek meant that he could keep his Beverly Hills home and build another house on 42 acres of land in Mendocino County, which had no water, power or even a road when he bought the plot. He discovered the spot on the night of a lunar eclipse and, with the Hale-Bopp comet visible in the sky, decided that such auspicious portents meant he was destined to live there.

He continued working almost until the end, and late successes included a third long-running TV series playing the lawyer Paul Lewiston in Boston Legal. He was also in demand as a narrator of audiobooks and as the voice of Star Trek video games.

He was always proud when he was recognised in public for any of the roles that he played. “I’m all of those characters and I love that,” he said. “But I also run into people and they think I’m their cousin or their dry cleaner. I love that too.”

René Auberjonois, actor, was born on June 1, 1940. He died from lung cancer on December 8, 2019, aged 79.