Rene Auberjonois, who has died aged 79, was a beloved character actor who compiled a prolific number of stage and screen credits across his fifty-year career. Of these, he remains best known for his television work, settling comfortably into ensemble casts in a way that reflected his theatrical background.
Between 1980 and 1986, Auberjonois appeared in the hit US sitcom Benson as Clayton Runnymede Endicott III, the snooty chief of staff at a governor’s mansion. The role formed a primetime demonstration of his ability to humanise characters who might otherwise present as unsympathetic: within each half-hour episode, Auberjonois slyly attributed Endicott’s loftiness to a deep-seated insecurity.
Globally, Auberjonois would become celebrated for a part that streamlined his distinctive features (bulbous nose; kindly, inquisitive eyes) beneath layers of latex. A chameleonic security chief who sleeps in a bucket, Constable Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (1993-99) was an unusual role to assume, yet Auberjonois’ wryly philosophical responses to cosmic turmoil made him a firm fans’ favourite.
Over his career, he was unapologetic about his own shapeshifting, and unfussed by the prospect of not becoming an instantly recognisable face. In a 2011 interview, he shrugged: “I’m all of those characters, and I love that… I also run into people, and they think I’m their cousin or their dry cleaner. I love that, too.”
He was born René Murat Auberjonois in New York on June 1, 1940 to a wildly illustrious family. His father Fernand was a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who served as an advisor to Generals Patton and Eisenhower; his mother, Princess Laure Murat, was a painter who descended from the Bonaparte lineage. (His great-great-great-grandmother was Napoleon’s youngest sister.)
The family split their time between the US and France, where aged six, the young Rene underwent a Eureka moment while leading his classmates in a rendition of “Do You Know the Muffin Man?”. According to his website: “When the performance was over, Rene took a bow and, knowing he wasn’t the real conductor, imagined that he had been acting. He decided then and there that he wanted to be an actor.”
His parents relocated to an artists’ colony in upstate New York during his adolescence, where the producer John Houseman recommended him for an apprenticeship at a small playhouse in Stratford, Connecticut. During this period, Auberjonois flirted with the idea of changing his surname (pronounced oh-bear-zhon-wah, the French for armour-bearer) to the simpler Aubert, only to find his peers found that no less tongue-twisting.
Yet however theatregoers read it, the Auberjonois name soon began appearing on playbills with regularity. He joined the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 1965, starring in its inaugural production of Tartuffe, turned to directing with the British comedy hit Beyond the Fringe in 1967, and made his Broadway debut in 1968 as the Fool opposite Lee J. Cobb as King Lear. Two years later, he won his first Tony for playing the flamboyantly gay designer Sebastian Baye in the Chanel musical Coco.
Like many unconventional performers, he received a profile boost from the New American Cinema of the 1970s. After uncredited appearances in Lilith (1964) and Petunia (1968), he fell into director Robert Altman’s ensemble of oddballs, essaying the exasperated Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H (1970), a twitcher who transforms into a bird during Brewster McCloud (1970), the saloonkeeper Sheehan in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and one of the men closing in on Susannah York in Images (1972).
He chalked up TV guest spots in everything from The Mod Squad (1971) to Wonder Woman (1979), but movie credits kept betraying his position in the Hollywood pecking order: he was fourth-billed as the obligatory priest in disaster spoof The Big Bus (1976), fifth-billed in the King Kong remake (1976), before returning to fourth for The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).
In the 1980s, he juggled Benson with stage work, earning Tony nominations for playing the con artist Duke in Big River (1985) and for his dual role in Tinseltown satire City of Angels (1989), and voice work, lending his professorial tones to such animations as The Smurfs Christmas Special (1982) and Duck Tales (1987). His most prominent vocal performance came at the end of the decade, as the French-accented chef Louis in Disney’s animated comeback The Little Mermaid (1989).
On screen, he’d become one of those hallowed “you know the face” actors, playing a mobster in Police Academy 5 (1988), dipping an uncredited toe into a soon-to-be-familiar universe in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (1991), reteaming with Altman as one of those playing themselves amid The Player (1992), and showing up as the knowingly named Dr. Burton in Batman Forever (1995).
On TV, he played Frasier Crane’s mentor Dr. William Tewksbury in Frasier (2001), and earned a prime recurring part as the veteran lawyer Paul Lewiston on Boston Legal (2004-08); on stage, he was Professor Abronsius in the musical of Dance of the Vampires (2002-03) and directed himself alongside Roy Scheider in 12 Angry Men (2004); and he was often seen at Star Trek conventions, selling his own artwork and photographs for his favourite charity Doctors Without Borders.
Auberjonois drew no distinction between his prestige projects – forming a late-life alliance with emergent indie talent Kelly Reichardt on Certain Women (2016) and First Cow (2019) – and voicing 49 episodes of kids’ animation Pound Puppies (2010-13); to him, it was all just work, a way to continue exercising his gift. “I’m never going to retire,” he told one interviewer. “I’ll die with my boots on.”
He is survived by his wife Judith, whom he married in 1963, and two children, both actors: a son, Remy-Luc and a daughter, Tessa.
Rene Auberjonois, born June 1, 1940, died December 8, 2019.