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Rene Auberjonois Has Died at 79: Beloved Character Actor Played Hundreds of Roles

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BY December 9, 2019
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Rene Auberjonois, a character actor who appeared in so many things I couldn’t sum them up in one headline, has died at the age of 79. Whether you knew him from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, his voice work, or works even older than that, there’s a good chance that he has touched your life. Let’s look back on his immense body of work and his life.

Rene Auberjonois: The Early Years

Auberjonois was born on June 1, 1940, in New York City. His father was Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Fernand Auberjonois, and his mother was Princess Laure Louise Napoléone Eugénie Caroline Murat. The “Princess” and the “Napoléone” are not just names, by the way; she was the great-great-granddaughter of Napoleon Bonaparte’s youngest sister Caroline. Auberjonois spent his early years in the city, then his family moved to Paris after World War II. That was where Auberjonois decided to become an actor.

After a few years in Paris, the Auberjonois family moved back to the United States, where they lived in the artists’ colony in New York’s Rockland County. The family also spent some time in London, where Rene finished high school. Following high school, he went to Carnegie-Mellon (then Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he graduated in 1962. The year after that, he married Judith Mahalyi. The couple, who were still married at the time of Auberjonois’s death, went on to have two children, Tessa and Remy, both actors.

Early Career

Unlike many actors we know, who start out with bit parts on television, Auberjonois began his career in the theater. Outside of a televised play performance, he didn’t appear on film until the 1970s. Instead, he spent the 1960s appearing in stage plays. He was a member of theater companies on both coasts and at one point, appeared in 3 Broadway plays at the same time. He received his first Tony nomination in 1969 for his role in Coco, opposite Katherine Hepburn. Although he never won a Tony, he would go on to be nominated 3 times. He did, however, win a Drama Desk Award for his role in Big River. Despite his later success on TV and in films, Auberjonois worked onstage throughout his career and even directed several plays. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2018.

Rene Auberjonois on Film

Rene Auberjonois Eyes of Laura Mars, image via Columbia Pictures

Rene Auberjonois made his film debut in 1971 in Robert Altman’s counterculture classic M*A*S*H (the movie, not the TV show whose theme song is an anxiety trigger for a generation of kids). He played Father Mulcahy, the chaplain at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. Although ostensibly about the Korean War, the film is clearly a sly meditation on the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. It won the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film–what they used to call the Palme d’Or–at Cannes and won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. The Library of Congress has also deemed it culturally significant. As such, the National Film Registry preserved it.

Auberjonois went on to appear in Altman’s next two films, Brewster McCloud and also McCabe and Mrs. Miller. He enjoyed a healthy film career throughout the rest of the 1970s and beyond. Auberjonois was talented, yes, but he was also lucky enough to enjoy a career that didn’t wane as some of his contemporaries did. Perhaps that was because he seemed game to appear in all sorts of works, from a remake of King Kong, the major film debut of some guy called John Carpenter (The Eyes of Laura Mars), and the fifth installment of the Police Academy oeuvre. And sometimes only his voice appeared. For example, he did the voice work for Chef Louis in The Little Mermaid, where he sang “Les Poissons,” which plays in my head every time I go grocery-shopping. (“ZUT ALORS…I have meeesed one!”)

TV: The Final Frontier

Rene Auberjonois Benson, image via Columbia Pictures Television and Sony

The diversity of Auberjonois’s film career is outpaced only by the wildness of his TV appearances. Throughout the 70s, he made one-shot appearances on a number of TV shows, from The Jeffersons and The Bob Newhart Show to Wonder Woman. However, he didn’t become a series regular until he joined the cast of the Robert Guillaume-starrer Benson, playing Clayton Endicott III, the chief of staff to a governor of an unnamed state. Auberjonois would appear on the show in 135 episodes, until its end in 1986.

After that, he didn’t have a regular series role until 1993, when he joined the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Odo, the chief of security for the titular space station. Auberjonois appeared in 173 episodes, all but 3 of the entire run. His next regular series role after that was another departure. He played legal partner Paul Lewiston on The Practice spin-off Boston Legal. Auberjonois was a series regular in the first 3 seasons, then appeared on and off after that.

In Recent Years

He would later have recurring roles on shows like Warehouse 13 and Madam Secretary. This is in addition to his voice work, which he contributed to in TV, video games, and films. He was also an amateur artist, who would auction off his drawings at conventions to benefit Doctors Without Borders.

Auberjonois’s last film released before his death was the September 11th drama Windows on the World. He has 3 films in post-production, including Kelly Reichardt’s next movie, First Cow. It will be released next year.

Auberjonois died at his home yesterday; his son Remy-Luc said his father died of metastatic lung cancer. Zut alors.

Share your memories of Rene Auberjonois and his wide and varied career with us in the comments below or on social media.

featured image via CBS Television Distribution

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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