René Auberjonois, Benson and Star Trek Actor, Dead At 79

René Auberjonois, a long time character actor best known for his roles on Benson and Star Trek: Deep Space NIne, has died at 79.

René Auberjonois, a character actor who became best known for his roles in Benson, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Boston Legal, and the big-screen version of M*A*S*H, has died at the age of 79:

René Auberjonois, a prolific actor best known for his roles on the television shows “Benson” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and his part in the 1970 film “M.A.S.H.” playing Father Mulcahy, died Dec. 8 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 79.

The cause was metastatic lung cancer, said his son, Rèmy-Luc Auberjonois.

Mr. Auberjonois worked constantly as a character actor through several periods and forms, from the dynamic theater of the 1960s to the cinema renaissance of the 1970s to the prime period of network television in the 1980s and ’90s — and each generation knew him for something different.

For film fans of the 1970s, he was Father John Mulcahy, the military chaplain who played straight man to the doctors’ antics in “M.A.S.H.” It was his first significant film role and the first of several for director Robert Altman.

For sitcom watchers of the 1980s, he was Clayton Runnymede Endicott III, the hopelessly highbrow chief of staff at a governor’s mansion on “Benson,” the ABC series whose title character was a butler played by Robert Guillaume.

And for sci-fi fans of the 1990s and convention-goers ever since, he was Odo, the shape-shifting Changeling and head of space-station security on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

(…)

René Marie Murat Auberjonois was born in New York City on June 1, 1940, the son of Fernand Auberjonois, a Swiss-born foreign correspondent for U.S. newspapers, and the grandson of a Swiss postimpressionist painter also named René Auberjonois.

Mr. Auberjonois was raised in New York, Paris, and London, and for a time lived with his family in an artists’ colony in Rockland County, N.Y., whose residents included the actors John Houseman, Helen Hayes and Burgess Meredith.

After graduating in 1962 from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon), Mr. Auberjonois hopped around the country joining theater companies, eventually landing three roles on Broadway in 1968, including as the Fool in a long-running version of King Lear.

The following year he played Sebastian Baye opposite Katharine Hepburn in “Coco,” a play on the life of designer Coco Chanel that earned him a Tony for best actor in a leading role in a musical.

He later received Tony nominations for 1973’s “The Good Doctor,” 1984’s “Big River,” and 1989’s “City of Angels.”

In 1970, Mr. Auberjonois began his run with Altman, playing Mulcahy in “M.A.S.H.”

In his most famous exchange from the movie, Sally Kellerman’s Margaret Houlihan wonders how such a degenerate doctor as Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye Pierce could reach a position of responsibility in the U.S. Army. A Bible-reading Mr. Auberjonois deadpans, “He was drafted.”

“I actually made that line up when we were rehearsing the scene,” Mr. Auberjonois said on the podcast “The Gist” in 2016. “And it became a kind of an iconic line for the whole film.”

He also appeared in the Altman movies “Brewster McCloud” (1970), as an off-the-wall ornithologist; “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971), as a saloonkeeper; and “Images” (1972), as the husband of an unstable children’s-book author.

He spent much of the rest of the 1970s doing guest spots on TV shows before joining the cast of “Benson” in its second season in 1980, where he would remain for the rest of the show’s seven seasons, playing the patrician political adviser and chronic hypochondriac Endicott.

Much of his later career was spent doing voice-overs for animation, most memorably as the French chef who sings the love song to fish-killing, “Les Poissons,” in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” (1989).

He played Odo on “Deep Space Nine” from 1993 until 1998 and became a regular at “Star Trek” conventions, where he raised money for Doctors Without Borders and signed autographs with a drawing of Odo’s bucket, where the character would store himself when he returned to his natural gelatinous state.

Mr. Auberjonois was also a regular on the ABC law-firm dramedy “Boston Legal” from 2004 to 2008.

As detailed at IMDB, Auberjonois filmography extended well beyond his appearances on Benson and Deep Space Nine and, as noted, he also had a long career on the stage in a variety of productions that demonstrated skills at both comedic and dramatic acting. In later years, he had an extensive career as a voice actor for animated films and other projects. It’s for his appearances on Benson and Star Trek, though, that he’s likely to be most remembered thanks to the fact that both shows continue to be broadcast in syndication and are available either on DVD or on a variety of streaming services.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Obituaries, Popular Culture, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. KM says:

    A fantastic actor – he’ll be missed. So many great things I now need to re-watch in his memory.

  2. Not the IT Dept. says:

    “Ladies and gentlemen…” (Pounds tankard on the table.) “…and all androgynous creatures…”

    May his bucket never leak on that last trip home.

  3. CSK says:

    Very talented and very versatile. I’m glad so many of his performances have been preserved, so we can enjoy them all over again.

  4. Bill says:

    The WAPO obit writer screwed up in the article above. The Benson Dubois character on Benson was not a Butler (It was on Soap). He was Director of Household Affairs at the show’s beginning and was promoted as the show went on.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Check out his obit at Variety.com. It has lots of nice encomiums from other celebrities.

    Also check out his bio at Wikipedia. His family background is extremely interesting.

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    He has rejoined the Great Link, and will be missed.

  7. EddieInCA says:

    I worked with him early in my career at ABC Television, when he was doing “Benson”. He was a class act. Even though I was a 22 year old “nobody”, he treated me like I was the most important guy in the room. He had that flair about him. Gracious. Kind. And very effing talented. Years later, I saw him on stage in a small theatre in West Hollywood, and afterwards I waited around to meet the cast, and he remembered me. A class act.

  8. CSK says:

    @EddieInCA: What a nice memory for you. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Some people just seem like nice guys, and he was one of them.

  9. Kathy says:

    One scene from Benson for some reason stands out in my mind. It’s a courtroom scene, where Clayton is suing Benson for libel, I think, maybe defamation. More or less:

    Clayton: I’m acquainted with courtroom proceedings. Mr. DuBois is not. I’m well acquainted with the law. Mr. DuBois is not.

    Judge: You are trying my patience. Mr DuBois is not.

    Often in that show he was the straight man, delivering the line that sets up the punchline as above.

    Or, as later in that same ep. Clayton wins his suit, but the judge awards him only one dollar in damages. When Benson congratulates him, he says:

    Clayton: One dollar! That’s like a slap in the face.
    Benson: Here’s ten bucks. Slap yourself silly.

  10. Mister Bluster says:

    Clayton: One dollar! That’s like a slap in the face.
    Benson: Here’s ten bucks. Slap yourself silly.

    Someone got paid good money to write that!

  11. EddieInCA says:

    @CSK:

    I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’ve met/worked with alot of great actors.
    Biggest Thrill: Meeting Jack Lemmon at Santa Clarita Studios while I was walking my dog behind the stages and he was walking his dog behind the stage he was shooting a TV movie with George C. Scott. I’d always wanted to meet him, and had tried to sneak on that stage to meet him, but had not had any luck. I’m out sitting on a bench as my dog is doing his business, when I hear “Nice German Shepherd”. I turn around and there is Jack Freaking Lemmon, with his small dog. I got to sit on a bench with Jack Lemmon for almost 30 minutes. After my idiotic gushing of what a fan I was, we just started chatting like old friends. It’s something that I will never ever forget.

    Biggest dissapointment: I got to meet Farrah Faucett when I was 23. She was still a megastar (1983). But she was a horrible, horrible horrible person. She screamed at her assistant for no reason, and treated me worse than gum stuck to the bottom of her shoe. Man, did that crush me, because like any male in the 70’s, I grew up with a huge crush on her.

    Coolest meeting: It’s a tie. #1. I had to go to Jack Nicholson’s house to show him photos for “Prizzi’s Honor”. I show up with my two bankers boxes full of slides (1984 – long before digital photos). Seriously, I have more than 300 slides he’s supposed to look at and approve at least 20% of them, per his contract. Mr. Nicholson has me follow him to the backyard, next to a pool overlooking the city. He takes out one sleeve of slides, holds it up to the sun, and says “These are good kid. Want a beer?” I sat with Jack Nicholson by his pool, talking about the movie for over an hour.

    #2 Elizabeth Taylor did an arc on the series “Hotel” in 1984. I had to go to her home, again with photos and slides for approval. She was just the opposite of Mr. Nicholson. She looked at every one. Every single one. On her bed. Laying in her bed. Wth me sitting on the bed beside her. I was 24. Took 4 hours. I was sitting on Elizabeth Taylor’s bed for four hours. Shaking the whole time. But in retrospect, so cool.

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    Whenever anyone asks me what I’m doing my reply is always “As little as possible…”

  13. @Dave Schuler:

    It is indeed. Apparently, he is related to the Bonapartes through his mother and his father’s father was a highly regarded Swiss artist.

    His son and daughter have both followed in his footsteps in Hollywood.

  14. @Kathy:

    He and Robert Guilliaume were great together. Perfect foils.

    Incidentally, he’s the third main cast member from Benson to pass away in recent years. Guillaime and James Noble (who played Governor Gatling) died within the past ten years. Only Inga Swenson (Krauss) remains at this point.

  15. CSK says:

    @EddieInCA: Wonderful stories. Again, thanks.

  16. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    He and Robert Guilliaume were great together. Perfect foils.

    Absolutely. it’s too bad Auberjonois was so the straight man, he seldom got any good lines that got laughs. Often when he did get laughs, it was by puncturing his character’s pomposity.

    BTW, and way off topic, I think Auberjonois could have played Lionel Trilby to perfection in The West Wing. Sure, John Laroquette was amazing in the part, but can’t you picture Auberjonois intruding in the Oval Office, in front of a bunch of people, asking “Mr. president, have you lost what little was left of your mind?”