InDepth InterView: Rene Auberjonois Talks THE LITTLE MERMAID, Character Roles, Plus Broadway, Hollywood & More

By: Oct. 01, 2013
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Today we are talking to an easily recognizable and well-known character actor who has appeared in a number of notable stage and screen properties over the course of his fifty-year career, Shakespeare to COCO to CITY OF ANGELS to STAR TREK and galaxies far, far beyond - Rene Auberjonois. Detailing the finer points of his participation in a number of wildly different stage properties - from his Broadway debut in Lee J. Cobb's Lincoln Center KING LEAR through to COCO opposite Katharine Hepburn, a starring role in CITY OF ANGELS, as well as the infamous DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES and Larry Gelbart's SLY FOX this century, and many more - Auberjonois paints a vivid picture of the working actor throughout the decades. Additionally, Auberjonois also outlines his favorite moments in participating in a number of Robert Altman's most memorable movies - MASH and MCCABE & Mrs. Miller among them - and shares stories from the sets of many of his best-known and best-remembered film appearances - THE EYES OF Laura MaRS and many more included. Plus, Auberjonois also comments on some of his favorite TV parts to date, including his enduring STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE legacy and his most recent projects such as the animated series POUND PUPPIES and ARCHER. Most importantly, Auberjonois offers insight into his indelible participation in the enduring Disney animated family favorite THE LITTLE MERMAID, including how the recent 3D re-release and this week's special features-packed Blu-ray has introduced his famous voice and theatricality to a whole new generation, including his own beloved grandchildren. All of that, thoughts on Broadway now versus the tail end of the Golden Age, his continued patronage in supporting renown charity Doctors Without Borders, working on Stephen Schwartz's GEPPETTO for Disney and much, much more awaits in this uniquely compelling career-spanning conversation with a stage and screen stalwart.

More information on Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID on Blu-ray and DVD is available at the official site here.

Sly Fox

PC: Prior to THE LITTLE MERMAID, you participated in the Bass & Rankin animated film THE LAST UNICORN, did you not?

RA: That's right - and that was the first time I ever did a voice in an animated film, as a matter of fact.

PC: What are your memories of that experience?

RA: The truth is, I was in and out - my role was very limited; it was just that one particular scene, and, as you know, it was basically the same way with THE LITTLE MERMAID.

PC: Please recount your experience with THE LITTLE MERMAID for us, if you will.

RA: Well, it was very simple, really - they gave me the song to learn ["Les Poissons"], so I went home and learned it. You know, I listened to it in my car for a week and then I went back and sang it twice for them and I left. Then, three years later, I saw the film and I was totally blown away! I couldn't believe it.

PC: THE LITTLE MERMAID was essentially the first film of the Disney animation renaissance - was it a total surprise to you at the time that it was such a hit?

RA: Well, Pat, the really weird thing is that if you go on IMDB and you look me up, where it lists the main films that I am known for, right at the top is THE LITTLE MERMAID.

PC: That says it all!

RA: It does - it does. And, it's all such a gift, really - and I am so thankful for it; to get to do a voice in a classic Disney film. And, now, in retrospect, what I also know is that that film essentially saved animation and acted as the rebirth of animation in this country.

PC: The impact is incalculable.

RA: It is. Animation was really a dying art form before THE LITTLE MERMAID - Disney was about to give it all up. But, it was the success of that beautiful animated musical that made all the things that followed possible - BEAUTY & THE BEAST, THE LION KING and on and on; even Pixar and all of that, too.

PC: GEPPETTO is another Disney movie musical we are lucky enough to have you to enjoy in on DVD - with a great Stephen Schwartz score, no less.

RA: His work in it is so beautiful - so, so beautiful. The funny thing about GEPPETTO is that I had known Stephen for years - I was a couple of years ahead of him at Carnegie Mellon University, actually, which is where he originally wrote GODSPELL... which went on to become, well, GODSPELL! [Laughs.]

PC: The rest is history.

RA: I think that GODSPELL was actually his master's project or something, but I am not positive about that. But, anyway, we both knew each other because we were alumni from the same school and we were friends, so I was offered the role of that character in the film and I had one wonderful song - it was a lot of fun to do and I'm happy with how it turned out.

PC: Do you have a favorite role, looking back at your long career?

RA: Oh, Pat, that is an impossible question! Looking back, it's crazy - it's madness. But, I have to say that getting to do a voice in a classic Disney film like THE LITTLE MERMAID and having a five-year-old granddaughter and a seven-year-old grandson and a five-year-old grandson who all know it and love it is just wonderful - they call me "grumps," even before they were amazed to find out I was in THE LITTLE MERMAID, but, I have to say, though: that really raised me in their estimation! [Laughs.]

PC: Whatever it takes to please the grandkids, right?

RA: Right! Absolutely.

PC: May I ask why you have recently gotten an apartment in New York? Is a return to the theatre in your future, perhaps?

RA: Well, my son, his wife and their little five-year-old daughter - who is crazy about Ariel from THE LITTLE MERMAID, by the way, as I just told you - live here and so we just bought a little place so we would be nearer to them. And, also, I do occasionally work here and do TV shows and things here and it's so much easier to just fly in and go to your own apartment rather than having to constantly go into strange hotels, you know?

PC: Definitely. Where do you film your current children's series POUND PUPPIES?

RA: We film it in LA, in the valley, just a few minutes from our house in the Hollywood Hills. I think that that's actually finished filming now, by the day - we've done it for three or four years. It was a lot of fun to do that - Betty White played my mother and Dabney Coleman played my brother-in-law.

PC: You also are doing ARCHER - which is safe to say is a bit more adult, would you agree?

RA: Yes! ARCHER is definitely a much spicier piece of work! It's not quite in the same realm as THE LITTLE MERMAID or POUND PUPPIES. [Laughs.]

PC: You have appeared on FAMILY GUY, as well. Was Seth MacFarlane fun to share the recording booth with on that? Did he know your stage work?

RA: Yes, he did. Also, he is a big STAR TREK geek, so that's part of the reason I did it, too. It was a lot of fun. I like doing things like that.

PC: I have to know: what was it like working with a theatrical rock icon like Jim Steinman on DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES?

RA: Oh, that was such a heartbreak to me - that his work was not recognized on that, especially by the New York critics. It was so wonderful - I thought Jim's work was just brilliant. I was more heartbroken for him than I was for myself, actually - basically, I was so exhausted and just wanted to go home.

PC: How do you feel Broadway has changed in the last decade or so? SLY FOX was ten years ago now, as well.

RA: Oh, my God, you're right! It was! My life is hurdling by... to be honest, the thing that worries me about the theatre in New York is that all of these wonderful, big, spectacular shows are driving everyone away in terms of who can afford to go. I know that everybody says this and it's not news to anybody, but that does worry me that that's the trend. But, you know, I think that things go in trends and I am hoping that we find a balance and you won't have to fly or whatever in order to have a Broadway musical - you know what I mean?!

PC: People expect Vegas effects.

RA: Yeah. Yeah. They do.

PC: THE LITTLE MERMAID is one of many movie to stage adaptations in recent years. I'm curious: did you happen to catch it during its run?

RA: No, I didn't, unfortunately - I didn't get a chance to. I know it wasn't as successful as some of their other adaptations, but I think that's probably because they tried to do it a little too literally as opposed to something more imaginative, like what Julie Taymor brought to THE LION KING.

PC: An instructive point.

RA: That would just be my guess, though - I never saw it, as I said.

PC: And, look what happened to Julie Taymor with SPIDER-MAN!

RA: Right! Right. You never know.

PC: Speaking of master directors, looking back in working on COCO with Michael Bennett, were you struck by his talent even so early on in his career as that show was?

RA: Well, you know, it was my first musical on Broadway - it wasn't my first musical, but it was my first one on Broadway - and for Michael it was a big break, too. So, I mean, I was just so delighted with the way he worked with us - the way he worked with Katharine [Hepburn] and the way that he worked with me. You know, I am not a dancer - I can move, but I can't learn a dance step to save my life. But, Michael just so brilliantly staged it with this stunningly beautiful woman - Charlene Ryan - to dance with me, and she made me look like a dancer!

PC: Apparently so, given your huge success in the show.

RA: Yeah, actually, when I received my Tony Award, if I have any regrets about that whole thing is that I was so nervous about not talking too long that I just sort said "Oh, uh, thank you!" and ran off the stage. So, of course, I never really got a chance to thank Michael for making me look like I could dance and to thank Charlene for pulling me through the whole thing.

PC: What a great Tony Awards memory.

RA: I have to say, Michael was undisputedly one of the great theatre artists of the twentieth century - especially in terms of New York, Broadway musicals.

PC: A legend.

RA: He really is. You know, I actually worked with him again when he came in to doctor this play based on a Chekhov short story called THE GOOD DOCTOR, starring Christopher Plummer. The director was having a lot of trouble, so they brought Michael in to sort of doctor the show.

PC: The doctor of THE GOOD DOCTOR!

RA: Exactly!

PC: Tell me about it.

RA: Well, it had a lot of musical numbers in it and Michael's solution - which really made it possible for the show to be a success and run for the season - was to remove the music from the show.

PC: How outright ironic to hear that coming from the mastermind of the modern musical himself, no?

RA: Yeah, I mean, when they said he was going to come in I expected he was going to be working on all of the musical numbers, but the first thing he said was, "I think we need to take all of the musical numbers out of the show." And, he did - except for one sweet little song between Barnard Hughes and Frances Sternhagen; two old people on a park bench singing a sweet little song. But... he took out all the musical numbers! [Laughs.]

PC: That's so funny.

RA: It was the right thing to do, though. But, you know, only Michael would have the courage - and the sense - to actually do it.

PC: Prior to COCO, you performed in KING LEAR at Lincoln Center, correct?

RA: Right - that's right; you're right. I did KING LEAR with Lee J. Cobb at Lincoln Center. That was one of three productions I have done of KING LEAR, actually.

PC: What was the precise transition point for you to move into film during that period?

RA: Well, I would have to say that it was Robert Altman. You see, I was preparing for my first Broadway show, that was destined to run for one week on Broadway [FIRE!], and Bob was in town casting the feature film of MASH. So, I met with him and we got along great, and, so, he said, "Well, we're going to start shooting this in June, do you think you are going to want to do it?" and, I said, "Well, I'm about to do a Broadway show," and he said, "Well, I hope it's a flop!" And, it was! [Laughs.]

PC: The stars aligned!

RA: So, that allowed me to be able to do the feature film of MASH and then I worked with him for, gosh, another three or four films - I did MCCABE & Mrs. Miller, BREWSTER MCCLOUD and a little film called IMAGES, with Susannah York. But, yeah - that's how I got started in film. After that, I worked a lot more on the West Coast and I started working in television, too - and the rest is a long, long story!

PC: Working on MCCABE & Mrs. Miller, did the environment dictate the whole tone and style of the film? It's so unique, even in Altman's trajectory and in as far as the idiosyncratic films of the '70s go.

RA: All I can say is that working with Robert Altman was one of the great gifts that any actor could hope to have - and, of course, before that we had already shot MASH, which was a huge hit...

PC: Of course.

RA: And, while we were shooting MCCABE & Mrs. Miller, BREWSTER MCCLOUD came out and was not a huge hit, even though I do think it is one of his greatly overlooked films. In the end, though, MCCABE & Mrs. Miller was incredibly special and I think that the reason that it was such a great film was that it was the perfect storm of Robert Altman working with two wonderful stars - Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, of course - and then using his regular company of actors who were very good at kind of improvising their characters as we went along. And, it was an extraordinary experience because the town was built as we shot the film, in sequence, so, many people lived on the set as it was being built. [Pause.] It had a really organic feel to it.

PC: That comes through on film, for sure.

RA: Yeah, it does - and, you know, we just knew it was going to be something special. When you are making films, it's like, "Oh, this is going to be wonderful!" but, a lot of times it isn't so wonderful; but, in this particular instance it was just magic.

PC: It's a masterpiece - one of many Altman pinnacles.

RA: I agree with you - I think it's his greatest film, actually. And, I loved doing it and I loved my character in it, too. Of course, Bob is gone now and we miss him, but my wife and I are still very good friends with his wife, Catherine - we just had dinner with her last week, actually. She splits her time between New York and LA like we do, so we catch up a lot.

PC: MCCABE & Mrs. Miller is a musical in many ways, too - the songs serve a major function in the storytelling style.

RA: I know! Leonard Cohen! You know, when we were shooting, there were actors in the film who played musical instruments - flutes and fiddles and banjos and things. So, I thought, "Oh, that's what the music is going to be." But, then, when the film came out and it was Leonard Cohen doing the music... I mean, it was just brilliant! How he even imagined it I don't know... [Sighs.] it was just amazing.

PC: Was Altman ultimately your connection to Shelley Duvall and FAERIE TALE THEATRE? Your appearances on that are classic, needless to say.

RA: Yes! Exactly! When we filmed BREWSTER MCCLOUD in Texas, Shelley came out of nowhere - he met her at a party before we started shooting and he cast her in the movie. And, so, then, she had this career. Through BREWSTER MCCLOUD we became friends and she asked me to do two of those for her - I did the first one, which was THE FROG PRINCE, and, then, I did SLEEPING BEAUTY after that.

PC: Was that what made you appear to be a prime candidate for THE LITTLE MERMAID or had Howard Ashman seen you in something else?

RA: I think that Howard must have seen me in a musical in New York - either COCO or TRICKS, which was based on Moliere's SCAPIN, which didn't run either but was kind of wonderful. I mean, I never talked to Howard or Alan [Menken] about it, but I'm sure that they must have seen my work in New York in musicals - so, they knew at least if I wasn't a singer that I could carry a tune.

PC: To say the least.

RA: Who knows, though - maybe it was my name! My French name.

PC: That couldn't have hurt given the role!

RA: It has worked well for me throughout my career, I must say! I mean, sometimes I will go in and people will say to me, "Well, why don't you have a French accent?" and I say, "That's my name, not me!"

PC: Did you ever consider changing your name given the tricky pronunciation?

RA: Yes, actually, I did - I changed it very briefly, before I became an Equity actor.

PC: What was your stage name?

RA: I changed it to Rene Flaubert - for a very brief time, I was Rene Flaubert. But, you know, my grandfather's name was Rene Auberjonois and he was a very fine painter, very well-known in Switzerland, so I thought, "I'm not going to give up this name. I don't care how difficult it is!" And, the weird thing is that my dad, who was a journalist and a correspondent for Midwestern papers had used the name Flaubert. So, after I had changed my name back and before he retired, he changed his name back, too, and he wrote this beautiful piece about the fact of how his son had taught him that he should honor the family name. So, because of me, he changed his name back.

PC: What a wonderful story.

RA: Yeah - after forty years!

PC: You have found a lot of success with audio books, as have a lot of fellow theatre actors such as Raul Esparza and Jim Dale...

RA: Oh, Jim Dale is the leader of the pack! A few weeks ago, actually, we were at a commercial voiceover audition that neither one of us ending up getting and we were talking about how I had just done narration for this four-hundred-page book and we were both commiserating about how exhausting it is to sit in a booth and record day after day after day. I like doing it and it keeps my chops up, though - doing all of these different characters, even while not as good as Jim Dale. But, you know, I get to play an Italian gardener and a Japanese lawyer and a Boston policemen - it goes on and on.

PC: You recently recorded WORLD WAR Z's audio book, correct?

RA: Where do you dig this crap up, Pat?! My God! Oh, yeah - I did that. I had a lot of fun doing that, actually - even though I didn't get to work with the other actors! I had a good time doing it, though.

PC: EYES OF Laura MaRS recently premiered on TCM in HD. Do you have fond memories of filming that? Also, did you happen to cross paths with Barbra Streisand at any point in the process?

RA: Well, of course, she was married to Jon Peters, the producer of the film, at the time, so I met her at the party before we started shooting, but unfortunately that is the only time I ever got to meet the legend working on that. It's funny you mention that film, though, because my wife and I were at Restoration Hardware buying a desk and this woman was sort of shy but I could tell she had something to ask me and it was about EYES OF Laura MaRS. It's funny that it is in the ether - especially now that you tell me about the TCM premiere this week, too.

PC: Heading into Halloween, now is the prime time to see it, after all! A young John Carpenter was one of the screenwriters, as well.

RA: Yeah! Yeah. Definitely.

PC: What was working with Raul Julia like for you on that?

RA: Oh, well, Raul was a dear, dear friend - we had done a production of KING LEAR with James Earl Jones...

PC: One of your KING LEARs, as we discussed earlier - one which was thankfully was preserved on DVD and is my personal favorite Shakespeare production available on DVD, actually.

RA: Oh, that's nice to hear! Yeah, that's how I first got to know Raul. But, anyway, how he got involved with that film is actually that we had started shooting the film and they had not yet cast the role of Laura's husband - they wanted a certain actor but he had a heart attack or something, so he couldn't do it. So, I remember going up to the director when we were shooting the scene that I was in drag - it was at night and we were on West End Avenue and it was freezing cold and I was walking around in high-heeled shoes and everything...

PC: What a sight!

RA: It was! I remember Raul walks out of the apartment on West End Avenue and sees me and he said, "Rene, what are you doing?!" And, I said, "Oh, we're shooting this movie here!" And, then, I said, "Oh, my God! We've got to get you this part," and so I grabbed him by the elbow and brought him over to the director and they made the deal that night and he came into the movie and shot it.

PC: Did that film bring you a higher profile? You had a significant and memorable part - very ahead of its time.

RA: Well, I mean, I adored that part and I absolutely loved being a part of that film, but, you know, at the time that I was doing that I felt like I was just a working actor trying to get enough jobs to get my kids through school! [Laughs.]

PC: You weren't analyzing the barometer of your fame, more or less.

RA: Not really. But, it wasn't that long after that that I started doing television on a regular basis so that I could really settle down and raise the family - and, obviously, television has been very good to me over the years!

PC: You can say that again! STAR TREK alone...

RA: Whether it's BENSON or STAR TREK or BOSTON LEGAL - those things have made our lives very rich... in a lot of ways.

PC: Will you be re-teaming with James Spader on his new show?

RA: Well, he hasn't contacted me about it yet! How dare he?! [Laughs.]

PC: There's still time!

RA: I am very much looking forward to seeing it - it's coming soon, I know.

PC: So, getting back to Shakespeare: have you seen the DVD of you and Raul in KING LEAR since you filmed it way back when?

RA: Yes, I have seen it - and I have to say I am very, very proud of it. You know, I've done a lot of Shakespeare in my life and that was the third production of KING LEAR that I had been in.

PC: What were the others?

RA: Well, I first did LEAR when I was twenty-five-years-old - and, no, Pat, we won't go into that! And, then, I played the Fool with Lee J. Cobb that we talked about a little earlier. And, then, Ed Sherin - who was a director I had worked with a lot at the Arena Stage - asked me to do Edgar, and, I said, "Oh, I don't know! I can't figure out that part," and he said, "Don't worry about it! I know how that has to go. Trust me." And, so, it was a great experience - he was right; he did.

PC: A legendary director.

RA: Right - Ed directed THE GREAT WHITE HOPE and a bunch of other things; he eventually became the executive producer of LAW & ORDER and things, too. So, in rehearsals, I remember him saying to me, "How would you feel about doing it naked?" And, I said, "OK, I could do that," and then Joe Papp said, "What?! Are you kidding?! They'll shoot him!" [Big Laugh.]

PC: Joe Papp shot it down!

RA: Yes, he did - he shot it down. So, then, after that, I didn't have to do it naked.

PC: You were ready and willing to do it, though, in any event!

RA: Yeah, I was - I mean, Ed thought it would be really great if I was stark naked doing it in that scene...

PC: That production was so earthy and primordial, it would have fit right in probably, don't you think?

RA: Yeah, yeah - it was. Probably. It was a great production.

PC: Another idiosyncratic appearance that many know you from around the world is your unforgettable episodes of FRASIER. Do you have particularly fond remembrances of shooting that?

RA: I'm amazed - amazed - by how many people will say to me, "Oh, I loved you in that lavender nightgown," or, you know, whatever, in reference to that character on FRASIER. But, yeah - you're right. Television is amazing like that, though - you reach more people in one night than you can reach in a lifetime on the stage. That doesn't make it better, but it's just a fact. You know, though, it's interesting because I am a character actor, so people will just think they know me - "Oh, you're my dry cleaner, aren't you?" they'll say; or, "Don't I know you?" But, then, out of nowhere, people will pull something out of thin air - like that woman about EYES OF Laura MaRS at Restoration Hardware today - and that's why I remain astonished by what people remember me from. Honestly, I'm happy just to be a geezer character actor at this point.

PC: In touching upon your best remembered stage roles, I'd be remiss not to ask you about something as superb as CITY OF ANGELS...

RA: Oh, God - that was something, wasn't it?! Now, you have to remember, that was a show that was very technically difficult - especially for us at the time that we were doing it. And, we didn't do the show out of town, either - and, so, you know, everyone thought the show was going to be a big flop because we had some technical problems during previews and I remember I ran across the street to some friends on opening night and they had the review already and they gave it to me and I ran back across saying, "It's a smash! It's a rave!" and Bernie Jacobs, who was one of the producers, heard me and he said, "You're kidding!" [Laughs.]

PC: It defied the odds.

RA: It did. I had such a great time working with some amazing people - Larry Gelbart, who I just adored and treasured his talent so, so much. When I worked on SLY FOX, I just loved doing it just to work with him again - I loved it. And, on CITY OF ANGELS, Michael Blakemore was just a genius of a director - a genius. And, then, there was the cast - Jimmy Naughton and everyone else that was in it; they were all so great.

PC: Is there a director who has had more influence on you as a performer than any other? I'd assume Altman.

RA: In terms of film, definitely Altman. In terms of the stage, I would say Ed Sherin - just from my work with him on KING LEAR and the many, many things I did with him at the Arena Stage when we were both there in the repertory company. Those would be the two directors that I would single out - but, there are a treasure trove of great directors that I have had the opportunity to work with. I have been very lucky in my career in that regard.

PC: Was Katharine Hepburn the toughest actress to play against given your relative inexperience at the time you acted opposite her when you two did COCO or did you find it to be thrilling?

RA: Oh, Kate was amazing! Amazing. You know, my part was not a big part and I was carrying on and doing my thing and I remember that the director, Michael Benthall, came up to me at one point in rehearsal and said, [British Accent.] "You can't do that, dear boy! You simply can't do that," and Katharine said to him, [Katharine Hepburn Voice.] "What are you talking about?! That's the only amusing thing in the show!" So, it was really because of her that my role grew to the point that it was a role that could even be a role worthy of being considered to be nominated for a Tony Award or anything - it was all because of Kate; she never had any fear that anyone was going to steal the show from her.

PC: COCO also can boast the most elaborate Tony Awards performance to date - fifteen minutes; featuring dialogue, dance and song!

RA: Well, that's Michael - it all comes back to Michael Bennett.

PC: Those were the days!

RA: Right! They were.

PC: So, we've discussed so much that you've done already: what's next?

RA: Well, to be honest, I don't know what's going to be next. Right now, I am working on a one-person show about the writings of Tom Wolfe - I just did two performances of it in Denver and I am going to be doing it in LA in November. So, that is basically all I am involved in at this time. So, I will do whatever comes along. These days, I do a lot of STAR TREK conventions in order to raise money for Doctors Without Borders. And, I am artist, so we have a place in Mendocino County where I work on sculpture and wire sculpture and stuff. So, you know, I am in my seventies now and I am healthy and I still have my wits about me, so when an offer comes in I just decide if it is going to be worthwhile, if it is going to be lucrative and if it is going to be challenging and you never get all three at once, but if you get two out of three then I will go and do it.

PC: So, perhaps another Disney animated musical someday?

RA: Absolutely! Absolutely. Anytime.

PC: Lastly, are you pleased to see the acting bug has continued on with your son Remy, appearing on MAD MEN and many other TV shows?

RA: Yes, I am very proud of him - but, all I do is worry about it! That's the nature of being a parent, though.

PC: Thank you so much for this today, Rene - this was so fascinating and your career is so special.

RA: Thank you so much, too, Pat. This was great. Bye.

Photo Credits: Luigi Rosa, Flickr, etc.