Rene Auberjonois: From Benson to Boston
Rene Auberjonois, Boston Legal
Before "snark" was even a word, Rene Auberjonois
was wonderfully full of it as Clayton Runnymede Endicott III, the fancy-speaking foil to Robert Guillaume
's titular manservant-turned-civil servant on the '80s comedy Benson
. These days — and a sci-fi-fabulous run as Deep Space Nine
's Odo later — the veteran actor is sharing a set with fellow Star Trek
universe alum William Shatner
on ABC's Boston Legal
(Tuesdays at 10 pm/ET). In fact, Auberjonois' prickly Paul Lewiston recently embarked on a juicy new story arc, one of the many topics covered in this Q&A with TVGuide.com.
TVGuide.com: Long before there was The West Wing, before there was Commander in Chief, there was a little inside-political-life show called Benson, wasn't there?
Rene Auberjonois: [Laughs] Oh, for god's sake. You must have been a kid when that was on, judging from your voice. But it was a great show for kids.
TVGuide.com: What do you remember most about that experience?
Auberjonois: Well, I had resisted doing a series for a number of years. The first TV show I ever did was an episode of The Mod Squad, in 1971, and after that I was offered several different series, two of which ran a long, long time. One was M*A*S*H — I was asked to re-create the role I had done in the feature film, of Father Mulcahy. But when Benson came along, it was the right time. My kids were both in school and I really needed to settle down and have a steady income. It was a magical piece of timing in that I got to get up every morning, make the kids their breakfast and drive them to school, and then go to work with a wonderful group of actors.
TVGuide.com: In addition to turning down the M*A*S*H series, you were also offered the role of Bosley in Charlie's Angels?
Auberjonois: Yeah, but I don't like... [Groans, then laughs] I should shut up about those things, because the actors who did them... [William] Christopher, who played Mulcahy [on TV], was fabulous. I couldn't imagine anybody else doing it better. The same thing is true for [David Doyle on] Charlie's Angels. Why would I even compare myself?
TVGuide.com: The law-firm-based legal-drama genre has been plugging away for at the very least 20 years, if you measure from L.A. Law. How do you think David E. Kelley manages to keep it fresh on Boston Legal?
Auberjonois: I don't know. I'm amazed. How do you keep it fresh? I came off seven years on a Star Trek series that constantly amazed me. I tell you, after Deep Space Nine, I went on to do a guest-shot thing during Season 1 of Enterprise. Scott Bakula and I were on the set talking one day and he said, "This is a good script." I said, "Yeah, yeah, we did this one in Season 3." He looked at me like, "What?!" You do tend to tell the same stories again and again. I think the way David E. Kelley keeps it fresh is by dealing with the present and things that are happening in the news every day. It's not like Law & Order's "ripped from the headlines" stories, but David has a very strong sense of his civil responsibility. I know that sometimes he worries that he gets preachy, but I tell you, I wait every week to get the script and read James Spader's closing arguments. I'm so proud to be part of a show that deals with issues head on. Although it's totally clear where David's heart lies, he always manages to somehow present both sides and skew difficult issues in a way you don't expect. That is how he keeps it fresh.
TVGuide.com: What do you think are the biggest hurdles facing network TV?
Auberjonois: The real thing now is the difference between what you can do on cable and what you can do on network. One of the remarkable things about David is that Boston Legal is a show that, on face value, should be on cable, where he can use the language that obviously he's meaning to use. In fact, when we first get our script, he leaves the language the way he means it to be, and then you adjust it. You don't say, "F--- off," you say something else, but we know as actors what the intention is. So for me that's the big difference. Also, the very nature of the number of commercials leaves you 42 minutes [of storytelling] and really dictates the structure into five acts, and that is very, very difficult to deal with. A lot of shows don't deal with it terribly successfully, but David — and I really admire this — saw the skeleton that was required to hold the body together and he writes to it. I've heard him say in interviews that he would love to not have to do that, but I think he loves to be writing for network television because he wants to reach that kind of audience, the kind that doesn't watch cable.
TVGuide.com: Do you and Shatner share sci-fi-convention war stories?
Auberjonois: [Chuckles] To a degree. I've got to tell you, one of the great joys is Shatner. I just adore the man. If you had asked me five years ago — his reputation as a diva had preceded him and not to his best advantage. But then I started to meet him at conventions and I was completely charmed by him. One of the wonderful things about Bill is how interested he is in other people. He asks questions, as if he's Larry King. He has this insatiable curiosity about people, whether it's the grip or a craft-services guy or a makeup person....
TVGuide.com: What'd you think when Boston Legal dropped in that Star Trek communicator sound effect when Denny flipped open his cell phone?
Auberjonois: Loved it. There have also been other things, like a Klingon reference in the show about salmon fishing and "cling on" bacteria. Spader says something about cling-ons and Shatner goes, "Klingons?" [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: You had some interesting and very different father-daughter scenes in the Feb. 21 episode.
Auberjonois: Yeah, that's the beginning of an arc in which we find out a lot more about the private side of Paul Lewiston, and I love having that. Some friends of mine will say, "Oh, they don't use you enough!" and I look at them like, "What, are you wishing me to work hard? I'm 65 years old! I thought I was going to retire when this thing came out of nowhere!" It's the happiest gig of my life and I love to have challenging and interesting things to do. But I also don't mind if I'm just being grumpy Paul Lewiston, keeping everybody in line.
TVGuide.com: Paul's daughter, Rachel, is sticking around?
Auberjonois: She does for a good number of episodes. She's a wonderful actress, Jayne Brook. We reconcile and then I get suspicious that she's still on drugs, and then I find drugs, and then I do an intervention and have her dragged away to a rehab thing, and then I take custody of the child.... In the course of it, Mark Valley's character, Brad, gets attracted to her. In fact, I just finished shooting a scene where I tell him to stay away from her. [Paul's relationship with his daughter] is part of the fabric of the show now.
TVGuide.com: Having played so many judges and lawyers in your career, do you think you could represent yourself in traffic court if need be?
Auberjonois: No. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: You have done a great deal of voice work. What are the easiest and hardest aspects?
Auberjonois: The easiest is that you do it in an hour and you're out of there. The hardest thing is that often, especially if you are just a guest on Batman or whatever, you get the call to go in and you don't know if you're going to be doing an Italian bank robber or a mad Irish seaman or a German scientist, so you have to really be on your toes and be able to work spontaneously and quickly.
TVGuide.com: Lastly, of your many performances, what has been your most demanding acting role?
Auberjonois: Ironically, it was another David E. Kelley show, Chicago Hope, where I played a pediatric heart surgeon with Tourette's syndrome. I was very sensitive to the fact that I really had to do some very serious research on it to the point that I felt comfortable representing that particular malady. A year later at some Beverly Hills event to raise consciousness about Tourette's, they showed a clip of it. That made me very proud — that they felt that my representation was not demeaning to the people who have it.