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Star of Moliere Play Sounds Off on Role


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Here's a quiz about an actor whom you may know better than you think you do. Can you recognize this voice? Here he is first playing Father Mulcahy in the Robert Altman movie, "MASH."


NORRIS: (As Father Mulcahy) Look, I really must - I should check with the military vicar's office. You see, I cannot give absolution to a man who is about to commit suicide. It's a mortal sin.

SIEGEL: Second clue. Here he is as Clayton Endicott III from the 1980s TV sitcom "Benson."


NORRIS: (As Clayton Endicott III) Personally, I always hated being dragged to the zoo when I was a child. I particularly dreaded the monkey house. The stench would make a spy talk.


SIEGEL: I'll skip a cut of Odo from "Star Trek's" "Deep Space Nine" series and go straight to Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid," now showing at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C.


NORRIS: (As Argan) Ladies and gentlemen, you are privileged to witness tonight a unique occasion, an attempt on the world's speed record for performing my early one-act farce, "The Flying Doctor." I can assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that you will never have witnessed anything like it in the entire annals, ladies and gentlemen, the entire annals of the history of entertainment. Forty-five minutes boiled down to five. On your marks, get set, go.

SIEGEL: That is Tony award-winning actor, Rene Auberjonois, and those are just some of the countless characters he has played in a varied and very successful career that started almost 50 years ago - actually, more than 60 years ago in the school performance of "The Muffin Man."

NORRIS: We had just moved to Paris after the war and my father was a foreign correspondent. And at the end of the school year, we had to do a little performance for our parents, our families. I think it may have been because I wasn't very good with the tambourine or the triangle or the wooden sticks. So, I was given the job of conducting it, and I had a pencil and I stood in front of all the other students and we played...

(Singing) Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man?

...and I made little gestures. And then at the end, I took the applause as the conductor. And when my parents came to pick me up I said, at that time, I want to be an actor. And I think it's because even then I realized that I couldn't really conduct, but that must be what acting was. So, that's why.


SIEGEL: So you had settled on acting?

NORRIS: I settled very early and luckily - because my father is a writer and my grandfather was a painter, and then when we moved back to the States, we grew up on a road, South Mountain Road, that read like who's who in the American theater - there was always, sort of, an acceptance of the fact that, oh, it's okay, you can go into a business where you're not expected to earn any money. So...

SIEGEL: Oh. That road was - I mean, was it - Helen Hayes was on the road?

NORRIS: Helen Hayes, actually, wasn't on that road, but John Houseman and Burgess Meredith and Lotte Lenya and Maxwell Anderson, and there were wonderful, wonderful writers and cartoonists, Bill Mauldin. I used to baby-sit for all these people, Milton Caniff and - it was an amazing, amazing place.

SIEGEL: An artists' community.

NORRIS: Yes, very fertile.

SIEGEL: Well, at some point, you obviously turned to this almost lifelong ambition to be an actor into a going thing and to what you studied at Carnegie Tech, is it?


SIEGEL: How did that happen?

NORRIS: Well, it was really because - again, because of South Mountain Road, because one of our neighbors was John Houseman. And I - when I was 15 years old, I remember Norman Lloyd, wonderful actor, his daughter was my age and was a friend and she was going on and on about the fact that she was going to be an apprentice at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, and I was so jealous, I couldn't believe it. And I did that sort of thing that teenagers do - I sort of fantasized and I started telling my friends that I was actually going to go, with no basis in truth.

And one night, the phone rang at dinner. My dad hated it when people called during dinner and he got up and answered the phone. He said, it's John Houseman, and my heart sank because I knew I was caught in my lie, it all came through. And I went to the phone and I said, yes? And I heard John Houseman's voice say, Rene, I just wanted to tell you how pleased I am that you are going to be with us this summer. And they had, of course, arranged it all with my family. And so that's really when - that was my first professional gig.

SIEGEL: And that accent you're imitating, that's a Saint Louis accent I believe?


NORRIS: That was a very bad imitation of John Houseman. I'm so bad at that and I can do a little bit of Katherine Hepburn because I worked with her and I - you know, Rene, Rene, you know. But...

SIEGEL: In "Coco" this was the...

NORRIS: Yes, "Coco."

SIEGEL: ...you worked with Katherine Hepburn.

NORRIS: Decades ago.

SIEGEL: I first saw your name, Rene Auberjonois, credit in the Altman movies. And working with Altman, was it special, was it easy?

NORRIS: Bob Altman loved actors. He just - he loved everything about them, and that's not true of a lot of film directors. A lot of great film directors don't really trust actors or like them. Bob was a real collaborator, you could suggest anything to him and he would consider it. You never felt put down and you were always welcome to make any kind of suggestion. I mean, the propman could watch a scene and say, well, what if you did that, what if you said that. And Bob would go, you know, okay.

Everybody felt like they were very important. Everybody - even if they had one line in the film - well, of course, nobody had one line because you were all talking at once. And...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: But just an extraordinary kind of very unique way of working.

SIEGEL: Do you always feel - regardless of what you doing, whether it's stage or movies or television - that it's all acting, that it's all of a piece? Or are there things that are just much more genuine and much more important to you than other things? If you could be on Broadway all the time, would you be on Broadway all the time or television?

NORRIS: No, I would not. In fact, having just finished a week of doing eight performances in 6 days and five of those performances in three days, the truth is I was saying to my wife, you know, she asked how the week went, and I said, it was fine. I said, you know, there's a little part of me, from having done so much television, that's sort of feels like, well, that's a print, that's a wrap, let's go, you know?

And I said - and I'm really enjoying the run and the challenge of keeping the bubble underneath the performance. But I know it's going to be a challenge to do it for the next six weeks or so. And...

SIEGEL: So my experience of the play the night I'm there that's a unique moment, you know, that I...

NORRIS: Yes. I will say to you that you saw it on the press night. I knew that I was nervous; I was tensed about the fact that I was being judged. I said to my kids, you know, if my career depended on the reviews I'd gotten over my lifetime, I would probably be working in a bank in New Jersey because - well, I don't know if this is revealing more than I should, but when I get a good review, I feel like I got away with it. And when I get a bad review, I feel like I got caught.

SIEGEL: They found me out, you're saying.

NORRIS: They found me out. So there's no - it's a no-win situation.

SIEGEL: It sounds like you're saying, the first 40 years in the theater are always the toughest.


NORRIS: It just never gets easier.

SIEGEL: Rene Auberjonois is performing at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. in Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid."

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.