Rene Auberjonois Shifts Shapes Again

by Michelle Erica Green

Facing down Cardassians was nothing for Rene Auberjonois compared to watching Disney cartoons. "I always think Disney is quite weird and dark," explains the actor, who stars as Professor Buonragazzo in the upcoming Wonderful World of Disney musical Geppetto - soundtrack available April 4, television premiere May 7. "Bambi was one of my first primal scream experiences. It's terrifying for a kid."

Of course, genre audiences remember Auberjonois as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Odo. At the end of the series last year, Odo returned to his species' home in the Gamma Quadrant, which would seem to mark the end of his experiences with Starfleet. Or maybe not. Changelings live much longer than most humanoids, and can travel through space without a ship. Plus, we all know that even being dead doesn't preclude a character from returning on Star Trek.

"It was a wonderful, wonderful seven years on Deep Space Nine, but I was ready to do something different," says Auberjonois. The stage-trained actor first learned about Geppetto - a new version of the Pinocchio story - from Trek makeup artist Michael Westmore, who had been hired to do prosthetics. "In fact, he used a miniature version of Odo's ears for Pinocchio. Then I was called and asked to do the show. Tom Moore, who directed it, is an old friend, and I've worked with him many times in the theater and radio projects."

Composer Stephen Schwartz, best known for the musicals Godspell and Pippin as well as Disney's Pocahontas, is an old friend of Auberjonois' as well. Both men went to Carnegie-Mellon, where Godspell was written. Years ago, Auberjonois was offered a role in magician Doug Henning's musical Merlin, also written by Schwartz. Now he has come full circle. "In his senior year in high school, my son was in Godspell. I have so many friends who helped create that musical. But I never had done a Stephen Schwartz musical."

Auberjonois's daughter Tessa is now working on The Country Wife at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC. "I have two children who are actors, and believe me, it's a tough thing to watch, but they're doing great, so what can I say?" he marvels. "They have to swim on their own. But if I get enough of them out there, we'll outnumber the people who can't pronounce our name!"

Good Kids

Ironically, Auberjonois' character in Geppetto has a name nearly as difficult as his own: Professor Buonragazzo. "Just roll that 'R' in the middle there," Auberjonois says of the character whose name translates as "Professor Good Kids." In this comic retelling from Geppetto's point of view, Pinocchio runs away and his father pursues, encountering Professor Buonragazzo who tries to convince Geppetto that less-than-perfect children aren't worth the trouble.

"I create perfect children, but it's sort of horrible what a perfect child is - you wouldn't want to see it," the actor shudders. "My number is called 'Satisfaction Guaranteed.' It's pretty much the fifth act of the show, singing to Geppetto, trying to convince him to give up his search for Pinocchio because I can make him a better kid. I have a machine that keeps spitting out these perfect little children who are just revolting!"

Comparing Geppetto to Alice In Wonderland, Auberjonois calls the title character played by Drew Carey "a sort of wonderfully innocent man." Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the Blue Fairy, with Seth Adkins as Pinocchio. Next Generation alum Brent Spiner plays Stromboli, while Voyager's Scarlett Pomers appears as one of Auberjonois' "perfect children." With the exception of Buonragazzo, most of the other roles come from the classic story which was adapted into the famous Disney film Pinocchio.

"I think it's going to be just exquisite, from the little bit I've seen from my number when I went in to do looping," predicts Auberjonois. But will it be darker than the cartoon? "Probably, but I don't know. I've always found that with Disney, although it is all pretty, there are always very terrifying things in it."

Auberjonois played the hapless chef in The Little Mermaid, singing "Les Poissons" as he tried to chop friendly Sebastian into Crab Imperial. "Kids aren't scared by the character I played in The Little Mermaid, the crab gets so much the better of me, but they're terrified of Ursula," he observes, citing Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment on the underlying psychiatric relevance of fairy tales.

"Bambi resonated with me. Having the mother die, and the father, who had been totally out of the picture, return - that sort of reflected my life as a child. My mother didn't die, but I was born in 1940 and my dad went off to war. I didn't really know him until I was six-years-old."

One of the bonuses of doing Geppetto was that Auberjonois became friendly with Drew Carey, whom he describes as very talented and very generous. "He's a terrific, bright, witty man, and has included my wife and me on his guest list for the party he's giving in April. We have to appear with our passports, and we don't know where we're going - somewhere in the tropics, not Mexico, for a week! He's taking 30 friends and I'm included, as is Tom Moore. That's a nice little footnote to the whole Geppetto experience."

What You Leave Behind

Auberjonois is still in touch with many of his Deep Space Nine colleagues as well, including Andrew Robinson, who has just completed a Trek novel and is directing several plays in Los Angeles. He also has kept track of J.G. Hertzler, who recently completed a screenplay and is now working on a Trek novel. Does Auberjonois have any aspirations to write the story of Odo, as Robinson and Hertzler have done for Garak and Martok respectively?

"If I were going to write something, I think I would expend my energies in other directions," the actor admits. "Some of the fan stuff that I've read is absolutely wonderful. There are people who really feel passionately about it and have something to say, but I would have to beat my brains to think of something. That's not the way I want to go about writing."

"My fan club publishes a collection of the Odo stories, so I look through that," he adds. "It's amazing - a published writer and an associate dean at the University of South Carolina, there are a lot of very brilliant people who get caught up in this fable."

According to producer Ron Moore's posts on America Online, the fans played a significant role in the development of Odo in the final seasons, first protesting when the changeling was turned into a human being, then lobbying to pair Kira and Odo as a romantic couple after years of indications that Odo was in love with the first officer.

"There was a huge lobby for Kira and Bareil, and Kira and Dukat, and even Kira and Damar," Auberjonois laughs. "People get passionate. I have a core group of fans, the Rene Auberjonois Information List, it's called RAIL, and there's ORACLE, which is the fan club, and there's a web page. We are still very much involved with raising money for different charities, primarily Doctors Without Borders. With their incredible energy and organization, we have raised thousands and thousands of dollars for that charity and others. So I continue to remain involved. If conventions raise money for charity, that's a good reason to do them."

How did the actor feel about Odo's concluding arc, in which the changeling contracted the disease created by Section 31 to kill the Founders, then chose to return to his people to save them in the end? "I really did believe that that was the way it had to happen," says Auberjonois. "When I had the disease, I sort of teased Ira Behr, because I had a bet with Nana [Visitor] that I was going to die although I didn't really believe it. I said to Ira, 'You wouldn't have the balls to kill Odo, would you? I think it would be great, but I bet you wouldn't dare do that,' and he sort of laughed."

Auberjonois believes Nicole DeBoer's presence as Ezri Dax was "a real breath of fresh air" for the show's final season. "I think, like everybody, the writers had run a six-year marathon that suddenly had another year tacked onto it, and they were more tired than they knew. The lifeline for them was, ironically, the sad loss of Terry Farrell as Jadzia Dax. They were very lucky to get Nicole, who was wonderful, and it gave them something to write about, because I think they were running out of steam for the other storylines. They sort of got desperate in the end."

"I think that over all, these writers did just an amazing job over the years of turning out 26 episodes a year, and the standard of writing was generally so high," he adds. "If there was any criticism I had - and it's one that I'm not inventing, it was often articulated by other members of the cast, and was by some degree a phenomenon that existed even with The Next Generation - it is that often stories would have wonderful premises, and then would wrap up a little too quickly."

Auberjonois is quick to point out that he doesn't fault the show's writers for this problem. "Often they would have to just end a story, due to the difficulty of writing a drama which is not even one hour, it's 40-some minutes. It's very hard to structure anything with real depth in that kind of time frame. In fact, it becomes more difficult the deeper your premise is. If the scripts ever suffered, it was on the end of the long arc. They had to tie up all the loose ends, and try and make it all come out in the end."

"I also have to admit that I was a little disappointed by how much it was structured as almost a world war epic," Auberjonois admits. "The result was a less-than-fortunate vision of the future, where I believe war will be obsolete. It gave us a vision of the future where war continues to be the way that humanoids exist. I liked the fact that Deep Space Nine was grittier and darker and more neurotic, I had no problem with its divergence from the Roddenberry ethic, but I felt that ultimately, our responsibility was to find our way back. And I think it would have been possible."

Shape Shifting

Does Auberjonois hope to appear in the next film, or the next Trek series? "Hope, yes, but no expectation," he chuckles. "It was a wonderful journey for seven years. That's a long time, and I was fortunate to enjoy it the whole time. And fortunate that it came at a point in my life where I am for better or for worse already typecast and established, so Odo is not a character I have to try to shirk or shake off. He is just one of the characters I've played over a fairly long career" - unlike Clayton Endicott III from Benson, "a character that sort of stuck to me and I had to sort of run away from him."

"But I also don't feel that I need to revisit Odo or that there will be more to do with him," adds Auberjonois. "If they came to me and there was a wonderful concept, maybe. I never say never."

The actor was grateful for the opportunity to direct eight episodes of Deep Space Nine, which he compares to being given "the opportunity to get a graduate degree in filmmaking, and get paid do it. It was a wonderful, wonderful learning experience."

Even so, Auberjonois is not actively pursuing television-directing jobs like some of his former colleagues. "The truth is that directing one-hour episodic television is so stressful. Basically, your job is not derailing the train, which is going where it's going no matter what you do. So it's not something that I'm out beating the bushes for, though it was a great experience doing it on Star Trek in the bosom of the family."

Since Deep Space Nine, Auberjonois appeared as Artemus Bradford in Inspector Gadget and as James Callender in the telefilm Sally Hemings: An American Scandal. He also appeared recently in The Duel on PBS's The American Experience. "I did the voice of [Alexander] Hamilton, and Brian Dennehy did Aaron Burr. So I'm in my American Revolution period." In keeping with the era of Sally Hemings and Alexander, Auberjonois can be seen this summer in the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot, which opens July 4th.

"You've got to keep everything in perspective," he laughs. "When you do a film like The Patriot, you realize that Mel Gibson's agent earns more on the film than you will. Yet I felt very well paid. There are reasons for it."

In March, Auberjonois will be traveling to Vancouver to shoot an episode of Stargate. After that, he hopes to return to the theater, as so many of his Trek colleagues have done. "I'm working on doing a production of Sly Fox by Larry Gelbart sometime this fall, but nothing is completely set yet. I'm trying to get back to the stage with that project."

In a career that has encompassed over 100 films, TV shows, and plays, it will just be one more shape-shifting act for Rene Auberjonois.

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