In anticipation of the upcoming event, I met with René Auberjonois at his home in Anderson Valley and we were joined via Skype (audio/video feed to René’s laptop) from Paris. Yes that Paris, the one in France by René’s good friend, Howard Hesseman, who lives there part of the year, and who spoke to us on the condition that he didn’t have to wear any pants in the belief it would help with his answers.
Having interviewed René at length a few years ago, I posed the questions I concluded my interviews with in the “Lives and Times of Anderson Valley Folks’ series a couple of years ago. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and the rest I came up with myself.
First up, Howard Hesseman. (René sat in on this and spent most of the time laughing).
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing?. “What am I going to wear?” (René later confirms that Howard is serious about this. His two big passions are jazz and clothes).
What annoys you; brings you down? “We don’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore! He started the downward spiral.”
I mentioned that René and I had been talking about the decline of American “civilization” and that perhaps “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” had been the start of the rot and its weasel-like host, Robin Leach, the instigator. Howard commented, “Yes, he was mildly repulsive.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? “I definitely would prefer to have dinner with a live person. Peter O’Toole is a possibility but it would have been difficult to tell the difference. Actually he would be a very good choice, he always delivered.”
If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “A Keith Haring painting, a New York graffiti artist of the 1980s; my latest pair of shoes; and a photograph of my wedding day.”
Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “One film? Oh, god! As Picasso said when asked who was his favorite painter, “It depends on the day.” Let’s go with that Nicolas Roeg film with Mick Jagger and James Fox. I can’t remember the name of it (“Performance”). It’s between that and “Bambi.” A song might be “Too Young to Go Steady” by John Coltrane. No, I think it has to be “Flamenco Sketches,” the final cut on Miles Davis' classic “Kind of Blue” album. With extraordinary simpatico, Miles, “Trane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb create an aural offering which strikes me as being dead level with prayers. I've often thought it's the one tune I am certain I wish to be played at my funeral, as its interplay repeatedly conjures up within me a most exciting inducement to calm, something I would most like to share with friends as a final gesture. As for a book, that would possibly be a collection of short stories by Peter Benchley that I read in eighth grade and which made an enduring impact on what passes for my sense of humor. Other than that, it would be close between Ken Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Alexandria Quartet” by Lawrence Durrell.”
What was your favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? “My hobby at this time is realizing that what I was preparing myself for back then was to be a good interview.”
Do you have a favorite word or phrase that you use? “Close enough for jazz.”
What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “To make music.”
What profession or job would you not like to do? “To make music. It would have been a disaster. I can’t sing for shit and the ‘maths’ of music elude me completely.”
Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “This interview! Oh, and I would avoid my first two marriages.”
At this point, René informed Howard that his regret has always being his failure to thank people in his acceptance speech for his Tony Award. Howard responded, “I wish I could have been in a position to make an acceptance speech! My IMDB page (a biography of Howard’s film career) is an endless list of things I’d like to do again!”
A moment or period of time you will never forget?. “The first time I heard John Coltrane live. I realized I had been exposed to true artistry because I felt thoroughly innovated and energized and a definition of art is something that changes your feelings about life. Coltrane left me hanging on a parking meter, gasping for breath outside the Jazz Workshop on Broadway in San Francisco in 1959. It was the first time I knew I had been in the presence of a true artist.”
Something that you are really proud of and why? “My humility. It would be inappropriate for me to explain why.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? “That I have a brace of amazing and interesting friends, a gaggle even.”
What would be your “last supper’? “One of my wife’s “Blanquette de veau” (French veal ragout). Or a really good burger.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
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Next up, René Auberjonois.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “For those things to happen you must have hope and I get that from my grandchildren — Julian, Olivier, and Sunde.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “On a petty level it would be the traffic in Los Angeles. On a deeper level, it would be those things on the opposite end of the pendulum from hope and I despair that this country is in a very unhealthy place at this time.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “John Lennon.”
If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you?. “Apart from loved ones, I would grab my computer and hard-drive; a favorite piece of art which could be one of many; and perhaps the memento I got to keep from the set of Star Trek. the bucket into which my character Odo melted. It’s been quite a money-maker for the main charity I support Medecins san Frontiers (Doctors without Borders). At various charitable conventions I attend, people line-up to donate money in exchange for my cartoon drawing of the bucket with their name on. I believe I could auction the actual bucket one day and it would make quite a large sum. Besides that, it is something that represents me in some way. Yes, I probably would grab it on my way out.”
Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “For a film, how about “Throne of Blood” by Kurasawa — an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth; a song would be “September Song” by Frank Sinatra, written by Kurt Weill; and a book would probably be “Let the Great World Spin” by Colm McCann about the 1974 Twin Towers walk by Philippe Petit and much, much more. Or a wonderful book I just read called “The Anthologist” by Nicholas Baker. Like acting projects it seems that one’s favorite is the one you are currently working on.”
Favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? “Today it is probably still photography, but I bought a wood-burning pen that I use to carve and draw on my wood carvings. It is something I did as a teenager and recently I have taken up that interest once more and after many, many years have found myself getting back into it.”
Favorite word or phrase? “Well the f-word is one that most of us use often and at this point it is not really a swearword at all. I like ‘wanker’ and ‘bollocks’ too, or perhaps ‘brilliant’ and ‘adorable,’ although I tend to over-use them both!”
Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “A photographer — I am influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson — the father of modern photo-journalism, a real-life photographer. Hence the photographs of people in everyday life in my ‘Atmospheres’ project.”
Profession would you not like to do? “A worker at McDonald’s.”
Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “My acceptance speech for my Tony Award. I didn’t thank anyone. I should have thanked so many, particularly Katherine Hepburn and John Houseman — people who had helped me tremendously. I remember at age 16 wanting so much to be an apprentice in Houseman’s Shakespeare Festival. One evening the phone rang at home and my father answered and said, ‘It’s John Houseman for you.’ I said ‘Hello’ and John said, ‘René, I am happy that you are going to join us.’ It was a wonderful feeling — he was so generous and supportive. I should have mentioned him, and others — it is not often that you are in the right place and time to thank people and I missed my chance.”
A moment or period of time you will never forget? “Watching the birth of our first child. We were in Ireland where I was filming. It was at The Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, the oldest maternity hospital in the world, and the doctor was Rory O’Hanlon who looked like W.C. Fields in a rubber apron.
Something that you are really proud of and why? “Being married for 50 years.”
Favorite thing about yourself? “My sense of humor.”
Your “last supper’? “Sushi of some sort. I must say that the place in Ukiah, Oco Time, is unique in its style. I have eaten Japanese food in New York and LA, but that place is incredible.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “If he said “What took you so long?” it would mean I had led a long and rich life so that would be very good.”
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Finally, after we bade Howard farewell for now, I asked a couple of questions relevant to the upcoming show in the Valley. The event presented by the AV Education Foundation to benefit our local high school students.
How did René first met Howard? “We met in the late 60s in San Francisco when he was at The Committee, the cutting edge improv group, and I was at the American Conservatory Theatre of which my wife Judith and I were founding members. Both Howard and we moved to Los Angeles at about the same time around 1968 and knew each other down there, but it was not until about 1980 that we became good friends. That was when there was an actors’ strike and both he and I worked on a committee that organized a fundraiser for out-of-work actors that we put on at the Hollywood Bowl. We have remained close ever since and speak or skype regularly, emailing on a daily basis on one thing or another.
Why are you doing this event? “At times I wonder why! No, it is hard work but very rewarding. On a personal level, it is great to work with Howard and he loves to visit Anderson Valley. We both so enjoyed the first show we did here three years ago. There is less worry this time. I get stressed whereas Howard is very relaxed and laid back. We are trying to do it his way and he is very easy to work with so I am not as uptight this time. It will just be us reading various pieces of prose, short stories, song lyrics, all sorts of stuff.”
“On a community level, I sometimes feel a little guilty about using the Valley, not living here full-time and therefore unable to contribute in some way. Obviously the money raised will be going to a good cause but the show also allows me to give something back to the Valley; it is one thing I know how to do.”
Hope to see you at the show this coming Saturday, Feb 15th. Social hour is at 7pm, curtain at 8pm.