David Eyster – February 12th, 2011

I had arranged to meet with David at his recently purchased home in the Ukiah suburbs but with construction under way there it was decided we move to his office downtown. He was elected as District Attorney in November and at that time he immediately moved into a smaller office and out of “my predecessor’s huge office” which then became a conference room. This is where we sat down to chat…
David was born in the Detroit suburb of Livonia in 1957 to parents Charles ‘Chuck’ Eyster and Carolyn Rice. He is the family’s genealogist and so was able to go into some detail about his forefathers, the Eyster side of the family in particular… They were Lutherans who, as a result of religious repression, came to the States from Wurttemberg (now in Germany) in 1717 and settled in York County, Pennsylvania. There were lots of Eysters/Aisters/Oysters in the region but by the 1800’s the name was settled as Eyster. The family worked mainly in agriculture but they were successful blacksmiths too so that by the time of the Civil War they had become well-to-do merchants and were the outfitters for the Union army – providing horses, uniforms and food.
As the West opened up, the family spread to Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. “By that time we were in a church called The Brethren, a sort of Mennonite Christian group. I have researched all this after getting a book that was 32 pages long on the Eysters from my mother following the birth of my son in 1993. I continue to check weekly obituaries and the Internet has opened up a treasure chest of information so that there now are a further four to five thousand pages that I have added.”
David’s great Grandfather, Peter, was in the Ohio Volunteers who fought on the Union side in the Civil War, and he had a son, Charles Centennial Eyster, who was born on July 4th, 1876 – hence the name. Charles later became a Minister and missionary working in and around Ohio’s low hill country. He had a son, David’s father, the youngest of four, who was born in Mineral Springs, Ohio in 1921 and the Reverend went on to become the local Director of the Red Cross and a ministered to Prisoners. He died in 1936 and so David never knew him.
As for the Rice side of the family, they were of Scottish descent and had also come to the States in the 1700’s. They were Sons of the American Revolution and had fought in the War of Independence, one of them being a piper who had led troops into battle. “My great grandfather was a merchant in Dansville, Michigan and when he died unexpectedly my great Grandmother moved with the children to Ann Arbor where she ran a boarding house that paid for the boys to go to the University of Michigan Dental School. My grandfather and his brothers all became dentists in Detroit and his daughter, my mother Carolyn, went to the University of Michigan too, studying to become a dental hygienist. One day my father, who was a traveling salesman for the Indiana Safety and Supply Company, was in the chair at the dentist’s office and my mother was assisting the dentist as his hygienist. That is how they met and they were married in Detroit in 1953.”
David has an older brother and sister, Tim and Nancy, with a younger sister Amy. They grew up for a few years in Livonia but when his father became the Mid-west sales manager he moved to the main office in Coshocton, Ohio, east of Columbus, south of Cleveland. “I attended kindergarten in Livonia but then entered 1st grade in Coshocton, a town about the size of Ukiah. I used to bicycle all over town and yet my Mom always knew where I was – mothers would talk to each other throughout the day and they knew every kid’s whereabouts – and what you were doing wrong. We would explore the old strip mines in the coalfields on the outskirts of town. We lived in a part of town that was known as ‘Heated Hill’ – it was at the top of hill that was too steep to drive up in the winter ice so they put in electrical heating lines under the road to melt the ice. It was a nice, middle-class neighborhood and my parents belonged to the country club where there was a swimming pool and snack bar I spent lots of time at. It was seen as important for my Dad to be there for his business and he and I played in ‘father and son’ golf tournaments and I had tennis and ballroom dancing lessons too.”
“I guess overall I had a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ sort of upbringing. I was not spoilt but was certainly loved and had what I needed. My father was strict and we had to listen and anytime I was spanked I have no doubt that I deserved it. Then when my father was away on business, as he often was for two or three weeks at a time, my mother was almost as strict and not averse to giving us a whack too, although I never really felt it was arbitrary. We knew that if ever my parents made a request with a warning or threat attached, it would have to be obeyed because that would become a reality if we didn’t… We had our chores to do and my parents volunteered us to shovel the snow off our elderly neighbor’s drive – that was Grace and Clarence Miller and sometimes Mrs. Miller gave us a quarter for doing it – which was like a $100 bill to us in those days! It was a small-town mentality of helping and taking care of others…At school I was the Captain of the Safety Patrol and that gave me a sort of special status – a big deal back then. Then in 5th grade I started to play basketball and that became a big part of my life in the next few years. The whole town would watch the games it seemed and Coshocton High School had a good team for many years.”
In 6th grade, when David was twelve years old, his father was offered the job as Western Sales Manager and his parents made the decision to move. “In many ways my parents did not like the fishbowl aspect of living in a small town so they were fine with the move, although coming from very conservative, stable, small-town Ohio and moving to northern California in 1969 was a very brave move on their part. We settled in the East Bay in the town of San Ramon by Dublin, before moving to nearby Danville a year later. It was a cool place to live, an area where various celebrities and sports figures lived although they were on top of the hill why we lived down in the Valley. It was still quite rural at that time with walnut groves in Crow Canyon where the big corporate offices are now. I attended Charlotte Wood Junior High and once again rode my bike everywhere – it was safe to go far and wide in those days, we had no fear.”
At the age of thirteen David joined the Boy Scouts, a pursuit that he considers was invaluable in terms of building his character and providing him with many of the skills and experiences from which he has benefited on may occasions since. “My father told my older brother and me that if we were to do anything that he wanted us to do, it would be for us to become Eagle Scouts. We both eventually did… Scouting gave us many skills and a structure to our young lives. By the time I was fifteen I was a camp counselor at summer camp and teaching younger scouts all the skills of rowing, canoeing, camping, hiking etc, and I was a member of the national Rifle team, in which nothing less than bulls-eyes would do. Overall I was in the scouts for five years and I believe it’s something you have to get done before sports and girls take over, otherwise those other two activities will take over and you’ll never get it done.”
Sure enough, by the time he was a senior in high school, David had moved on to both girls and, particularly, sports – he was the starting point guard on the varsity basketball team at San Ramon H.S. “I was 6’1” and 170 pounds and we were given honorable mention in the preseason Top Ten East Bay poll that year. We lost to the number one team but then won the rest of our preseason games. It looked good. Then we lost every regular season game by five points or less! Incredible. It was certainly character building but very frustrating obviously – my claim to fame was that I led the team in technical fouls! We had a good team, no stars, and it was a good experience. Lots of discipline and values were instilled that season – life skills, if you like.”
David was a B+ student and found high school generally quite easy. “I probably could have done better at school but it was important to have fun and I probably did things on the weekends that I shouldn’t have, but we were always discrete – unlike a lot of the kids these days… Meanwhile, I was accepted at U.C. Santa Barbara – it was just expected that I’d go to college, my family had all gone and it was not a case of ‘are you going to college?’ but ‘where are you going?’ “ He graduated high school in June 1975 and began his pre-Dental studies that fall. “I loved chemistry and, as I mentioned earlier, my mother’s side had all been in the dentistry profession – it was the Rice legacy! However, once at college I found that I really didn’t like the subject at all. I spoke to a counselor and he advised that I try out other subjects. I did some Political Science classes and not only enjoyed them but got all A’s. I told my parents that I wanted to switch to law and they were fine with it. My father had graduated from Kent State at sixteen and I remember vividly walking around the U.C.S.B. campus with him during my freshman year and the conversation we had. He told me there were more opportunities to learn from at college than just those in the classroom. His expectation was that I was to take advantage of them all – to have fun; there were social experiences to be enjoyed too. He told me to not miss out on the ‘life education’ available. I followed his advice.”
David lived in dormitories all four years at college. In his sophomore year he was the co-Chair of his dorm and in his junior year he became the President of the Residents Hall Association, responsible for scheduling multi-dorm events, speakers, entertainment, dances, movie nights, etc. “I ran for Student Body President but lost – probably a good thing, besides we had a great ‘defeat party.’ Then in my senior year I was the Resident Assistant for my hallway in the dorm… I continued to play basketball but it was clear I’d be a bench player on the college team at most so I concentrated on intra-mural ball instead. We had a great team, probably competitive with most junior colleges and I averaged 24 points a game over my final three years… I had lots of fun at college but not enough credits as a result. I was therefore planning to do a fifth year when the registrar informed that I had actually achieved enough to graduate – that was a great disappointment to me! I hadn’t applied to graduate school or anything so when I graduated in June 1979 a month later I took a clerk position at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. I car pooled to work from the East Bay with Richard Dean (the Clerk of the Court), Marcie Green, and David Schmitt – three high level court people. That didn’t hurt as it turned out…”
When the employee in charge of the court’s computer records quit, Richard Dean asked David to step in and learn the very unique system that was in place. He was soon in charge of the programs and over-seeing the data input of the 9th Circuit’s computer system. “I was living with my parents in Danville and commuting in each day to the court building at 7th and Mission. I also traveled to wherever the appellate panels were held in the 9th Circuit – to both Portland and Los Angeles. I was responsible for taking the briefs, setting the court up, and keeping track of the minutes and time, etc – I was kind of a gopher and it was all about business, although it was a lot of fun. However, my parents had instilled in me the desire to meet or exceed the achievements of the previous generation and they wanted me to go to Law School. Plus, with my new experiences in court, I had decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer… I had met two senior judges at work – Alfred Goodwin and Otto Skopil, and they had taken an interest in me, recommending I apply for Williamette University College of Law in Oregon. I took some tests and applied. It is the oldest university west of the Mississippi, an Ivy League-looking school, and I was accepted to join their 100th centennial class and headed for Salem, Oregon in August 1980.”
David was kept on as a consultant by the Court in San Francisco to answer any questions they may have had and he checked in every week. Williamette has a reputation for producing courtroom trial lawyers and offers a very rigorous three-year course. At the end of his second year, David took on a temporary job as an environmental law clerk in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Portland. “I was selected out of a group of clerks by the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Tom Lee, which was an honor. He is an extremely capable attorney, not flamboyant, kind of quirky.”
David graduated in May 1983 and decided to return to California where he took a job as law clerk with the law firm Kiernan and Finnegan in their Marina District office in San Francisco. “I was offered a job there because the big attorney there was David Schmitt – from the car pool I had been in, and so I returned to the city and moved back in with my parents.”
In October 1983, David was socializing in San Francisco’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’ section of the Marina District with friends from his high school days. There was an altercation with some drunken rugby players from the University of Southern California, up in the Bay Area for the Cal/U.S.C. football game. At one point David was trying to settle a dispute outside a bar when he was suddenly blindsided with a tremendous punch to the face. He went down but chased after the perpetrator, down alleyways, in a taxi ride when both of them got in the same cab, across the City to Union Square, and eventually getting two cops’ attention by grabbing the guy in the street and shouting ‘Help, police!’ After explaining what had happened to the cops, they found cocaine in the guy’s pockets and arrested him. Meanwhile David’s mouth had been continually filling up with blood throughout this whole sequence of events.
“The cop who saw me first said ‘Oh my God’ and immediately called the ambulance and I was rushed to hospital. That one punch had broken my jaw in four places – it had basically shattered my face. It turned out he was the President of the U.S.C. Rugby Club. One of my friends who had tracked me down to the hospital had to finally pluck up enough courage to call my Dad. Apparently he phoned and, when my Dad picked up, my buddy Mike said, ‘Hi, Mr. Eyster’. My Dad knew right away something was up and said ‘Cut the shit, Mike, what’s going on?’… I was in hospital for a week and had to have jaw reconstruction surgery. The guy was convicted of felony battery and sentenced to 180 days and restitution for hospital bills.”
With his jaw wired shut, David was on liquid foods and lost a lot of weight. He could hardly talk and had to leave his job as a result. However, in 1984 he passed the Bar exam and started to apply for jobs from Orange County in southern California up to Mendocino County. The Mendocino D.A., Vivian Rackaukas, interviewed him and although he had never been to the County before, when she offered him the job he accepted. On October 26th, 1984 he started as the Deputy D.A. in the then-underachieving Family Support Division of the DA’s Office.

Part 2

“As I tried to revitalize the County’s child support enforcement effort it meant lots of civil work, not much criminal, but I threw myself into it and got a lot done, getting the Family Support division out of disarray. We had an office in the courthouse annex and had a staff of women who were sensational. One of them Carmen Macias runs my office here today. I found myself working seven days a week – there hadn’t been an attorney in the department for several months. I lived on West Perkins St and walked to and from work. We had a huge caseload to catch up with but we both worked and played hard so it was a lot of fun… Also, the D.A. let me cherry-pick some criminal cases so that I could continue to work on my trial skills. Emily Valentine, a legal secretary, taught me the ropes at the D.A. office – she was my surrogate ‘butler.’ I am very appreciative of her efforts and will be a friend of hers until the day I die – ‘it’s good to have a guide in a foreign land’”.

In 1986, Susan Massini became the new D.A. and she transferred David to the Felony Trial Team. Meredith Lintott, who would later precede him as D.A, replaced him at Family Support. During his tenure as a prosecutor, David rose through the ranks to become the office’s senior supervisor and the County’s lead criminal trial attorney. Many articles have been written of his courtroom successes over the year, as he personally handled Mendocino County’s serious and violent crimes. He is known for being an innovator; an attorney always on the cutting edge of law and technology. He was the first prosecutor in the state to obtain a conviction that resulted in a large- scale commercial abalone poacher being sent to prison. Using the Three Strikes law, he personally prosecuted the serial arsonist who had been setting random fires that endangered the town of Mendocino, obtaining convictions at trial that resulted in the arsonist being sent to prison for 105 years to life. On a less successful note, in 1992, David ran for judge against Henry Nelson. “He blew me out of the water.”

“I did very well as a prosecutor and went two years without losing a case. I became pretty cocky and forgot the adage that ‘if you haven’t lost, you haven’t tried enough cases’. It hit me one day. I then lost three in succession, two because of poor jury selection by me. It brought me down to earth and helped me refine my trial skills. In 1990 I was promoted to the county’s first ever Deputy D.A. 4 – a super-level manager. We have eight of those now.”

In 1990, David married Gail and their son Dylan was born in 1993. “Ultimately things did not work out and we went through an acrimonious divorce – unfortunately Dylan was a victim of that. It was finally settled in 2006 and I remain friends with some of my former wife’s family.”

During his time in the D.A.’s office, David was responsible for reviving the Fort Bragg “cold case” that involved the brutal murders of a family of four by two Hell’s Angels, both now serving life sentences in prison. “That was a big success for me. I managed to put together a very difficult and complex case in the context of the Hell’s Angels code of silence. However, other attorneys finished the case as Susan Massini had fired me before it was concluded. I had complained publicly that I was not getting the necessary resources from her and I was the most visible and vocal attorney in the office on that issue. Meanwhile she was running for Judge against Ron Brown and I had a ‘Ron Brown for Judge’ sticker on my car. It was a matter of principal. On the day of the vote in her race, she came into my office at 1.30pm with an investigator, demanded my badge, and gave me two hours to get out. She was firing me after eleven and a half years. She left and told the investigator to stay at my door. He was wearing a gun and she instructed him to make sure I did not take any files or the hard drives from the computer. After she left, I told him I was leaving with my floppy discs as they were my private and personal files and if he tried to stop me he’d have to shoot me. When I left a little later he was no longer around. It was traumatic experience – I thought I had been doing the work of three attorneys and doing it well.”

“Massini and I had been at loggerheads from the fall of 1995 until the day I was fired – March 26th, 1996. I had been the number one applicant as a prosecutor for a job in Sacramento and she influenced the decision to not hire me. I really thought she’d let me go and get another job, but no. Then she fired me on the day of her possible election to Judge. It was on the local news that afternoon that the Deputy D.A. had been fired and yet the people were still going to the polls. It was a very poor emotional decision by her – somebody who was normally a very smart and a good politician, and Ron Brown won. It a miscue by her and turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

“I had been fired with two hours notice and had no career plan. I was offered and accepted a job with the Lake County D.A. for a few months that summer and it allowed me to ‘get back in the saddle’ again, and also time to reflect on whom my real friends were. Henry Nelson, who had been my opponent in the judicial race of 1992, was very supportive. The whole event changed my world view quite a lot.”

David continued his career growth by working from late 1996 through 1998 as an attorney for the prestigious Sacramento law firm of Burger & Plavan. “The firm had a reputation for excellence and a track record of winning. I went from being in a rural D.A.’s office to an elite law firm – and without help from anyone in the car pool this time!… There were about eighteen to twenty lawyers, a big staff, and big money – but we worked really, really hard. The partners were husband and wife – Frank Plavan and Trena Burger. She is now a judge in Sacramento and actually swore me in as D.A. last year. Because of my criminal law background, I played a major role in the California Department of Corrections’ successful multi-million dollar information technology lawsuit against a national defense contractor – TRW. I was the Second Chair Trial Attorney and briefed the government and its representatives. This was a big time case and TRW settled, paying significant funds to the State, in what was the first win for the State in such a case.”

In November 1998, with Frank Plavan in poor health, the firm was gradually closed down and David, one of the last to leave, found a job working for Miller and Associates, a Santa Monica criminal defense law firm, at its office in Roseville, near Sacramento. “I appeared in courts everywhere from Merced to Oregon and into Nevada – overall I have worked in thirty two of the State’s fifty eight counties. Such experience, seeing how other counties do it, has given me many interesting insights.” After nearly four years at Miller and Associates, in 2002 he went to work for a competing firm, the Chase Law Group for another four years before returning to Ukiah in 2006 and becoming the Northern California supervisor for two nationally known criminal defense law firms, one of which was the law office of Duncan James in Ukiah.

In December 2009, David decided to run for District Attorney. “I had Duncan’s blessing despite the fact that he would be losing someone who did lots of work for the firm. After a run-off with Meredith Lintott, the incumbent, David won the election by a significant margin, 53.5 to 46 – “It was the largest victory in a D.A. election for twenty five years, normally these elections are won by four points or less. I appreciate the work put in by so many people for that. The campaign was enjoyable, if at times tedious. I was still working at the law firm and it was tough to do both. I am not a very good politician and we did not have a strong campaign apparatus so we relied on word of mouth, reputation, lots of work at the grass roots level, and I shook lots of hands and I won the debates heard on radio. Our Facebook page was a success too, as was the ‘Eyster4DA.com website.”

Looking ahead, David is clear of the need to hit the ground running and leading by example. “I believe it is very important that the residents of Mendocino County be proud and supportive of their DA’s Office, a support that must be earned however. It is difficult to support an office that is wasting resources by prosecuting the wrong people and cases, and not acting in the interests of justice. I hope to change that.” He also believes low employee morale is negatively impacting the overall performance of the DA’s Office. “It is important that any staff believe that their boss has the right experience to know what he or she is talking about.” Moreover, he believes in what he calls “old school” priorities, meaning the main focus of prosecution efforts should be on the “thugs” who victimize others. “We live in a time of limited resources. As a result, the DA’s limited resources need to be first allocated to prosecuting crimes with direct victims. If you hurt or steal from your neighbor, you will see me in court and I will be firm and focused on seeking justice. I seek to be both a cost-effective manager and a courtroom advocate. I am not interested in pushing paper in my office while others are doing the important work, especially when that work involves standing up for victims of crime. I intend to lead by example, which may be a new experience for many of the staff at the DA’s Office.”

I next asked my guest for his opinions on a few of the issues that concern the residents of the Valley and beyond in the County… The Wineries and their impact? – “They are a promoter of tourism that is necessary in this county, keeping dollars in the coffers. Along with the ranchers and timber people they are the stewards of our land, and they are keeping it from being developed into housing”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “It has been a nemesis and a friend at different times and for different reasons. It is entertaining and not as mean-spirited as it used to be. It continues to provide a valuable service and do some good investigative work”… Law and Order in Anderson Valley? – “The Valley is blessed with having resident deputies who are generally taking care of business without bringing it over the hill. I believe it is imperative that the quality of life afforded by having them be continued. The Supervisors have to make very difficult decisions but we must maintain the core facilities – the Sheriff’s department and the D.A.’s office, the Fire department, and the roads and infrastructure. They are the core businesses of the County and need our support first and foremost.”

Finally, marijuana? – “I’m trying to take it off the front page. I believe the previous DA allowed her office and the courts to become bogged down by marijuana.” He blames this on poor charging decisions, which flow from ill-advised policies and priorities. “The philosophical fight is over. The voters have made medicinal marijuana the law. It is legally and morally wrong to prosecute patients who are trying to comply with the letter and spirit of the law. If I am going to direct the prosecution of anybody for marijuana, let it be the able-bodied, illegal profiteers and trespassers who trash our lands, kill wildlife, divert water resources and make parts of Mendocino County a dangerous place to live.”

Turning from talk of his career, I asked David for a strong image he has of his father. “A funny guy; somebody you would want to have as a friend. He had a stroke in 1994 and didn’t talk much after that. His quality of life was not good after that until he died in 2004. Dr Kevorkian would have pulled the switch much earlier”… And a reflection on his mother? “She is still in the family home in the East Bay. She had a stroke in 2001 but it was not as debilitating as my Dad’s. We have a care provider, Lotta, who does a wonderful job. She was a good mother, there for everything you needed. The stroke robbed her of her initiative and independence though.”

To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few questions to my guest. 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. Hopefully you will find David’s answers interesting and illuminating…

1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Nice people; good weather; a wonderful glass of red wine.”

2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “People who don’t listen; mean-spirited people; bad red wine.”

3. What sound or noise do you love? – “All types of music.”

4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Finger nails on a blackboard.”

5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “A really good steak or turkey dinner.”

6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “My father – I’d love to sit down to dinner with my Dad once more.”

7. 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 framed picture of my son; an external hard-drive with all of my music; the ashes of my dog Murphy – a very special dog indeed.”

8. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “The movie would be ‘The Sound of Music’ and the song would be from that film – ‘Edelweiss’… I listen to lots of books on tape and one that I have enjoyed immensely of late is the autobiography of Mark Twain – recently released, one hundred years after his death.”

9. What is your favorite hobby? – “Genealogy and wine collecting.”

10. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? – “An international airline pilot.”

11. What profession would you not like to do? – “Sewer cleaner or perhaps someone who takes care of snakes.”

12. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “Well it’s not so much feeling proud, more humbled, by the number of friends I have.”

13. What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The birth of my son, Dylan.”

14. What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “My father’s passing?

15. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “That I have a good laugh and smile, and hopefully some people think I have a good sense of humor.”

16. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well that is to be seen of course, but what I’d like to hear him say is “Thank you for helping others’…”


Published in: on February 24, 2011 at 5:32 pm  Comments (1)  

René Auberjonois – January 31st, 2011

I met with René Murat Auberjonois (English pronunciation: oh-BUR-zhen-WAH) a week or so ago at his beautiful home with quite stunning Valley views from the foothills on Deer Meadow Road, east of Boonville. He kindly served up some delicious cold roast chicken and tossed Italian salad, along with a bottle of Pinot Noir from Navarro Vineyards and our conversation began…
René is an American character actor perhaps known best for portraying Father Mulcahy in the movie version of ‘M*A*S*H’ and for creating a number of characters in various long-running television series, including Clayton Endicott III in ‘Benson’ (for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award), Odo on ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’, and in more recent times, attorney Paul Lewiston on ‘Boston Legal’.
René was born in New York City. His father, Swiss-born Fernand Auberjonois (1910–2004), was a Cold War-era foreign correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer. His grandfather, also named René Auberjonois, was a French Swiss post-Impressionist painter. His mother, Princess Laure Louise Napoléone Eugénie Caroline Murat (1913–1986), was French and a great-great granddaughter of Joachim Murat, King of Naples, and his wife Caroline Bonaparte, sister of the Emperor Napoléon. His maternal grandmother, Hélène Macdonald Stallo (1893–1932), was an American, from Cincinnati, Ohio; his maternal grandfather’s mother was a Russian noblewoman, Eudoxia Michailovna Somova (1850–1924), and his maternal grandfather’s paternal grandmother, Caroline Georgina Fraser, was also an American, from Charleston, South Carolina.
René’s mother came to the States from France in the thirties where, as a debutante “looking for a wealthy American husband”, she met the French-speaking Fernand and they were married and settled in New York. René has a brother, Michael, two years younger, and a sister, Anne, fourteen years younger, and also two half-sisters from his mother’s first marriage. René’s father served as an intelligence officer in World War 2 and landed on the Normandy beaches in 1944, later publishing the first newspaper in liberated France. After the war, Fernand worked as the Time life correspondent in Paris and moved his family there for a few years before moving back to the U.S. in 1948 where they joined an artists’ colony in Rockland County, New York.
“We were there from when I was eight to sixteen years old – the longest period of my childhood that we were ever settled, and for me the happiest. It was about thirty miles outside of New York City and there was no real town to speak of. I attended the local public school in a little red brick building and also went to junior high and high school there for a couple of years. The nearest town would be Nyack, near to the Tappan Zee Bridge that was being built over the Hudson at that time.”
“We lived on what was a country road whose residents were a ‘Who’s Who’ of American theater at the time, including actors Burgess Meredith, John Houseman, Helen Hayes, and Lotte Lenya, playwright Maxwell Anderson, and the composers Alan J. Lerner and Kurt Weill, amongst others. We lived in a pre-Revolutionary War Inn over-looking the Hudson River. We were neighbors of many people in the theater business and I would baby-sit their kids when I was in my early teens. Being in that environment confirmed my decision to act. I loved the outdoors and rode my bike everywhere and with my mother being the den mother of the local cub-scout group, looking back it was an idyllic, Norman Rockwell-like life for that eight years.”
“I had known I wanted to be an actor since I was six years old, while not knowing exactly what that was. My father had always encouraged any artistic pursuits and my grandfather and namesake, René was a famous Swiss painter whose works appear in most Swiss museums. My father, apart from being a writer/journalist, was a poet and very good illustrator. My parents encouraged my actor’s temperament and I’d entertain them with my imitations of the local church minister.”
“I also met one of the most influential people on my life during this period – the actor/director John Houseman, who was to become a major mentor to me. He gave me my first job in the theater at sixteen years of age as an apprentice at a Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut where I was credited as ‘spear carrier.’ We worked together again later, when I taught under him in the Drama Department at the Juilliard School in New York City.”
However, by the early to mid-fifties many residents of this artistic community were blacklisted as a result of Senator McCarthy’s communist ‘witch-hunts’. “My father was cleared of all charges but nevertheless, following his years of service to the country, which included being decorated, he became very disillusioned and could not avoid feeling betrayed by a country that he had served so well. He found work as the foreign correspondent for a group of newspapers in the mid-West, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and in 1956 the family moved to England where I was to complete high school while studying theatre there.”
“In the U.S. at the age of sixteen, striving to be an actor and with what was seen as a girls’ name, I was somewhat alienated from many of my contemporaries. Although I loved reading I did not like schoolwork and was doing poorly academically. I had been performing in plays at various colleges along with Hendrick Hertzberg, now editor of the New Yorker magazine, Marlon Brando’s nephew, and Adam Saroyan, William Saroyan’s son, but apart from that I was in something of an adolescent fog before going to England.”
In England René attended a private school in Welwyn Garden City about twenty miles outside London where he attended a local school and was boarded with Maude and Harry Edwards, who were the refectory housekeeper and the gardener at the local White Horse pub respectively. ”My parents lived in Earl’s Court in London where my father continued his foreign correspondent work and my mother looked after my sister. I’d visit them there and go out with a friend, Lindsay Clennell, to various dives where we’d listen to jazz and smoke cigarettes. He remains a dear friend and is now a yoga teacher in New York. However, most of the time I was in the countryside and going to school. I ironed my own trousers, shined my shoes, and rode my bike to school every day. I was two years behind the other kids in my education but fortunately the headmaster was a theater buff. I became a School Prefect and Head of House and I had a wonderful time. In the States I had been an uncomfortable outsider whereas in the U.K., with my European and artistic background, I was seen as being somewhat exotic and my desire to act was applauded by my friends. Although I knew I wanted to return to the U.S., my time in England was very influential, a ‘life-saving’ experience in a sense, giving me exposure to theater and wonderful acting. When much younger I had leaned towards becoming a clown in the theater and had learned a lot about make-up, but seeing Alec Guinness and some other great actors perform in England made me realize I wanted to be a character actor.”
René returned to the states in 1958 although his father, apart from brief visits never did go back. “He continued to travel all over the world in all the hot spots, becoming the dean of American Foreign Correspondents based in London. He eventually moved to Ireland where he died in 2004 at the age of ninety-four.”
René wanted to go to university with a strong drama department but his academic qualifications were poor. However, John Houseman gave him a strong recommendation and the head of the Drama Department at Carnegie-Mellon University, then the Carnegie Institute of Technology and one the top three schools offering such a course, had seen him in a play at the age of fourteen. As a result, René was accepted in the fall of 1958 and spent four wonderful years getting his bachelor of fine arts degree.
“In theatrical terms, by my senior year I was the ‘the big man on campus’ – I should blush for saying that but I had certainly made my mark… One evening at the beginning of my final year in the fall of 1961, I was at the Holiday Bar and Grill drinking ten cent beers and watching the new crop of freshmen dancing. One adorable creature was doing a marvelous ‘twist’ – her name was Judith Mihalyi. We started dating and we were married a couple of years later in 1963. She was nineteen and still at school and I was twenty-two – ‘a cradle robber as she has often reminded me. We have now been married for forty-seven years but just recently she pointed out that I’m pushing eighty and she’s just past sixty. Not strictly true but she made her point.”
Following an act passed by President Kennedy, as a married man, René avoided the draft. “I would have gone to Canada, not to war. Judith’s father, a cabinet-maker from Hungary and a marvelous man, had said he would pay for her education but not for another man’s wife’s education, so we kept our marriage quiet. Then when Judith graduated in 1965 we made it official with family and friends.”
Upon graduation in 1962, René landed a job with the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. doing three seasons of ten shows each. “I played a huge range of roles and worked with some wonderful actors. It was the golden age of regional repertory theater and lots of money was being invested. It was a magical three years… In 1965 I left to join the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) with Judith joining the company too and we sort of wallowed in the wilderness for six months or so, performing anywhere we could. In the summer of 1966 we did a performance of Charlie’s Aunt’ at Stanford in Palo Alto and members of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce were in the audience. They invited us to be the resident theater group at the Geary and Marine’s Theaters in S.F. and we embarked on a very intense two years in which I was continually acting and/or directing. We did some amazing stuff and had a great time but I was burnt out after a couple of years.”
In the spring of 1968, René left the A.C.T. and moved to Los Angeles where he worked with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy for a few months. A movie role had fallen through and there was no more theater there, so after six years in regional theater, it looked like he would turn to television or film. However, he suddenly landed a role on Broadway so he moved to New York City and was soon appearing in three plays at once: as Fool to Lee J. Cobb’s ‘King Lear’ (the longest running production of the play in Broadway history), as Ned in ‘A Cry of Players’ (opposite Frank Langella), and as Marco in ‘Fire!’ The next year, he earned a Tony Award for his performance as Sebastian Baye alongside Katharine Hepburn in Coco. “I had actually played ‘Lear’ with the A.C.T. in Pittsburgh a few years earlier when I was twenty-five – far too young to really capture the role. Over time, the role of Edgar in that play became my favorite and the version filmed for P.B.S. television is the role of which I am most proud – I gave my best performance ever, with James Earl Jones as Lear. Working with Katherine Hepburn was a wonderful experience. She was so generous and supportive and always very self-confident. Thanks to her support, my role in ‘Coco’ became far more significant than originally planned and I was fortunate enough to win a Tony Award.”
“As for the critics, most of the harsh ones like Walter Kerr and John Simon eventually decided I was o.k. I remember John Simon of New York Magazine saying of my role as a mad man in an asylum – ‘The People’s Actor, René Auberjonois, is too obviously mad,’ and he said of my performance as Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that it was ‘Shakes without peare’ – that is very funny. Later when I appeared with Mikhail Baryshnikov in ‘Metamorphosis’ he said my role was ‘courageous’ and he had come round to admiring my work at that point.
His first movie work was a small, unaccredited role in 1964’s Lilith with Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg but then prior to appearing in ‘Coco’ on Broadway, and during rehearsals for another show on Broadway, René met with a relatively unknown film director, Robert Altman. They talked and Altman told him there was a very small part as a priest in an anti-war film he was making. “He asked me how I would play this priest. Well I had a friend who was a priest and I thought of him – a shy, bubbling, and sweet-natured man. Altman thought that would work, very different from the red-haired robust character in the original screenplay. He said he hoped the play would be a flop so that I could appear in the film. The play was – lasting just five days – and so I flew to L.A. in June 1969 to work on the movie M*A*S*H, playing the part of Father Mulcahy.”
“Bob Altman loved actors, many directors don’t. He also loved acting. The film was made for $5 million, shooting in Malibu Canyon with mostly unknown actors, even Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, and Sally Kellerman were not well-known at that time. The studio wasn’t really paying much attention to the film and it turned out quite different from the original screenplay by Ring Lardner and very much removed from the book… Before it was released there was a screening for the critics in New York and when Pauline Kael, the most important critic in the country at the time, was asked what should be done with the movie, she said ‘Are you nuts? – Release it!’ It became a huge hit… It was a very different time in filmmaking. You could walk into Altman’s office any time and have a chat with him or whichever actors were hanging around. Not these days. You never get to see the director, it’s all done by phone, text, or e-mail.”
“We met up two days prior to shooting and most actors probably thought that was how movies were made. There was lots of improvising on the set, but always off camera, before the take. On Robert Altman films actors can claim to have made up most of what they said, and I worked with him on four movies. Certainly everyone, from the actors on down to the prop guys, could put forward ideas for the film and these would be accepted or passed over in the rehearsal stage, but, by the time the cameras were rolling, the dialogue and scenes had been set and it was all Altman, who would then show such confidence in his own sense of things.”
As mentioned above, René appeared in four films directed by Robert Altman. “The second one was ‘Brewster McCloud’ with Bud Cort in which I played a bird expert who gradually turns into a bird. I did that in one day – thirty scenes. Then it was ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, both of whom I’d worked with earlier. It is Altman’s best film, when he managed to assemble the perfect confluence of actors, something he always strived for… Then in 1971, with Judith eight months pregnant with our daughter Tessa, he called me and asked if I could fly to Ireland and appear in his film, ‘Images’, opposite Susannah York. I said ‘no’, that I had to be with Judith for the birth, but Judith said ‘Don’t they know how to have babies in Ireland?’ So we flew over, I made the movie and was on set every day apart from the day when Tessa was born, following five days of hospital care during which Judith drank a Guinness stout every day and learned to make Irish soda bread”… René has been quoted as saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about this. My wife, Judith, is the best person in the world.’
René did not make any more movies with Altman, who would make one a year with little money in them, but he continued to perform in plays on Broadway with appearances that included Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1972) and he received another Tony nomination for Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor in1973, opposite Christopher Plummer. Nevertheless, René decided he needed more regular work so he turned to television. His first role was on ‘Mod Squad’ and in those early days he also appeared on ‘Starsky and Hutch’ but turned down both the Father Mulcahy role on the television version of M.A.S.H. and the Bosley role on ‘Charlie’s Angels’. “We bought a house in Beverley Hills and our son Remy was born in 1974. I continued to make movies such as ‘The Hindenburg’ with George .C Scott and Burgess Meredith; Pete ‘n’ Tillie with Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett; and the ‘King Kong’ remake with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange.”
During the seventies he was a guest star on many different television series, including The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, Starsky & Hutch, The Jefferson’s, The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, Matlock and still doing theater whenever he could. The films continued with ‘The Big Bus’ (1976), ‘Eyes of Laura Mars’ (1978) with Faye Dunaway, and ‘Where The Buffalo Roam’ (1980) but it was getting to be too much. “We were certainly moving around very often in those years, too much for the kids to settle down in fact. So, in 1980, when I was offered a part in the second season of a show called ‘Benson’, which would mean a guaranteed run of twenty-two shows and therefore lots of stability, we certainly considered it but were still leaning towards taking on a new play instead. However, a therapist friend of ours was there for the conversation Judith and I were having and she interjected with some thoughts of her own about our situation with the result that we changed our minds and I entered the world of the television sitcom.”
“It was the most wonderful job and for six years I worked a sitcom schedule. This meant that I could make the kids breakfast and lunch, drive them to and from school and then rehearse and shoot the show. It was a wonderful company of actors, all out of the theater – Robert Guillaume, James Noble, Inga Swenson. We could not believe it – ‘they’re paying us to do this?’ It was a dream job and of course between seasons there was a long hiatus each year so I continued to do repertory theater, appearing in plays such as Richard III, The Misanthrope, and on Broadway I did the Big River musical about Huckleberry Finn.” (For which he won a Drama Desk Award in 1984). Meanwhile his role as Clayton Endicott III, the Governor’s prickly Chief of Staff, kept him busy from 1980 to when Benson came off the air in 1986 and it was one for which he received an Emmy nomination in 1984.

Part 2

After six successful years, the television sitcom ‘Benson’ was taken off the air in 1986 and for the next several years René continued to work in all three mediums – television, film and theater, in which he received another Tony nomination for his role as Buddy Fidler/Irwin S. Irving in City of Angels (1989). On television he appeared in two episodes of Murder, She Wrote; an episode of L.A. Law along with his son, Remy; Matlock; The Burning Zone; Tracey Takes On; and CBS’s Chicago Hope. As for films during this period, he appeared in Walker (1987), filmed in Nicaragua, Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach (1988), My Best Friend Is a Vampire (1988), and The Ballad of Little Jo (1993).

“I had flops of course but very few fallow periods in terms of work. I’ve been very fortunate, not many have had my luck. I have been in the right place at the right time – in theater during it’s golden age; working with Altman during the new age for cinema in the early seventies; and then the three successful and long-running television series in which I have appeared. I guess I have some sort of instinct for knowing how to portray a character both for the ‘black void’ of the theater and the ‘black void’ of the camera lens. I do feel that a really good theater actor would have no problem performing in front of a camera; I cannot say that the opposite is true, although there have been many exceptions of course. It is a much bigger canvas to project to when on the stage. Katherine Hepburn was the best at this. I hide behind my characters; I am basically quite a shy person really. I am very comfortable in a mask – I started out as a clown after all. I am full of admiration for those who can project their own personalities – the great ones like Kate Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Betty Davies. People ask me what was Katherine Hepburn like – well, they already know.”

By 1993, René’s daughter was at Sarah Lawrence College and son Remy was about to graduate and wanted to go to Wesleyan University – both very expensive schools. “It was a choice of selling the house or I get another television series. Well along came the part of Odo on ‘Star Trek – Deep Space Nine’. I loved the concept of the character – a ‘Changeling’, a species that is able to change its shape. Odo is very rigid, emotionally masked, and yet vulnerable. That ran from 1993 until 2000 and I directed a number of the episodes. It has become the gift that keeps giving as I have continued to attend Star Trek conventions all over the world.”

On such trips he is able to supplement his volunteer work for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, the humanitarian group that provides emergency medical care in underdeveloped nations. ”It is not entirely altruistic as I get well paid, meet the fans and sign my autograph etc. Just in the next few months I shall be in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Vancouver, and then over to Europe. The fan base is worldwide and it has put our kids through university.”

With his grandfather and father both artists, René followed in their footsteps in the sense that he has always enjoyed doodling and drawing, and his artistic talents have also spread to photography. When on location in Nicaragua, filming ‘Walker’ in 1987, he started a photography project entitled ‘Atmospheres’ – a series of photographs of extras, who are known as ‘atmospheres’ on the sets of movies. He always has his camera on set and whenever possible takes pictures of these ‘background artists’, often just sitting around, and he’s developed quite a portfolio at this point.

During his days in San Francisco with the American Conservatory Theater from 1966-68, René would make trips up the coast to what was then a barely developed Sea Ranch area, a couple of hours north of the City. Occasionally he would go a little further north and this was his first journey into Mendocino County. “Thirty years later, in March 1997, a friend of mine was trying to raise money for the Community Theater in Ferndale, northern California, and I asked several of my ‘celebrity’ friends to donate various pieces of memorabilia. We drove up the coast with this stuff and when we were in the town of Mendocino there was a rare double-header – a visit by the Comet Hale-Bopp and a lunar eclipse on the same night. Quite amazing, a very auspicious night we thought. So the next day we decided to take Hwy 128 inland through Anderson Valley, a route we had never taken before. It was absolutely beautiful; we couldn’t believe our eyes. As arranged, we continued on to Sonoma to stay with friends but the next day, instead of going back to San Francisco, we came back to the Valley and met with Tim Mathias of Rancheria Realty and he showed us around this wonderful place. It had not been in our minds at all to buy here but Judith pointed out that Star Trek would end one day, the kids were gone from the home, and we should have something solid to show for all the years of work. We came back three times, staying at the Boonville Hotel each time, and finally decided to buy this forty-two acre parcel with no water, no power, and no road… First we built the barn, where we stayed on our early visits, and then sought help from an architect for the house, but Judith basically designed it herself and we were blessed to have Dennis Toohey performing all the construction work. These days we are envious of those who live here full-time but I still have some commitments to work in Los Angeles, although I no longer have a steady gig so we are probably here about one third of the time, visiting for three or four weeks at a time.”

A couple of years after Star Trek came off the air, in the fall of 2004, René was offered a recurring guest role on a new TV project created by producer David Kelley, ‘Boston Legal’. As the weeks went by, René’s character, Paul Lewiston, appeared in more and more episodes until, in early 2005, he was promoted to being a regular on the show.

For portraying attorney Paul Lewiston on Boston Legal, René received three Screen Actors Award nominations and one win—the Prism Award for Best Performance in a Drama Series. In June 2007, however, it was announced that he would no longer be a regular beginning with the show’s fourth season. Nevertheless, he returned to the series as a special guest star on four occasions, including the last two episodes of the final series, which were aired together as a two-hour series finale on 8 December 2008.

In addition to being a regular on three TV shows in three different genres (Benson [situation comedy]; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine [science fiction]; and Boston Legal [legal drama]), and the shows already mentioned above, René has made guest appearances in Frasier, Judging Amy, The Bob Newhart Show, Star Trek: Enterprise, Stargate SG-1, Warehouse 13, L.A. Law, The Practice (for which he received another Emmy nomination, playing a different character than the one he has played on The Practice spin-off Boston Legal), Saving Grace and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia…. Television movie credits include Disney’s Geppetto, Gore Vidal’s The Kid, the remake of the classic, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and the miniseries Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000). He received a third Emmy Award nomination for his performance in ABC’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He has also has directed some TV shows, including Marblehead Manor and several episodes of Deep Space Nine. As for cinema his most recent significant role was as Reverend Oliver opposite Mel Gibson in the 2000 American Revolution epic The Patriot. Then there has been his work in video games, radio and other voice work – too numerous to mention here. He has also been active in radio drama, has also recorded a number of novels on tape and on Public Radio International he has been featured numerous times on Selected Shorts, reading works of dramatic fiction. As for film voice-overs, perhaps most famously he was heard in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (receiving alphabetical top billing as Chef Louis).

“I have been very blessed. I still like to work and I do work but it is pretty much my choice when and where. I started out in this business forty-eight years ago aged twenty-two with the Arena Theater earning $85 a week. I asked for a little more money and got it, but as everyone will say, it is never enough! I have been very lucky to have had earned a steady living as an actor, most do not. Fortunately Judith runs all of our finances, I can’t do that. Meanwhile, both of our kids are actors and then they married actors. Our son Remy has a daughter and Tessa our daughter has two sons – all three grandkids are under five. They both attended Yale Drama School as postgraduates and have had consistent work ever since. Remy has been a regular on Weeds on the Showtime channel and more recently Boardwalk Empire on H.B.O. as well as a recurring role on The Good Wife. In fact he is just starting work on an H.B.O. Film about Hemingway that is being filmed in San Francisco. As for Tessa, she is a stage actress and she appeared in five plays in Los Angeles this past year. They have both done very well. The business is very hard these days – it seems that every university has a drama department, shoveling actors out and there is nowhere near enough work.”

“We love it here in the Valley. It provides a retreat for Judith to work on her various projects. I am more social but we both enjoy going to Lauren’s for dinner. I guess we are ‘Hill Muffins’, as the A.V.A.’s Bruce Anderson calls people like us, but we wear that title as a badge of honor and declare that any artistic endeavors we do up here are produced at ‘Hill Muffin Studios’… I still get to Los Angeles quite often but I’ve never been one to hang out in the ‘scene’ down there nor have I had a press agent – my best friend is a sound engineer. I remember when I was nominated for a Tony Award on Broadway at twenty-nine that I was advised by actress Sylvia Miles to ‘enjoy the period between the nomination and the announcement of the winner – that’s the best time.’ Well I did. I found myself really wanting to win but when I did, later that night I had the feeling of ‘so what? The real high was to be nominated and I have been several times, for Tonys and Emmys. My friend, the actor Frank Langella was up for an Oscar for his portrayal of the President in ‘Frost/Nixon’ and he stayed with us at our home in Los Angeles during the week or so before Oscar night. He really wanted to win and yet previously he had teased me about my desire to win. I advised him that it was not about winning or losing, it was all about being a recipient or not. Then, when he lost, I called him and said, ‘Hey loser, how’s it going?’ That’s o.k., we’ve been friends our whole professional lives.”

I asked René for his thoughts on his profession and his favorite memories. “Well for me, the project I am currently working on is always my favorite. As for acting in general, there is a certain childish arrogance that actors have – ‘Watch me! Watch me!’ There is a vulnerability we all have; a giving of oneself. The possibility of failure is very real and to this day it can be very nerve-racking. You are putting yourself out there and asking for approval, which can be refused by the audience and/or the critics. Katherine Hepburn would prepare for months in advance – ‘I need all this lead time’ she would say. I need that kind of time myself now, although it is very rare that I do a full schedule of performances, which is seven days a week, two on Sundays. Film and television are much less stressful and can be quite boring at times with all of that sitting around for hours on end. Overall most character actors want to see other character actors succeed, although it seems that wanting others to fail has become more prevalent in recent times.”

I asked René to give me a strong image he has of his father. “Well what immediately comes to my mind is of him working with a scythe to cut down the grass and bush on our property on the country road all those years ago. He never came here to Anderson Valley but he did see a photograph of me with a motorized weed-wacker working here on the property and he would have loved to have had the use of one of those”… And what is a favorite memory of his mother? “In those happy years in the late forties and fifties. She was a princess, literally, and had her aristocratic ways, yet she wore her blue jeans and was our Cub Scout den mother. She died at seventy-one in 1986, basically smoking and drinking herself to death. It is regrettable that our children never got to see her at her vibrant best.”

I asked René for his very brief opinions of the wineries and their impact on the Valley – “Well, my father’s house in Switzerland was surrounded by vines in every direction so this is not anything like that. I understand some of the arguments about the water and the monoculture nature of the wineries domination here, but it does not seem to be that bad to me”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “We buy it here and subscribe to it in Los Angeles and read it from cover to cover. God bless David Severn for keeping it here and Bruce Anderson for coming back.”

To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” – a show which René has not appeared on. The rest I came up with myself and hopefully you will find René’s answers interesting and illuminating…

1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “My grandchildren – Julian, Olivier, and Sunde.”

2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Fox News.”

3. What sound or noise do you love? – “The silence up here in the hills.”

4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Fox News.”

5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “Italian food – pasta with lots of olive oil and garlic.”

6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “John Lennon.”

7. If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? – “A drawing pad and pen; a wooden Mexican flute that I could teach myself to play; some Irish music, some Vivaldi music, and songs by the Beatles – I used to sing their songs to the kids to get them to go to sleep.”

8. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “Well, 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.”

9. What is your 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!”

10. What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “That would be ‘snot’. I used to dislike ‘belly-button’ but I kind of like it now that I have grand-children.”       11. What is your favorite hobby? – “Photography.”

12. What 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.”

13. What profession would you not like to do? – “A worker at McDonald’s.”

14. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “It was in London when I was seventeen. I went to an Indian restaurant with Jane Harris – we are still friends.”

15. Is there 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 sixteen 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.”

16. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “Being married for nearly forty-eight years.”

17. What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “Those eight years in my childhood from the age of eight to sixteen… Then there have been the intense highs of opening nights of course – and, if you are on Broadway, reading good reviews in the N.Y. Times the next day.”

18. What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “Perhaps when I was living in a rough neighborhood in Washington D.C. when President Kennedy was assassinated. I sat all night on the stoop as the line of people slowly walked by on their way to see his body lying in state. People from all over the country had come. It was so sad and moving.”

19. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “My sense of humor.”

20. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well 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.”


Epilogue… No doubt many of you are aware of the ‘game’ played by film buffs called ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’, a trivia game based on the concept of the small world phenomenon that rests on the assumption that any individual can be linked through his or her film roles to actor Kevin Bacon within six steps. The game requires a group of players to make such a connection as quickly as possible and in as few links as possible.

Well, I believe that this can be taken to a whole new level with a new game entitled ‘Six Degrees of René Auberjonois’. This version is opened up to include any name in all three ‘disciplines’ – stage, television, and film – and I’m sure that in the majority of cases, after six or less links have been made, you will quite possibly find yourself at René. Quite an achievement on his part, wouldn’t you say?…

Published in: on February 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm  Comments (1)  

Tom Rodrigues – January 24th, 2011

I drove out to the Yorkville Highlands and up to a beautiful home with spectacular views behind the Maple Creek Winery to meet owner Tom Rodrigues. For my brief tour of the property, I was given a Bloody Mary and, when we had sat down on the deck to do the interview, a delicious bowl of soup made with chanterelle mushrooms, leeks, and potatoes was served, followed by a little wine. All very nice indeed…
Tom was born in San Jose, California in 1953 to parents Anthony Rodrigues and Gay Leal – both of Portuguese descent. “My name sounds Mexican and I was given abuse and called a wet back as a kid. However, it is spelled the Portuguese way, with an ‘s’ not a ‘z’… Both of my parent’s families were from the Azores, islands off the Portuguese coast, and came across to this country in the late 1800’s. On my father’s side they were fruit farmers in the Santa Clara Valley until my father broke the mold and became a mechanical engineer, with many patents to his name, including the handy-angle saw, work on the X15 missile, and a machine that removed the pits out of peaches without squashing the peach itself! He later went on to design equipment that made surgical gloves and catheters. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was also Portuguese but my grandmother was Irish/English – the O’Leary’s, and they had all settled in the south Bay where my grandfather was a conductor on the train between San Jose and San Francisco in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.”
Tom’s parents met at Sunday school, both being raised strict Catholics, his father going to Bellarmine All-boys Catholic School and his mother to Notre Dame High School. They each went on to college, his father eventually going on to Southern Methodist University to get his masters. They were married and in the next five years had four kids – Patrick, Tom, Susan, and John, in that order. Tragically, both Patrick, in a car crash and Susan, of alcoholism, died at 26 and 37 respectively. Tom’s Dad retired at fifty-five and his parents moved to Paradise, California. They were married for sixty-one years until his mother passed at the age of 78 in 2007. His father, after spending some time in Anderson Valley with Tom to avoid the ‘casserole brigade’ of people offering to help and feed him, remarried at the age of 82, a year or so later.
Tom and his siblings were raised in Los Gatos, at the south end of the S.F. Bay, “a small town on the way to Santa Clara. I went to St. Mary’s Grade School and then R.J. Fisher Junior High where I played on the baseball, basketball, and football teams, lettering in each. It was a wonderful time and place to grow up, a time when we were outside until it got dark, the neighbors’ houses were open to us, the air was clean, and there were orchards in every direction, just beyond our neighborhood. The Santa Clara Valley has fifteen feet of top soil that is the best in the country but now it’s become Silicon Valley and they grow computer chips there!”
Tom was not a good student, other than at Art and P.E., in which he got A’s all through school. “I won an art competition in kindergarten with my drawing of a chicken and my teacher still has that on her wall in her home to this day. She told me I was going to be famous with my art and I never forgot her saying that. I was basically self-trained and have done art in one-way or another ever since. When I wasn’t playing sports for the school or in Little League, that’s what I liked to do.”
Every summer, Tom’s parents would take the family on road trips in a trailer and they would camp out every night. Most years this saw them in Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, or northern California but in the summer of 1963, Tom’s father dissolved his business partnership and took the family on a three-month tour of the country. “We went all over and I was exposed to the racism of the times in the South with its black or white drinking fountains etc. We ended up passing through twenty-three States and I remember being very impressed with Niagara Falls, Mt Rushmore, Yellowstone Park, and the Grand Canyon. From that time on I loved the outdoors and developed an interest in the environment.”
Back in Los Gatos, Tom’s upbringing was greatly influenced by the Catholic Church. “It was mass every Sunday and confession every week; I was an altar boy, my uncle was a Priest, my aunt a Nun. I was exposed to wine at church, but it was not for the first time. Our extended family got together every weekend and there was always wine on the table, we grew to respect it as a food product. It’s in my blood!”… When Tom was fourteen, he was at a neighborhood friend’s home, the Hogan family, who were in the stained glass window business. In those days it was primarily a business that made windows for churches. His friend’s father, John Hogan, showed Tom a glasscutter and he started to mess around with it. John asked him if he wanted to learn how to use it correctly. “The stained glass windows at church had caught my eye and I’d wondered how they were made. John Hogan offered me an apprenticeship and I accepted. At first I was doing the lead work but gradually progressed to the painting and after a year I had become pretty good and passed my apprenticeship – good enough to open a business with my friend, John’s son Roger, and another guy, Tom Stanton. I was fifteen, they were a year older, and we opened Sunrise Studios, producing lampshades for restaurants. It was the early days of the stained glass trend that was no longer just for churches, and which would be a big part of my life for the next thirty years or more.”
All three of the young entrepreneurs were still at school but Tom began to teach his craft at adult education center in the evenings. “I had some very interesting students, one women, who was thirty-four, was particularly interesting, if you know what I mean… Meanwhile, I was still playing baseball and being a terrible student, being a dyslexic didn’t help but it was not the only reason. I just got passing grades in most subjects but I was President of the Art Club and some teachers let me go to our studio to work rather than do classes. Then in my senior year, I moved out of home. My schedule was disrupting my parent’s quite strict house rules and there were no exceptions made. It didn’t help that I told my mother I didn’t like her cooking, although initially that had meant I had to learn to cook for myself, and iron too – two things I am very good at to this day. Anyway, my business was doing well, earning about $10K a year, and I had money, so for most of my senior year I lived in a hotel across the street from the school until my graduation in 1972.”
Perhaps his parents felt bad, but Tom feels that may be the reason that they bought two trailer parks and offered Tom and his brother jobs as managers, one at each – Patrick in Truckee and Tom in Sierra City. He moved there, north of Grass Valley on Hwy 49. “I took my part of the glass business with me and set up there. I taught a stained glass class at Sierra College but it soon became apparent that I was not trailer park management material. Then, having met a girl from Marin at Geology Camp, another hobby of mine, she came up and stayed with me in a trailer. My parents came up and caught us. They were mad and packed my bags for me. I was ‘immoral’, having sex before marriage was not acceptable to them. They ‘fired’ me and I moved to Marin where this girl introduced me to an interesting scene. I found some temporary work at a stained glass studio called Nervo Studio in Berkeley but the commute was too much so I quit and at the end of 1973 opened my own studio in San Rafael in Marin – Rodrigues Studio. It began to do very well and I there for most of the next twenty seven years.”
Tom began collecting wine around this time, mostly French, buying futures based on the French weather patterns that he studied. “That was better than playing the stock market for me and taught me what I wanted in the finished product. I could buy a bottle for a couple of hundred and then sell it for thousands a few years later.”
From 1976-79, Tom moved his studio to Mill Valley and then in 1980 he got a job working for George Lucas, the filmmaker. “From 1973 to 1980, I had been in quite a scene in Marin with various people in the modern music business who wanted to buy my glass – people such as the promoter Bill Graham, the Doobie Brothers, and a lawyer who represented many of the bands of the day. I had some great jobs and clients, business had been good, but by 1980 I had taken a job as designer and production manager, along with a friend Eric Christianson, at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin. That pretty much took all of my time, running a staff of six to eight people every day there. I occasionally still took glass projects but the business was falling off by that time.”
In the late-seventies, Tom met Gil Nickel who had founded Far Niente Winery. “I had done some glasswork in his home, one spectacular piece, 8” x 12’ with 15,000 pieces of glass. I was doing large architectural glass mosaics by this time and after I had done his piece he asked me to design a wine label for him. That was the beginning of a whole other career, combining my love for art and wine, that has been very profitable over the years.”
1982 he had bought a place in Hawaii and that became a big part of his life over the next decade, living there for three months a year at first, which later became six. “I left the Lucas operation in 1983 and re-opened my studio in San Rafael. I had met and married Marcia and we had a daughter, Amy in 1985 – I taught Amy to ski at two and surf at five. I also dabbled in real estate in Marin and would buy buildings and re-sell them at profit after doing some renovation… And while all this was going on, for my recreation I always turned to playing a little softball throughout the summer. I have been so fortunate – being able to pursue my dreams in art, wine, and sports.”
By the mid-eighties, Tom was doing less glass and far more fine art painting. In 1986 he went to New York City and had a show of his art at the Hameda Bailey Gallery in SoHo. “It was an exhibit that was on for just one day – Good Friday actually, and the concept was all about trout – the fish – paintings, illustrations, and glass work. Everything sold out on that day and that launched my career as a painter. I was soon selling my work in galleries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sante Fe, Hawaii. I still have shows today, one at Lauren’s in Boonville a couple of years ago, but I have far less time to paint these days. Later on I had a one-day exhibit at Candlestick Park, the baseball stadium in San Francisco, in 1993 called ‘Legends of the Stick’ that featured my life-size paintings of some of baseball‘s greats, out on the actual field where they would have been fielding had they been real. We had music from the forties by a Dixieland band, advertising billboards were ones from the old days that I had painted and which covered over the modern signs, and many big baseball names were there. It took two years to plan but was worth it. Many players and baseball people became my customers, even ESPN and Sports Illustrated covered the event, and it led to one painting being ‘enshrined’ in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I was planning to do similar events at other famous stadiums but then the baseball strike happened and the idea passed.”
After ten years together, Tom and Marcia split up in 1993. It had been a wild and exciting time – “We had many friends in the movie business, including Robin Williams and Harrison Ford, and the partying had been quite excessive. At one point I was given a small part in a television pilot that eventually became a made-for-television movie called ‘Mothers, Daughters, and Lovers’ on N.B.C. A friend of ours gave me a script and told me to be on the set at Robert Redford’s Sundance Studios in four days time for a thirteen-day shoot. I had lots of fun, became the set photographer, and made some good friends – it’s one of the most fun experiences of my life and I got residuals for quite a few years afterwards. However, I didn’t really see a future in acting for myself.”
Tom and Marcia shared custody of Amy so from 1993 he became a part-time Dad. More art commissions came in, as did the wine label work, and he continued to hang out with various people in the music world, including Steve Perry, lead singer with the band Journey – “a really close friend who I’d see often for nearly ten years; we had a great time together.” However, over time, Tom gradually became tired of the Marin scene and sought to move away.
Tom had often rode his motor bike up the coast on Hwy 1 from Marin and then across through Anderson Valley on Hwy 128 to Cloverdale and back down along Hwy 101 to Marin. On Christmas Day 2000 he came through the Valley and saw the Martz Winery was for sale in Yorkville. Then the very next day he opened a real estate magazine and there it was again. He decided to make a move and a few months later he had sold his house in Marin and bought the 181 acres in Yorkville, moving in on May 14th 2001. “I knew hardly anyone here – actually just one person, Alan Green of Greenwood Ridge Winery whom I had met at a baseball fantasy camp a year earlier and we had hit it off because of our mutual love of baseball and wine. I knew the potential of this winery in terms of the soils and exposure and it came along at the right time – I was done with all that self-absorption in Marin…”
There was lots of much needed work to do amongst the vines and on some of the buildings and Tom started by converting the open sided pole barn into his new 1200 square feet studio. He felt that he knew quite a lot about both the farming side of wine making and also most aspects of what the finished product should be like, from his years as a collector, consumer and designer of labels, but he knew virtually nothing of the middle step – converting the grapes to wine. He spent lots of time among the vines in the first few years but also learning the chemistry of wine making. He hired a consultant, Kerry Damsky, and they became almost like “twin brothers” as Tom took to this aspect “like a duck to water.”
“I loved it and soon became very passionate about the whole process, from start to finish. I did some paintings of the vineyards and came up with the Artevino labels – art/wine – to separate what I was doing from the Martz inventory I inherited. I was intending to use ‘Maple Creek’ for our logo but I won some awards with the Artevino labels and so we kept it and now use it for the wines that I blend or make with purchased grapes. The Maple Creek label is for our wines made from grapes here, in limited production. It’s been ten years now and we’ve done well, winning many awards with the wines. However, it’s not as glamorous as some may think. I came here at the age of 47 to semi-retire and I’ve worked harder in the last ten years than the previous thirty put together. It is not a ‘romantic’ pastime. The most romantic part is opening and sharing a bottle at the end of the day.”
Tom’s baseball passion has also continued to ‘bare fruit’ as a result of his participation with Alan Green’s Greenwood Ridge Dragons team. Tom went to baseball fantasy camps ten times from 1987 to 2000 and, as mentioned above, met Alan at that final one in 2000. “I joined Alan’s Over-45 team and we have won the ‘World Series’ for our age bracket in six of the nine seasons I’ve played – twice in that bracket and recently in the Over-55’s. I am the designated hitter or play 2nd base and this past season won the league’s batting title. We play most of our games in Sonoma County, with one game a year at AT & T Park in San Francisco, playing most Sundays from April to October. I love it. It’s like a men’s group for me and in March I am having a team party here when we’ll roast a pig and drink some wine I’m sure…”
Tom has been self-employed for forty-two years now and wants to keep going on all fronts, although he readily admits one of his goals is to work in some more free time somehow. “I love what I do, and the winery and the art pay the bills, but a little more time off would be nice. Meanwhile, I anticipate continuing what I do and I have great help from my ranch/cellar guy, Houston Johnson, and Cyndee Hollinger and Saffron Fraser in the tasting room.”
“Anderson Valley is paradise and I particularly like Yorkville. I see the changes in the Valley of course but the regulars all seem to stick around. It’s a great place to come in later life but a bit isolated for youngsters – they should get away and come back later. It is a very interesting community with a lot of creativity and some brilliant people, although many are not motivated to push themselves, which is fine of course. I cannot see it changing that much; it’s never going to become like Napa, not with the curves and bends of Hwy 128 to deal with.”
Tom attends many of the community events and looks forward to doing more sushi nights like those he did at The Boonville Lodge when he prepared his favorite food for customers. “I love to cook and that gave me a chance to do that and have a good time in a bar too. I also enjoy the Trivia nights at Lauren’s and before that at The Lodge. I would be at more events connected to wine but we are not in the Anderson Valley wine appellation, we are in Yorkville, and so we are excluded – it’s just some political bulls***. Anyway, we’re just a few miles from Boonville so come and see us.”
I asked Tom for his thoughts on the wineries and their impact on the Valley. “I would guess that the industry is the biggest legal employer in the Valley and I think they have been a positive influence on the community. People talk of the water issues – well most of the wineries are self-sustaining and we here have seven natural springs on the property. The pot growers are probably the main cause of any water shortages these days and I am not aware of any wineries taking water from the river.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Tom and asked him to just reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Living here – the sun rising over the oak trees on that distant hill and then the sunset every day – two spectacular views… Harvest time excites me – all the hard work hopefully paying off; the rains falling – I think of the upcoming mushroom hunting and I’m a mushroom freak; the Giants winning the World Series got my juices flowing for sure!…”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Political short-sightedness… And I’m amazed at the continuing hatred and prejudice in this day and age.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “The wind in the trees, flocks of birds taking off, frogs mating at the pond – the sounds of nature.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Traffic.”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “Sushi – I love it and could eat it every day.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “Jesus Christ – I’d say ‘let’s talk about your Dad – and I don’t mean Joseph!’”
7. 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? – “That’s tough – I have so much stuff… Well, Buster my dog, some photos of Amy, and as much of my art that I could carry… Oh, and a baseball signed by the 1934 Yankees.”
8. Do you have a favorite film/song or one that has influenced you? – “The film would have to be the baseball movie, ‘Field of Dreams’ and almost any song by Pink Floyd.”
9. What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Liquid panty remover – some might call it wine… That’s terrible, I’m sorry…”
10. What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “When people tell me ‘no problem’ I know it usually is a problem, or will be.”
11. What is your favorite hobby? – “Cooking and mushroom-hunting.”
12. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? – “Professional baseball player.”
13. What profession would you not like to do? – “Dealing with septic tanks.”
14. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – I was not allowed to date until I was sixteen. Then I went on a date to a drive-in movie… I first had sex at seventeen, with a thirty-four year old woman.”
15. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “Some of my relationships.”
16. What things do you find yourself doing that you said you’d “never” do? – “Well I never thought I’d be making wine.”
17. What is something that you are really proud of? – “Having a painting in the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
18. What is your strongest image of your father? – “A man of integrity.”
19. What is your favorite memory of your mother? – “A party girl. She was very social. They were both excellent dancers and I can remember being at parties and everyone stopping to watch them dance to big band music.”
22. What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The birth of my daughter on February 15th, 1985 – a joy that cannot be beaten.”
23. What was the saddest day or period of your life? – Losing my brother and sister… And quite a few close friends.”
24. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “That I have an ability to make people feel comfortable. I was a shy kid so I learned to deflect attention on to others and that has meant I have been able to get along with most people.
25. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “ I think ‘Well done!’ would be good…. Is that it? The interview is over? I didn’t even get to talk about all the drugs and wild sex parties…”

Published in: on February 3, 2011 at 5:07 pm  Leave a Comment