René came into my life the way he did for so many others; I loved his performance on “Benson” and looked for him in movies and TV ever after. As a young actor, I could see every inch of him was trained to tell stories: His body, face and voice moved with ease and authority. I wanted to be like that. I would watch other actors I admired in those early days and play the game of “Who would you want to sit next to at dinner if you got the chance?” and René was always on that list.
After working with him on “Deep Space Nine” for seven years of long days and nights, and then 20 years of doing “Star Trek” conventions around the world with him, I was lucky enough to spend many dinners with him. And he was even more fascinating as a friend than I could have imagined. His stories about the work he had done and the people he had crossed paths with had lots of lessons in them and always came from a humble human perspective. When we acted together, I always had the feeling that I was playing tennis with a better player than me and felt him stretch me. I wanted to bring even more than I felt I had to the scene, because I didn’t want to waste his time.
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When I visited him, a few weeks before his death, we knew it might be the last time and he gave me a present. He said, “Nana, you are one of those actors who act from their souls”. That was exactly what I loved about him. Even though his face was completely hidden by a latex mask on “Star Trek,” you could see his soul. And with the speed of the animated Genie in the “Aladdin” movies, he could go from fury to complete self deprecation to kitten sweetness to clown. When he was fed up after maybe 14 hours of being in the makeup that prevented him from being able to eat or drink in a normal way, he could have the ominous energy of a volcano about to erupt, and I would steel myself for what could come. And then suddenly he would pull out pictures of his wife Judith and his children Tessa and Remy. He would look at them as if he had never seen this modern wonder of preserving images before and offer them to me and say, ”Aren’t they just beautiful?” and I would say they were, and he would smile inside his mask like a contented child. As the writer Jon Kabat Zinn puts it in “The Full Catastrophe,” he lived the entire human experience without whitewashing the hard bits, while joyfully digging in to the good. When he laughed, it was with every bit of him, and he laughed a lot.
René had many, many friends, and I know we will all miss so much now. We will miss his mastery of being in front of an audience and entertaining them, his deep empathy for when a child goes astray, his passion for a perfect pastry that made only that pastry exist in that moment.
We will miss his enormous talent for being human, and the way he could tell stories about that experience.
(Pictured, from left: Nana Visitor, Armin Shimerman, René Auberjonois, and Nicole de Boer of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”)
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