Tessa Auberjonois on growing up a VIP wallflower.
My friend Matt, who lives far away and whom I’d not been in touch with for a while, recently lost his father. Matt’s father, like mine, was a very successful performer, and when I sent him a condolence, it sparked a conversation we had never had about having fathers who were somewhat famous artists. We are both parents, and we are both performers ourselves, and the moment had come for us to discuss what had previously seemed insubstantial. Our fathers were very different men, but as their children, Matt and I share something. Interestingly, what emerged for me during this conversation was how lucky I am to have had the best of both worlds.
Matt’s experience with his dad was that his dad had been able to pick up and start a new family several times over, seemingly without remorse. I’ve had several other friends with powerful and charismatic fathers who did that as well. My own father was different: he and my mother just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and the road has certainly not been easy, but they have arrived at that milestone in wonderful form.
What is it that sets these men apart? One aspect, I am sure, is the way they relate to the women in their lives, and who these women are. Some have their muses: Yoko, Gala, Frida. Formidable women. Women who know how to withstand and be the keystone of support for the artist’s ego, and still hold their own. My mother has a quote by her desk: “Never fall for the artist’s trick of saying, ‘love me, love me, I need you.'” I have always found it odd. To me, she is the one turning the metaphorical trick: she outsmarted the artist and he does need her.
Somebody said to me once, “Your father managed to be in Hollywood without being of Hollywood.” It’s true: my dad starred on three hit television shows, was the original Father Mulcahy in the film version of M*A*S*H, and won a Tony award. Star Trek fans think he’s Odo, and some people call him Clayton, but he is always…my dad.
In 1976 I was four years old, and a made-for-TV movie called Panache aired with my father in the title role. Family and friends gathered to watch the movie. My self-conscious pop avoided the screen, while drinking what I supposed was orange juice (read: screwdriver). When one of his scenes was coming up he’d leave the room only to reappear transformed by the magic orange juice as a tiny version of himself now inside the television. Didn’t all dads do that?
The first time I saw him perform on stage was at the Metropolitan Opera House. “Do not speak to Daddy,” my mother insisted while we waited for the show to start. We sat through an overture of Andre Previn’s music, and then my father appeared onstage. “Hi Daddy!” I shouted, to the combined titters and shushing of audience-members and the chagrin of my mother and the intellectual elite of New York gathered for Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favor.
For six seasons my father appeared as Clayton on the sitcom Benson. Our family spent most Friday nights at ABC studios, watching the episodes being taped. My younger brother and I memorized the jokes told by the stand-up comedian intended to warm-up the live audience. Our favorite one: the lyrics to Blondie’s “The Tide is High” altered from, “I’m gonna be your number one” to “I’m gonna DO a number one”. Scatalogical humor gets ’em every time. And we got free gum at craft-services. Just a couple kids, hanging out where our dad worked.
I watched my father navigate the territory of the Vague Celebrity: the kind of actor whose face people know, but whose name they don’t. Quite often strangers would simply insist that they knew him personally, despite his assurances that they did not, and that he was on TV. “No, that’s not it,” they’d say. “I’ve MET you before!” We were always approached in restaurants and depending on his mood, my father was either cordial or harassed. I felt nepotistically proud and filially embarrassed. One becomes a VIP wallflower when part of the familial entourage of the recognizable.
But at home he was just Dad. He sang Beatles songs to my brother and me every night that he could, sitting in the doorframe separating our bedrooms. He always woke up with us and made our breakfasts and packed our lunch bags, on which he drew a different cartoon every day. We watched the World Series and the Olympics together all the time. He drove carpool. He cooked. He was great with home repair. He took me to the hospital when I broke my arm in gymnastics.
The other kids at my school had celebrity parents, too. Their fathers and mothers had shows of their own, and appeared regularly in celebrity golf tournaments and things like that. Many of the houses where I played were festooned with platinum and gold albums and adults sifting the seeds out of their weed and rolling joints. A cloud of pot-smoke hung over my childhood in the canyons of LA.
Every year brought the uncertainty of whether the show would be picked up, and my yearbook pages are filled with farewells from friends who thought as I did that we would be moving back to New York before the next school year began. Each year the show made it, and I was able to appear back in class with fanfare in September. When Benson was finally cancelled we were finally entrenched in a big wonderful house in a very fancy Hollywood-adjacent neighborhood. My Dad, like all other dads, had to keep working, but he rarely worked in Los Angeles for the rest of the time I lived at home. He did three Broadway shows, and many film projects that shot on-location.
He drove me to my first day of my freshman year of college and cried alone in his car. Out of Hollywood, I had to learn to bite my lip while watching television with friends because they teased me about how often I uttered, “I know her!”, or “There’s Howard” etc. I think that’s when I realized that growing up with an actor father really might have been a bit different.
But was it? My brother is an actor and a dad, and so is my husband. Their children watch them on TV as well, but their most important role is Dad and their kids know that. Perhaps now that kids grow up watching videos of their own entire lives from birth, it will be different for our kids than it was for my brother and me.
When people ask me what it’s like to have an actor as a dad, I want to tell them all of the above, but I’m still not sure it answers the question. That was what it was like to have MY dad. As a father and as a man, he’s very different from my friend Matt’s late father. So what is it we share? Well, that’s a family secret.
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Photos courtesy of the author