Robert Guillaume, the actor known best for his starring roles on TV’s “Soap,” and “Benson,” has died at the age of 89, according to multiple news reports.
Guillaume’s widow Donna Brown Guillaume told the Associated Press that the actor died Tuesday morning in Los Angeles. She said he had been battling prostate cancer.
Guillaume’s acting career spanned the Broadway stage, television, and movies, including prominent roles as a voice actor. Through it all, drama and comedy alike, he steered clear of Hollywood’s demeaning black stereotypes and sought quality roles in which he could evoke his characters’ humanity. In a later-career triumph, he rebounded from a stroke to continue his acting career and become an advocate for health awareness.
Born Nov. 30, 1927, Guillaume was raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and served in the U.S. Army before he had a chance to begin acting professionally.
Though today he’s remembered widely as a comedic actor, it was the musical theater that was Guillaume’s first love and gave him his entry into the acting world. That entry took place in Cleveland, Ohio, where, after completing his education in the music school at Washington University in St. Louis, he joined the Karamu Theatre and debuted in their production of “Carousel.” In the audience for one of those “Carousel” performances was Oscar Hammerstein, the librettist who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical. It was an auspicious start, and Guillaume soon made his way to Broadway, where he both toured and appeared on the Broadway stage.
Guillaume’s career surged in 1976 when he was cast as a star in an all-black Broadway revival of “Guys and Dolls,” playing Nathan Detroit. He received a Tony Award nomination for the role, and though the show would soon close, Guillaume didn’t have long to wait before he got his next offer. It was for a TV show – the one that would put him on the path to widespread stardom.
But Guillaume wasn’t initially thrilled with the role he was offered. The show was “Soap,” a new prime-time comedy that would parody daytime soap operas. Guillaume’s character, Benson, was the butler. Guillaume was keenly aware of the history of black actors, who for years had been relegated to playing only slaves and servants. It felt like a step backward: “It thrusts you back in time,” he later told “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” “It’s as though nothing has changed since 1800.”
He took the role anyway, and what resulted was a chance for him to elevate that character from butler to state budget director to lieutenant governor. The transformation happened after Guillaume received his own spinoff, “Benson,” premiering in 1979 after two seasons of “Soap.” Benson had become a popular and beloved character on “Soap,” winning a Primetime Emmy Award in 1979 and meriting his own show. “Benson” followed the butler as he took a new job with the cousin of his former employers, a governor. He worked his way up in the world, and by the series’ final episode, he was running for governor against his former employer. Of the transformation, he told The Washington Post, “I wanted the character to have that kind of upward mobility because it mirrored the American dream.”
Guillaume won a second Emmy for “Benson,” in 1985, a year when he also portrayed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the big screen in “Prince Jack” and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the TV miniseries “North and South.” Two short-lived TV shows followed, starring Guillaume: “The Robert Guillaume Show” (1989) and “Pacific Station” (1991).
In 1992, Guillaume and his wife, Donna Brown, founded the Confetti Entertainment Co., creating read-along books for children with Guillaume’s voice as narrator. It marked the beginning of a voice career that would grow rapidly, as he was cast in “The Lion King” (1994) as the mandrill shaman Rafiki. He went on to play Rafiki in sequels and spinoffs, winning a Grammy Award in 1995 for his narration of a read-along book in “The Lion King” series. In 1995, the Confetti Entertainment books were transformed into the HBO series “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child.” Narrated by Guillaume and featuring a cast of other stars, the series’ 39 episodes retold classic fairy tales with a multicultural focus.
In 1998, Guillaume was cast on the Aaron Sorkin dramedy “Sports Night,” starring as the managing editor of a sports news program. He loved the role, as he later told amNewYork, particularly the fact that “… there was no gimmick in the character. In the annals of TV, it’s been very difficult, I think, for a black actor to have a legitimate role which occupies a space in legitimate TV circles. I felt that that character was wholly representational of American icons. … there was nothing in the character that identified race and color or anything like that.”
“Sports Night” was still in its first season when Guillaume experienced some confusing symptoms in early 1999. He stumbled, found walking awkward, and eventually fell in his dressing room. He was having a stroke, and though it wasn’t a massive one, it still caused temporary paralysis and affected his speech. He had to undergo rehabilitation therapy, but as soon as he was able, he was back on the show – and his character, Isaac Jaffe, had a stroke written into his own story. Guillaume was able to work his rehab and recovery into his performance as his character recovered, too.
“Sports Night” was canceled after just two seasons, but Guillaume would continue to take on other projects, including the movies “Big Fish” (2003) and “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry” (2009). He would also become an advocate for health awareness, encouraging people to know the symptoms of a stroke and get their blood pressure and cholesterol tested regularly.
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