Robert Guillaume, the urbane actor who received two Emmy Awards for portraying the acidic butler Benson on a pair of ABC sitcoms, died Tuesday. He was 89.
Guillaume, a baritone who also starred on the stage and voiced the wise mandrill Rafiki in The Lion King (1994) and its related sequels, video games and TV series, died at his home in Los Angeles, his wife, Donna Brown Guillaume, told the Associated Press. He had been battling prostate cancer.
Guillaume’s penchant for playing distinguished characters resolutely defied racial stereotypes — as he did on ABC’s critically acclaimed Aaron Sorkin series Sports Night, on which he played Isaac Jaffe, the managing editor of a ESPN-style news program.
In 1999, Guillaume had a mild stroke while in his dressing room on the Sports Night set.
“I was fortunate in the sense that the stroke I suffered was not so debilitating that I could not move around with some degree of regularity,” he said in a 2008 interview. “My wife Donna suggested to Aaron that perhaps we could incorporate the stroke into the series and he agreed … it allowed me to come back and not pretend that I had not had a stroke.”
His polished portrayal of the imperious family retainer Benson DuBois endured for nine years, first in three seasons on Soap (1977-80) and then on the spinoff Benson, which ran until April 1986. Both shows were created by Susan Harris.
Benson’s personal arc went from butler/cook to state budget director and finally to lieutenant governor. He even ran for governor against his former boss, Eugene X. Gatling (John Noble), but that race — a season-ending cliff-hanger — went undecided because the show went off the air.
“When I got the role of Benson, I was not the happiest camper,” Guillaume said on an installment of Oprah: Where Are They Now? that aired in January 2016. “I had reservations, because you’re serving food, you’re serving the family and all that sort of thing. … It’s like nothing has changed since the 1800s.
“But the more I examined the role and read the script, I figured out a way to take some of the stench off the idea.”
Guillaume’s Emmy for outstanding actor in a comedy in 1985 made him the only black man to win in that category. He also received the supporting comedy actor trophy in 1979, earning six noms in all for playing Benson.
Guillaume also collected a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical in 1977 for playing Nathan Detroit in a revival of Guys and Dolls (Frank Sinatra did the part in the 1955 film), and he replaced the original Phantom Michael Crawford in an L.A. production of The Phantom of the Opera, receiving plaudits from audiences and critics alike.
He was born Robert Williams in St. Louis on Nov. 30, 1927, and raised by his maternal grandmother. Following high school, he served in the U.S. Army, then attended St. Louis University. He majored in business administration but all the while fantasized about singing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Guillaume persevered with his dream and won a scholarship to the Aspen Music Festival. He parlayed that opportunity into an apprenticeship at Cleveland’s Karamu Theater, where he appeared in operas and musical comedy.
He moved to New York and went on to perform in a number of musicals and big productions on Broadway, starting with Finian’s Rainbow in 1960 and then with Kwamina, Tambourines to Glory and Purlie.
Guillaume also appeared in the films Seems Like Old Times (1980), Lean on Me (1989), Death Warrant(1990), The Meteor Man (1993), First Kid (1996), Spy Hard (1996) and Big Fish (2003). And he wrote, directed and starred in the 1986 ABC telefilm John Grin’s Christmas.
Guillaume also starred as a divorced marriage counselor on the 1989 ABC series The Robert Guillaume Show; served as the narrator of the HBO animated series Happily Ever After; and guest-starred on Julia, Marcus Welby, M.D., All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, The Love Boat, L.A. Law, Diagnosis Murder, Touched by an Angel and 8 Simple Rules … for Dating My Teenage Daughter.
In 1992, Guillaume partnered in The Confetti Co., which published read-along books and audiocassettes (he was the narrator) of traditional fairy tales written with a multiethnic approach. Two years later, he received a Grammy Award for his Rafiki vocals on a spoken-word album for kids.