Actor Robert Guillaume, known for ‘Benson’ and ‘Lion King’ roles, dies at 89
NEW YORK — Robert Guillaume, who rose from squalid beginnings in St. Louis slums to become a star in stage musicals and win Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the sharp-tongued butler in the TV sitcoms “Soap” and “Benson,” has died at age 89.
Guillaume died at home Tuesday in Los Angeles, according to his widow, Donna Brown Guillaume. He had been battling prostate cancer, she told The Associated Press.
Among Guillaume’s achievements was playing Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of “Guys and Dolls,” earning him a Tony nomination in 1977. He became the first African-American to sing the title role of “Phantom of the Opera,” in a Los Angeles-based production, and was the voice of the shaman-slash-mandrill Rafiki in the film version of “The Lion King.”
“Robert was a lovely man who we brought in for one interpretation of Rafiki and who then completely reinvented it working in the studio. His passion and dedication and willingness to keep working created an indelible Disney character for the ages,” Thomas Schumacher, president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions, said in a statement.
Guillaume won a Grammy in 1995 when a read-aloud version of “The Lion King,” which he narrated, was cited for best spoken word album for children. He also served as narrator for the animated HBO series “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child,” which aired form 1995-2000.
“Giant of stage + screen,” tweeted filmmaker Ava DuVernay. “Also let’s remember that Robert Guillaume was among the first celebs to appear at AIDS fundraisers. Thank you, sir.” Actor Josh Charles tweeted “Robert Guillaume radiated such warmth, light, dignity, and above all, class. That smile and laugh touched us all.”
While playing in “Guys and Dolls,” Guillaume was asked to test for the role of an acerbic butler of a governor’s mansion in “Soap,” a prime-time TV sitcom that satirized soap operas.
“The minute I saw the script, I knew I had a live one,” he recalled in 2001. “Every role was written against type, especially Benson, who wasn’t subservient to anyone. To me, Benson was the revenge for all those stereotyped guys who looked like Benson in the ’40s and ’50s (movies) and had to keep their mouths shut.”
The character became so popular that ABC was persuaded to launch a spinoff, simply called “Benson,” which lasted from 1979 to 1986. In the series, the main character went from running the kitchen for a governor to becoming a political aide to eventually becoming lieutenant governor. “Benson” made Guillaume wealthy and famous, but he regretted that his character’s wit had to be toned down to make him more appealing as the lead star.
The career of Robert Guillaume (pronounced with a hard “g”: gee-yome) almost ended in January 1999 at Walt Disney Studio. He was appearing in Aaron Sorkin’s TV series “Sports Night” as Isaac Jaffe, executive producer of a sports highlight show. Returning to his dressing room after a meal away from the studio, he suddenly collapsed.
“I fell on the floor, and I couldn’t get up,” he told an interviewer in 2001. “I kept floundering about on the floor and I didn’t know why I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know it was it was caused by my left side being weaker than the other.”
Fortunately, St. Joseph Hospital was directly across from the studio. The 71-year-old actor was taken there and treated for a stroke— the result of a blood clot that blocked circulation of blood to the brain. They are fatal in 15 percent of the cases.
Guillaume’s stroke was minor, causing relatively slight damage and little effect on his speech. After six weeks in the hospital, he underwent a therapy of walks and sessions in the gym. He returned to the second season of “Sports Night,” and it was written into the script that Isaac Jaffee was recovering from a stroke. Because of slim ratings, the second season proved to be the last for the much-praised show.
Guillaume resumed his career and traveled as a new spokesman for the American Stroke Association. He also made appearance for the American Heart Association.
“I’m a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums of St. Louis.”
This was the opening of “Guillaume: A Life,” his 2002 autobiography in which he laid bare his troubled life. He was born fatherless on Nov. 30, 1927, in St. Louis, one of four children. His mother named him Robert Peter Williams; when he became a performer he adopted Guillaume, a French version of William, believing the change would give him distinction.
His early years were spent in a back-alley apartment without plumbing or electricity; an outhouse was shared with two dozen people. His alcoholic mother hated him because of his dark skin, and his grandmother rescued him, taught him to read and enrolled him in a Catholic school.
Seeking but denied his mother’s love and scorned by nuns and students because of his dark skin, the boy became a rebel, and that carried into his adult life. He was expelled from school and then the Army, though he was granted an honorable discharge. He fathered a daughter and abandoned the child and her mother. He did the same to his first wife and two sons and to another woman and a daughter.
He worked in a department store, the post office and as St. Louis’s first black streetcar motorman. Seeking something better, he enrolled at St. Louis University, excelling in philosophy and Shakespeare, and then at Washington University (St. Louis) where a music professor trained the young man’s superb tenor singing voice.
After serving as an apprentice at theaters in Aspen, Colorado, and Cleveland, the newly named Guillaume toured with Broadway shows “Finian’s Rainbow,” ”Golden Boy,” ”Porgy and Bess” and “Purlie,” and began appearing on sitcoms such as “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son.” Then came “Soap” and “Benson.” His period of greatest success was marred by tragedy when his 33-year-old son Jacques died of complications from AIDS in 1990.
Guillaume’s first stable relationship came when he married TV producer Donna Brown in the mid-1980s and had a daughter, Rachel. At last he was able to shrug off the bitterness he had felt throughout his life.
“To assuage bitterness requires more than human effort,” he wrote at the end of his autobiography. “Relief comes from a source we cannot see but can only feel. I am content to call that source love.”