The Veteran actor and Two-time Emmy Award-winning star of Benson Robert Guillaume , died Tuesday at the age of 89 in his Los Angeles home of complications from prostate cancer.
the veteran of the stage and TV who shot to national fame as a sharp-tongued butler in “Soap” and became a lieutenant governor in “Benson” before later voicing the character of Rafiki in Disney hit The Lion King, died at his Los Angeles home, his wife Donna Brown Guillaume said in a statement. It is not known how long he had been dealing with cancer.
Guillaume studied music at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was noticed by a Hungarian opera singer who helped him get a scholarship to the 1957 Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado. That was followed by an apprenticeship at a theatre in Cleveland where he made his professional debut
Guillaume first played sarcastic and irascible butler Benson DuBois on the over-the-top soap opera parody series “Soap,” which debuted in 1977 and also starred Katherine Helmond, Richard Mulligan and Billy Crystal.
Guillaume, born Robert Peter Williams, worked for more than 50 years as an actor in TV, film, and theater. Many of his roles showcased his dry wit—a gift that allowed him to become a fan favorite on series like Soap.
His butler character, Benson DuBois, could have been a regressive trope—but Guillaume worked to make sure that his character resonated more deeply than that. As Variety notes, some critics did call Benson a “male Mammy” character, but Guillaume was well aware of the potential for regression in his role, and actively worked to combat it. As he recalled in a 2016 interview,
“When I got the role of Benson, I was not the happiest camper. I had reservations, because you’re serving food, you’re serving a family, and all that sort of thing, and it thrusts you back in time. It’s as though nothing has changed since the 1800s.
But then the more I examined the role and read the script, I figured out a way to take some of the stench off the idea.”
The trick? His delivery. Guillaume played the character with a trademar
He was also the first African-American to sing the title role of “Phantom of the Opera,” performing with an all-white cast.
The character became so popular that he got a spinoff show, “Benson,” which ran from 1979 to 1986.
After the end of Benson he starred in the short-lived sitcom The Robert Guillaume Show in 1989, as well as the series Pacific Station (1991-1992) and Sports Night (1998-2000). He suffered a stroke in 1999 on the set of Sports Night but was able to return to his role within weeks.
On film, Guillaume provided the voice for the mandrill Rafiki in Disney’s animated 1994 hit The Lion King and appeared with Morgan Freeman in the 1989 drama “Lean on Me.”
In 1977, he earned a Tony Award nomination for his role in the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. He also had leading roles on stage in Purlie and Golden Boy.