Actor Robert Guillaume, a two-time Emmy winner for portraying the acidic butler Benson on two ABC sitcoms, has died following a battle with prostate cancer. He was 89.
Guillaume – who also starred in theater and voiced the wise mandrill Rafiki in Disney’s 1994 film “The Lion King” and its related sequels, video games and TV series – died Tuesday at home in Los Angeles, his widow, Donna Brown Guillaume, told The Associated Press.
Guillaume’s penchant for playing distinguished characters resolutely defied racial stereotypes — as he did on ABC’s critically acclaimed Aaron Sorkin series “Sports Night” when he played Isaac Jaffe, the managing editor of an ESPN-style news program.
Stroke in 1999
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.”
‘Soap’ to ‘Benson’
His portrayal of 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.
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.
Screen, stage star
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 nominations in all for playing Benson.
He also earned a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical in 1977 for playing Nathan Detroit in a revival of “Guys and Dolls,’’ and he replaced the original Phantom Michael Crawford in an L.A. production of “The Phantom of the Opera.’’
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.
Aspen to Broadway
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 in 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.