The late Robert Guillaume’s timeless, Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Benson on the hit series Soap, was more than memorably comic. The acerbic butler who sassed his silly, White employers in a manner many real-life domestic workers would’ve loved to without losing their jobs, departed from the ever-deferring stereotype of Beulah (a comedy show that aired in the ’50s featuring a Black domestic) and displayed a spirited dignity unthought-of for such a Black character.
Guillaume won a second Emmy for the successful spin-off Benson, the character having graduated to the still wizened, though less caustic, head of household affairs for a scatterbrained governor.
He is also well remembered for voicing Rafiki in Disney’s box office smash The Lion King. He won a Grammy Award reprising the role in a spoken word performance of the film’s audiobook. His last role was as television executive Isaac Jaffe on the short-lived critically lauded series Sports Night.
Guillaume’s career on stage, in television and in film spanned more than 50 years. He started out on stage with the Karamu Players in Cleveland, performing in musical comedies and opera, and toured internationally in the Broadway musical Free and Easy. He then made his Broadway debut in Kwamina.
Among other appearances were Golden Boy, Tambourines to Glory, and Guys and Dolls — for which he received a Tony Award nomination starring as Nathan Detroit — Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Purlie!, Katherine Dunham’s Bambouche and Fly The Blackbird.
In 1964, Guillaume recreated Sportin’ Life in a revival of Porgy and Bess at New York City Center. Late in his career, he was cast in the lead role in the Los Angeles production of The Phantom of the Opera, replacing Michael Crawford. On television, he starred in The Robert Guillaume Show and made guest appearances on Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World and All in the Family, to name a few. In the mini-series North and South, he played historic abolitionist Fredrick Douglass.
Robert Guillaume (born Robert Peter Williams) succumbed to prostate cancer at home in Los Angeles.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403