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‘Benson’ star Robert Guillaume has died at 89

Oct 26,2017
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 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. Fortunately, St. Joseph Hospital was directly across from the studio. After six weeks in the hospital, he returned to the second season of “Sports Night.”

Guillaume resumed his career and traveled as a new spokesman for the American Stroke Association.

AP