It's Not Just Another Sitcom : Robert Guillaume Says New Show's Interracial Romance 'No Big Deal'

Times Staff Writer

To listen to Robert Guillaume explain it, his new ABC-TV sitcom is not a lot of things.

It's not controversial.

It's not anything like his old show, "Benson."

It's not another "Cosby" clone.

And, above all else, it's not just about an interracial romance.

All right, then, what exactly is "The Robert Guillaume Show," which debuts at 9:30 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42?

The 60-year-old actor is suddenly very unhappy with this line of questioning.

"Look," he says testily, "it would be really stupid of me as an artist to try to determine beforehand what the public is going to react to. I'm going in with the notion that it's going to be a good show, and the interracial romance that everyone is making such a big deal about is one of the elements of it.

"If you can dig it, dig it. If you can't, turn it off," he adds.

And then he flashes that trademark sly and mischievous smile, which catapulted Benson Dubois through nine successful prime-time seasons from 1977-86, from butlering for the Tate family on "Soap" to serving as lieutenant governor in his own series, and which the two-time Emmy winner is counting on to carry his latest character through another ordeal by Nielsen.

"Let's just say that I don't think we're going to go out and be canonized in Mississippi," he says. "But, then, I wasn't looking for that, either."

Guillaume, in fact, wasn't looking for special attention for the mid-season replacement series he is producing and starring in--a first for him--about a divorced black marriage counselor, Edward Sawyer, who starts a romance with his white secretary, Ann Sheer (Wendy Phillips of "A Year in the Life"). But it happened anyway when the network went public with the story line in January.

"I think he doesn't want people to tune in just because of that. He doesn't want to make it sensationalized," says his co-executive producer on the show, Sy Rosen. "But the idea for the series and the interracial relationship was Robert's."

"I was looking around for something different to do," explains Guillaume, who took a breather from TV by touring successfully as a nightclub singer after "Benson" went off the air in 1986. "I didn't want to do another 'Cosby' show. I didn't want to do another 'Good Times.' I felt the need to take things a step further. I think that's the rebel in me.

"So we fastened on the idea of maybe an interracial romance. And we decided to throw it up and see who saluted."

ABC did, with no evident concern over the possible controversial nature of the subject matter. "They didn't care if I was married to E.T. as long as we had a good show," Guillaume states.

But while shows such as "Dynasty" and "The Jeffersons" have featured interracial romances between supporting characters, Guillaume maintains that his is the first series to feature it between the leads.

"We didn't set out to do anything controversial," Guillaume says. "Because we're not talking about doing anything that hasn't already happened before. I mean, where do you think all the light-skinned black people in this country come from? What we're trying to say on the show is that while some people may think that so-called superficial differences among peoples--like being black or white--are really important, they're not.

"But there's also a dichotomy there. Because performers who are black find ourselves in a maze of conflicting opinions about how things should be identified. This is where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't."

While Guillaume maintains that he has never shied away from defining his characters as black men, he tries to stay away from stereotyping. And if there is any underlying message sent by his show, he says, "I'm simply talking about having the freedom as a black man to be whatever I want to be, speak anyway I want to speak, be with anyone I want to be with. And whether that politically meets someone's approval or not, I'm not really interested."

The challenge, Rosen says, is to portray the relationship warmly, intelligently and comedically. But it also won't be played strictly for laughs. For instance, both partners aren't sure they want a romance in the first place, though for differing reasons.

"I find myself becoming attracted to her much against my will because I don't want to go through the hassle of having an interracial romance," Guillaume says. "I don't want all that nonsense of people staring at us. But I find myself falling in love with her anyway. Her character, however, doesn't see the problems I see. Instead, the scars of her divorce go pretty deep, and she doesn't want to get back into another relationship so soon after."

Some stories will have nothing to do with the romance--there are, after all, other characters on the show, including Sawyer's children, father and clients--but others will deal almost exclusively with it.

Guillaume and Phillips don't go out on their first date until the sixth episode. And while they kiss, no one has decided if the couple ever will bed down together.

"It's something that they will address later on," says one source close to the show. "It's a normal thing for a couple in love to go to bed together. If they didn't, there'd be something wrong with them and they'd have to come in for counseling."

"I think Robert and Wendy have a very good chemistry between them," Rosen stresses. "But we decided it would be a nice, semi- slow romance."

By contrast, Guillaume's career is crusing along well above the speed limit.

After appearing as Robin Givens' father in the ABC-TV movie "Penthouse," which aired March 5, he is now co-starring in the well-received feature film "Lean on Me" as superintendent of schools Frank Napier, who supports and stands up to controversial high school principal Joe Clark, played by one-time "Sesame Street" star Morgan Freeman.

"I think Morgan Freeman is sensational. But I wished it had been me," Guillaume says with unabashed envy. "I wanted that part but I didn't get it."

In fact, it puzzles the former Broadway star why he hasn't had more of a feature-film career, especially considering his enormous popularity with TV audiences ("Though after this interview, I probably won't be," he quips uneasily) and the ease with which many other TV actors have been able to cross over into movies in recent years.

Even in the world of television, where he has been most successful, Guillaume doesn't put his career on a par with, say, Bill Cosby.

"Oh, sure, I would have jumped at that series. I would have killed for it," he says. "And I like to think that it would have been as successful with me in it. But even though I had a certain amount of popularity as 'Benson,' it was never like Cosby's. And Bill got the power he has because the public kept saying, 'We love this show and we're going to watch it in record numbers.' I never had that. That's what I would like."

But the fact that the series is called "The Robert Guillaume Show" surely is evidence that the actor has a certain amount of clout. Right?

Wrong, says Guillaume. "The only reason it's called that is because the name wasn't being used by anyone else," he jokes. "Now, some people would say I have power. But I don't say it. I don't lament that I don't have it. I've done well, after all."

Certainly well financially ("I got a good piece of the back end of 'Benson,' ") but maybe not quite as well personally. Guillaume believes it's because he still vividly remembers what it was like growing up in the St. Louis ghetto, "where it didn't matter what you were dreaming about because you were a little nigger boy who wasn't going to do anything, wasn't going anywhere and wasn't going to be anybody.

"But I always remembered my grandmother's words that you can't judge a book by its cover."

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