Robert Guillaume, Emmy-winning actor in ‘Soap’ and ‘Benson,’ dies at 89
Robert Guillaume, who rose from squalid beginnings in the 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 89.
Guillaume died at his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday, his wife, Donna Brown Guillaume, said. He had been battling prostate cancer.
Among Guillaume’s achievements was playing Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of “Guys and Dolls,” for which he earned a Tony nomination in 1977. He became the first African American to sing the title role in “The Phantom of the Opera,” appearing with an otherwise all-white cast in Los Angeles.
While playing in “Guys and Dolls,” he was asked to test for the role of an acerbic butler 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,” with the setting changed to a fictional governor’s mansion. The series, which lasted from 1979 to 1986, made Guillaume wealthy and famous, but he regretted that Benson’s wit had to be toned down to make him more appealing as the lead star.
Guillaume’s career almost ended in January 1999 at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. He was appearing in the TV series “Sports Night” as Isaac Jaffee, executive producer of a sports highlight show. Returning to his dressing room after a meal away from the studio, he suddenly collapsed.
“I fell on the floor, and I couldn’t get up,” he told an interviewer in 2001. “I kept floundering about on the floor and I didn’t know why I couldn’t do it.”
Fortunately, Providence St. Joseph Medical Center was directly across the street from the studio. The 71-year-old actor was taken there and treated for a stroke — the result of a blood clot in the brain. They are fatal in 15% of cases.
Guillaume’s stroke was minor, causing relatively slight damage and little effect on his speech. After six weeks in the hospital, he underwent a therapy of walks and sessions in the gym. He returned to the second season of “Sports Night,” and it was written into the script that Isaac Jaffee was recovering from a stroke. Because of slim ratings, the second season proved to be the last for the much-praised show.
Guillaume resumed his career and became a spokesman for the American Stroke Assn. He also made apperances for the American Heart Assn.
“I’m a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums of St. Louis.”
This was the opening of “Guillaume: A Life,” his 2002 autobiography in which he laid bare his troubled life. He was born fatherless on Nov. 30, 1927, in St. Louis, one of four children. His mother named him Robert Peter Williams; when he became a performer he adopted Guillaume, a French version of Williams, believing the change would give him distinction.
His early years were spent in a back-alley apartment without plumbing or electricity; an outhouse was shared by two dozen people. His alcoholic mother hated him because of his dark skin, and his grandmother rescued him, taught him to read and enrolled him in a Catholic school.
Seeking but denied his mother’s love and scorned by nuns and students because he was black, the boy became a rebel, and that carried into his adult life. He was expelled from school and then the Army, though he was granted an honorable discharge. He fathered a daughter and abandoned the child and her mother. He did the same to his first wife and two sons and to another woman and a daughter.
He worked in a department store, the post office and as St. Louis’s first black streetcar motorman. Seeking something better, he enrolled at St. Louis University, excelling in philosophy and Shakespeare, and then at Washington University, where a music professor trained the young man’s superb tenor singing voice.
After serving as an apprentice at theaters in Aspen, Colo., and Cleveland, the newly named Guillaume toured with Broadway shows “Finian’s Rainbow,” ’'Golden Boy,” ’'Porgy and Bess” and “Purlie,” and began appearing on sitcoms such as “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son.” Then came “Soap” and “Benson.” His period of greatest success was marred by tragedy when his 33-year-old son Jacques died of AIDS.
Guillaume’s first stable relationship came when he married TV producer Donna Brown in the mid-1980s. They had a daughter, Rachel. At last he was able to shrug off the bitterness he had felt throughout his life.
“To assuage bitterness requires more than human effort,” he wrote at the end of his autobiography. “Relief comes from a source we cannot see but can only feel. I am content to call that source love.”
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