Today we were saddened to hear the news that Robert Guillaume passed away after battling prostate cancer. He was 89 years old.
Guillaume was best known for his role as the title character in the TV show “Benson,” where he played the wise cracking former butler who moved up in the ranks in the Governor’s mansion under Governor Gatling. The show had ties to the 70s hit TV comedy “Soap” and after a three year run as the butler, Benson moved to the mansion as the head of household affairs. With Guillaume cracking jokes at the expense of the Governor’s chef Kraus, the comedy remained strong in this sister show and Guillaume won two Emmys as Benson, one for best supporting comedy actor trophy in 1979 and the other for outstanding actor in a comedy in 1985, which made him the only black man to win in that category.
During his run as Benson, he received six nominations in all.
Guillaume also starred on Broadway, nominated for a Tony in 1977 for best actor in a musical as Nathan Detroit in a revival of Guys and Dolls (note: Frank Sinatra played this part in the 1955 film). He also played the Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera” in the L.A. production of the play.
Guillaume was a trailblazer for Black actors, a role which he took to heart.
“When I got the role of Benson, I was not the happiest camper,” Guillaume said on an episode of “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” in January of 2016. “I had reservations, because you’re serving food, you’re serving the family and all that sort of thing. It’s like nothing has changed since the 1800s.
“But the more I examined the role and read the script, I figured out a way to take some of the stench off the idea.”
Younger generations might not know his face, but they sure recognize his voice as Guillaume starred as the voice of “Rafiki” in Disney’s smash hit, “The Lion King.” He also voiced the character in every spin-off that followed.
Along with his role on #Benson, Robert Guillaume also played the lovable Rafiki in The Lion King. https://t.co/gLd7rDtyVh
Aside from Benson and his numerous roles on TV and stage, Guillaume played Isaac Jaffe on “Sports Night,” a show based loosely on ESPN. But it was his portrayal of Dr. Frank Napier in the classic “Lean On Me” that gave us one of the most culturally memorable scenes in Black film when he shut down Principal Joe Clark with an “H.N.I.C” reference.
Dr. Napier shows Principal Joe Clark who’s really “in charge”. From the inspirational high school classic that started it all, Lean On Me, starring Morgan Freeman, Robert Guillaume, Beverly Todd, Michael Beach, and Ethan Phillips.
RIP Mr. Guillaume.