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Born in St. Louis, Missouri on November 30, 1927, Robert Guillaume died on October 24th, 2017 from prostate cancer in Los Angeles. He was 89 years old. That is indeed a long life of accomplishments. And though it stings of selfishness to dare quantify such an accomplished thespian, it is but for recognition and celebration that these words are composed.
That’s why two years after his death, we are still compelled to celebrate his accomplishments and help secure his proper status in history as a groundbreaking African-American performer.
Flexing the eloquence, the intelligence, the wit, the flawless enunciation, and not to mention execution, of a Shakespearean master, Robert Guillaume’s works belonged on the biggest of the big stages.
And though we enjoyed the eviscerating wit with which he sliced and diced the bumbling bourgeois on such shows as Soap, where he played Benson, you sometimes got the impression Guillaume was literally the smartest guy in the room, and not because of the repartee of his character, either.
He was adept at allowing contemporary society to laugh at the real-life foolishness of classism and racism and landed a show of his own in 1979, Benson.
For years, African American actors and actresses would complain about being cast in stereotypical roles such as butlers, cooks and other domestics. Indeed, there were likely quite a few among the black intelligentsia to disapprove of yet another butler role when Guillaume initially appeared on Soap, and he likely knew of it. But that did not stop him from completely remaking this character in his image.
Benson Dubois would begin as a butler in Soap, but would eventually run for governor against Governor Gaitling, the fictional governor for which Benson worked on the sitcom. What a sneaky way to slip in the political climate and societal aspirations of the day, huh?
Benson is an American television sitcom which aired from September 13, 1979 to April 19, 1986 on ABC. The series was a spin-off from the soap opera parody Soap (the title character, portrayed by Robert Guillaume, had first appeared on the earlier series as the wise-cracking yet level-headed black butler for the highly dysfunctional Tate family); however, Benson discarded the soap opera format of its parent show in favor of a more conventional sitcom structure.
Guillaume’s post-collegiate training began at the storied Karumu House of Cleveland, Ohio. His Broadway debut came in Kwamina in 1961. His career would see him make appearances in Guys and Dolls, for which he received a Tony Award nomination, Fly the Blackbird, Bambouche, and a multitude of other stage works.
In an age when most black actors struggled to make it to television, Guillaume was a virtual mainstay on Americas television dial for nearly 50 years. Take that in, 50 years!
From Soap and Benson, through All in the Family and Good Times, to The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son, right on up through a Different Word and Save By the Bell: The College Years, Robert Guillaume maintained a career to be envied, respected and remembered.
He consistently won roles with which he could demonstrate his range; abolitionist Fredrick Douglass on the television mini-series North and South, Detective Bob Ballard on the early 90s offering Pacific Station and appearing on the critically-acclaimed Sports Night as television executive Isaac Jaffe.
Guillaume has lent his talents to 22 cinematic offerings and was awarded a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his role in Soap in 1979, a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Benson in 1985, and even won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children for The Lion King Read-Along album in 1995.
His role as Rafiki in The Lion King is seared into the childhood mind and memories of millions. In 1996, he starred in the lead role of the Los Angeles production of Phantom of the Opera.
Did he kill it? Of course!
He performs the song during the Cincinnati Pop’s Halloween Special of 1996. Conducted by Erich Kunzel. This was done some years after he donned the mask for the last time.
But how do you quantify a theatrical practitioner whose talents actually outshined many of his best contemporaries and castmates? Not his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or his star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, will do him proper justice. In order to truly appreciate Guillaume, we must re-remember his works, marveling at a trailblazer as he toiled on paving a road that began very far from where black actors and actresses tread today.