Best known for his role as Benson DuBois in the television series Soap and the spinoff Benson, Robert Guillaume was an accomplished operatic singer and stage actor. He was also a sensitive man whose turbulent personal life reflected a troubled childhood. He died Tuesday at the age of 89 from complications of prostate cancer.
Born into poverty in St. Louis on Nov. 30, 1927, Robert Peters Williams (he would later change his surname to its French translation because he “wanted something different”) was raised by his loving, strict grandmother, who sent him to Catholic school. In his autobiography, Guillaume: A Life, Guillaume said that his mother, an alcoholic and a prostitute, rejected him because of his dark skin.
His academic talents carried him to St. Louis University and Washington University, although his studies were interrupted by service in the U.S. Army.
After leaving school, Guillaume began honing his acting skills with the Karamu Players troupe in Cleveland, where he performed in musical comedies and opera. In 1959, he toured with the Broadway musical Free and Easy, but his official debut on Broadway came in 1961 in Kwamina.
That performance was followed by stage roles in Golden Boy and Tambourines to Glory. He received a Tony Award nomination in 1976 for his performance as Nathan Detroit in an all-black production of Guys and Dolls. Years later, in 1990, he caused a stir—and triumphed—when he became the first black actor to play the lead role in The Phantom of the Opera, succeeding Michael Crawford.
The multifaceted performer, however, made his biggest cultural impact on television, starting with guest appearances on sitcoms such as Good Times, The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son. From 1977 to 1979, he was a regular in the ABC series Soap, playing the sarcastic, intellectually adept family butler Benson DuBois.
Guillaume proved himself a definite scene-stealer, and the network decided to create a new series around the character in 1979. In Benson, which ran until 1986, the butler worked in a governor’s mansion. Although Benson was never subservient, there was still the undeniable reality that a black man was playing a servant. (On the other hand, Benson received a number of promotions—eventually becoming lieutenant governor.)
His TV work earned him two Emmys: one for his work in Soap, for best supporting actor in a comedy, in 1979; and another for his work in Benson, for best lead comedy actor, in 1985. (To date, Guillaume remains the only black American actor to win the award for lead comedy actor.)
Among his other TV performances, from 1998 to 2000, he played TV executive Isaac Jaffe on Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. While filming an episode of the critically acclaimed show, Guillaume suffered a stroke but returned to work within three weeks, using a cane.
Guillaume appeared in a number of films, including the 1987 Morgan Freeman showcase Lean on Me. He was also the voice of Rafiki in the 1994 movie The Lion King, for which he won a Grammy Award.
He and his wife, Donna Brown Guillaume, produced You Must Remember This for PBS in 1992—which was nominated for a Daytime Emmy—and the multicultural animated HBO series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, which he also narrated, in 1995.
The thoughtful artist, who received four NAACP Image Awards, talked to the Chicago Tribune in 1972 about his struggle with self-esteem and racial pride: “As a black man, I’d been in a kind of wilderness. I did not know I did not like being black. I thought I had the whole thing together.” He also told Parade magazine, “It gets me crazy, the assumption that being black and poor is our own fault … I’ll never forget where I came from and how I got here.”
In his remarkably candid autobiography, published in 2002, he recounted everything from his complicated relationships with women—starting with his mother and continuing with his three wives—to the devastation of losing a son, one of his five children, to AIDS.
His native St. Louis honored Guillaume with a star on the city’s Walk of Fame in 1999. When Tennessee State University presented him with the Distinguished Achievement Award in 1992, Guillaume told the graduates during the commencement address, “Do not use any facet of yourself that you perceive as a handicap as an excuse ... be prepared to go over, through and around.”
Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.