Robert Guillaume, star of ‘Soap, ‘Benson,’ ‘Lion King’ and ‘Sports Night,’ dies at 89 – USA TODAY
Emmy and Grammy-winning actor Robert Guillaume died Tuesday at age 89.
His representative, Laura Ackermann, said he died from complications of prostate cancer at the Los Angeles home he shared with his wife Donna Brown Guillaume.
He rose to fame playing a butler Benson DuBois on the ABC series Soap, a role he almostÂ
Among Guillaumeâs achievements was playing Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of Guys and Dolls,Â earning a Tony nomination in 1977. He became the first African-American to sing the title role of Phantom of the Opera,Â appearing with an all-white cast in Los Angeles.
While playing in Guys and Dolls, he was asked to test for the role of an acerbic butler of a governorâs mansion in Soap,Â a primetime TV sitcom that satirized soap operas.
âThe minute I saw the script, I knew I had a live one,â he recalled in 2001. âEvery role was written against type, especially Benson, who wasnât subservient to anyone. To me, Benson was the revenge for all those stereotyped guys who looked like Benson in the â40s and â50s (movies) and had to keep their mouths shut.â
The character became so popular that ABC was persuaded to launch a spinoff, simply called Benson,Â which lasted from 1979 to 1986. The series made Guillaume wealthy and famous, but he regretted that Bensonâs wit had to be toned down to make him more appealing as the lead star.
The career of Robert Guillaume almost ended in January 1999 at Walt Disney Studio. He was appearing in the TV series Sports NightÂ as Isaac Jaffe, executive producer of a sports highlight show. Returning to his dressing room after a meal away from the studio, he suddenly collapsed.
âI fell on the floor, and I couldnât get up,â he told an interviewer in 2001. âI kept floundering about on the floor and I didnât know why I couldnât do it. I didnât know it was it was caused by my left side being weaker than the other.â
Fortunately, St. Joseph Hospital was directly across from the studio. The 71-year-old actor was taken there and treated for a stroke â the result of a blood clot that blocked circulation of blood to the brain. They are fatal in 15 percent of the cases.
Guillaumeâs 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 NightÂ 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 traveled as a new spokesman for the American Stroke Association. He also made an appearance for the American Heart Association.
âIâm a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums of St. Louis.â
This was the opening of Guillaume: A Life,Â 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 with 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 motherâs love and scorned by nuns and students because of his dark skin, 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. Louisâs first black streetcar motorman. Seeking something better, he enrolled at St. Louis University, excelling in philosophy and Shakespeare, and then at Washington University (St. Louis) where a music professor trained the young manâs superb tenor singing voice.
After serving as an apprentice at theaters in Aspen, Colo., and Cleveland, the newly named Guillaume toured with Broadway shows Finianâs Rainbow,Â Golden Boy,Â Porgy and BessÂ and Purlie,Â and began appearing on sitcoms such as The JeffersonsÂ and Sanford and Son.Â Then came SoapÂ and Benson.Â
His period of greatest success was marred by tragedy when his 33-year-old son Jacques died of AIDS.
Guillaumeâs first stable relationship came when he married TV producer Donna Brown in the mid-1980s and fathered a daughter, Rachel. At last he was able to shrug off the bitterness he had felt throughout his life.
âTo assuage bitterness requires more than human effort,â he wrote at the end of his autobiography. âRelief comes from a source we cannot see but can only feel. I am content to call that source love.â
Josh Charles, who worked with him on Sports Night, wrote, “Robert Guillaume radiated such warmth, light, dignity, and above all, class. That smile and laugh touched us all. RIP to the best boss ever.”
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