Robert Guillaume, Beloved As “Benson”, is Dead At 89
Emmy-winning actor Robert Guillaume, best loved for his role as the star of the hit ABC series, Benson (1979-1986), passed away in his Los Angeles home on Tuesday due to complications of prostate cancer. He was 89.
The St. Louis native and Army veteran grew up poor, the son of a prostitute and a father he’d never known, set out with the high hopes of becoming an opera singer. Born Robert Peter Williams, he adopted the surname of Guillaume to set him apart while performing on stage in the 1950’s. His successes on stage led him to New York City where among the roles he would land roles were a 1964 revival of “Porgy & Bess” and a 1972 Broadway revival of “Purlie”.
It was a Tony nominated run as Nathan Detroit in an all-black Broadway revival of “Guys and Dolls” that got the attention of TV producers, who cast him in the critically acclaimed ABC series, Soap, alongside Billy Crystal.
So popular was his portrayal of the wise-cracking butler, that after two seasons, Guillaume signed on to star in a spinoff named after his character, Benson. The series ran for seven seasons, after which Guillaume would appear in a few feature films, including “Lean On Me” and numerous guest starring roles.
In 1989, he signed a deal with ABC to star in and produce, The Robert Guillaume Show, in which he portrayed a single father with two children who began an interracial relationship with a white woman. The show was cancelled after twelve episodes. Both ABC and Guillaume would later subsequently maintain that viewers were not ready for an interracial romance.
He won a Grammy in 1995 (“best spoken word for children”) for his narration on “The Lion King Read Along” and from 1998-2000 co-starred in ABC’s half hour comedy, Sports Night.
Director Ava DuVernay was among those turning to social media to pay tribute, posting, “R.I.P. Robert Guillaume. Saw him play Nathan Detroit on Broadway in 1976. Made me want to be an actor. It was a thrill to work w him on SN.” And from Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams came this: “RIP to Emmy Award winning Army vet, star of stage & screen, Robert Guillaume. 1st black actor to play the title role in Phantom of the Opera”.
Upon the passing of her dear friend, Congresswoman Karen Bass posted on Facebook, "Always dedicated and inspired by his craft, Robert continued to challenge his limits, a truly inspirational journey to witness. I’ll forever remember his performance as the first black actor to sing the title role of "Phantom of the Opera," appearing with an all-white cast, leaving jaws dropped and audiences remarking “We had no idea Benson could sing, let alone sing opera!”
"But sing he did, and sing he shall. His endearing essence and comforting spirit will be so missed. We could all afford to live by his words:
"To assuage bitterness requires more than human effort. Relief comes from a source we cannot see but can only feel. I am content to call that source love.'”