Actor Robert Guillaume Dead at 89

Courtesy of the Hollywood Reporter.

Robert Guillaume, the urbane actor who received two Emmy Awards for portraying the acidic butler Benson on a pair of ABC sitcoms, died Tuesday, October 24. He was 89.

Guillaume, a baritone who also starred on the stage and voiced the wise mandrill Rafiki in The Lion King (1994) and its related sequels, video games and TV series, died at his home in Los Angeles, his wife, Donna Brown Guillaume, told the Associated Press. He had been battling prostate cancer.

Guillaume’s penchant for playing distinguished characters resolutely defied racial stereotypes — as he did on ABC’s critically acclaimed Aaron Sorkin series Sports Night, on which he played Isaac Jaffe, the managing editor of a ESPN-style news program.

In 1999, Guillaume had a mild stroke while in his dressing room on the Sports Night set.

“I was fortunate in the sense that the stroke I suffered was not so debilitating that I could not move around with some degree of regularity,” he said in a 2008 interview. “My wife Donna suggested to Aaron that perhaps we could incorporate the stroke into the series and he agreed … it allowed me to come back and not pretend that I had not had a stroke.”

His polished portrayal of the imperious family retainer Benson DuBois endured for nine years, first in three seasons on Soap (1977-80) and then on the spinoff Benson, which ran until April 1986. Both shows were created by Susan Harris.
Benson’s personal arc went from butler/cook to state budget director and finally to lieutenant governor. He even ran for governor against his former boss, Eugene X. Gatling (John Noble), but that race — a season-ending cliff-hanger — went undecided because the show went off the air.

“When I got the role of Benson, I was not the happiest camper,” Guillaume said on an installment of Oprah: Where Are They Now? that aired in January 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.”

Guillaume’s Emmy for outstanding actor in a comedy in 1985 made him the only black man to win in that category. He also received the supporting comedy actor trophy in 1979, earning six noms in all for playing Benson.


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