The entertainment world lost one of most stellar television actors in Robert Guillaume, who died Tuesday from prostate cancer at the age of 89. Guillaume was an Emmy Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated actor who brought a steady and stately presence in his roles.
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Born Robert Peter Williams on November 30, 1927, in St. Louis, Missouri, the future actor first studied business and administration at St. Louis University, and voice in Washington University. According to Guillaume’s website biography, he had designs of becoming the first Black vocalist for the Metropolitan Opera of New York.
Guillaume’s path to acting was a staggered one, halted briefly by a stint in the United States Army. He caught the acting bug and begun doing stage work with the Karamu Players of Cleveland, which houses the oldest Black theater in the nation. Guillaume’s Broadway début occurred with the play “Kwamina” in 1961.
In the early part of the ’70’s, stage work became reportedly scarce for Guillaume but his fortunes changed when he joined an all-Black revival of “Guys and Dolls,” which gained him the Tony nomination in 1977. He was then cast as the wise-cracking butler Benson DuBois on ABC’s satirical drama “Soap,” which gained Guillaume the first of his Emmys for a supporting actor role in a comedy series in 1979.
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This gave way to a spin-off “Benson,” which outlasted the original show with the character rising from the role of butler to becoming a lieutenant governor, a big step considering the time. In 1985, a year before series ended, Guillaume won his the lead actor Emmy for a comedy series.
Guillaume worked well into the 90’s and beyond, voicing prominent roles in cartoons such as the mandrill Rafiki in Disney’s “Lion King” film. Guillaume’s last known work according to IMDB took place in the short film “Off The Beach” in 2013. Guillaume also won four NAACP Image Awards over the course of his 50-year-plus career.
He is survived by his wife Donna Brown-Guillaume, two sons, and a daughter.