On this day in comedy on November 30, 1927, comedic Actor, Robert Guillaume (nee Robert Peter Williams) was born in St. Louis, Missouri
Best known to television viewing audiences as “Benson”, the logical butler, the Guillaume legacy is so much more. An alumnus of the Karamu Players in Cleveland Guillaume spent his time there honing his craft doing musical comedies with a dash of opera to show his classy side. He was so classy he toured the world performing in prestigious Broadway musicals in the late 50s and early 60s: Golden Boy, Guys & Dolls, Porgy & Bess, The Phantom of the Opera and others. When it came time to do films Guillaume made his debut in the less than classy, Superfly TNT.
Guillaume proved his comedic versatility doing a variety of guest-starring roles. He appeared on Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Saved by the Bell, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and A Different World. After cutting his teeth in the sitcom game he was ready to become a major player.
Robert Guillaume gained prominence in 1977 as the above-the-fray butler, Benson, on the groundbreaking night time comedy Soap. Not only did that show bring America its first primetime gay character (Billy Crystal), but also a plethora of wacky characters including a ventriloquist with a dummy, so life-like family members would attempt to strangle him in fits of anger. Guillaume was the perfect anchor amidst that swirling vortex of anarchy. He was so good they spun the character off to his own show.
Benson was a stellar showcase for a talent of Guillaume’s capabilities. As the butler to a befuddled governor, Guillaume, the black servant, was wiser than the elected state official. This role allowed Guillaume to play on his drool delivery, irrepressible smirk, his sarcastic wit as well as his authoritative demeanor even as he played a typically demeaned character. His force was so overwhelming that the butler ended up as the state’s governor. Nothing that farfetched ever happened outside of the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.
Following his illustrious run on Benson, Guillaume held down a number of projects. He played Fredrick Douglass in a TV mini-series. He was the title character on The Robert Gillaume Show in 1989. He did voice-over work in The Lion King; enunciating the acrid lines of Rafiki, the mandrill. Guillaume played a detective on Aaron Sorkin’s Sport’s Night. During this period Guillaume suffered a stroke. His TV character was written to have suffered the same malady.
Nothing stopped Guillaume artistically. His voice was omnipresent. He did characters for Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Fish Police, The real Story of Sur le Pont D’Avignon, Happily Ever After and The Land Before Time as well as a digital persona n the video game, Half-Life 2 and its sequels.
Robert Guillaume won an Outstanding Supporting Actor Emmy for Soap in 1979. In 1985 he won another Emmy for Outstanding Lead Comedy Actor for Benson. He has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children.
On October 24, 2017 Guillaume died of prostate cancer in Los Angeles, California. He was 89 years old.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Check out this clip: