Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Late Great Robert Guillaume

Robert Guillaume, who played Benson on the TV show Soap and its spin-off Benson as well as roles on numerous films and TV shows, died on October 24 2017 at the age of 89 The cause was prostate cancer.

Robert Guillaume was born Robert Peter Williams in St. Louis on November 30 1927. His mother was an alcoholic and he was raised by his grandmother Jeanette Williams. He attended a Roman Catholic school in St. Louis where he sang in the choir. In 1945 he enlisted in the United States Army. He received an honourable discharge in 1947. Following his service, Mr. Guillaume attended St. Louis University on the G. I. Bill where he studied business. He later attended Washington University in St. Louis where he studied theatre.

In the late Fifties he joined the traditionally all black Karamu House in Cleveland where he played Billy Bigelow in the musical Carousel. It was while he was at Karamu House that he adopted the stage name "Roger Guillame", "Guillaume" being the French version of "William". He felt that "Robert Williams" was far too common a name. In 1959 he joined the cast of  Harold Arlen's musical Free and Easy, which played in Amsterdam, but not the United States. It was in 1960 that he made his debut on Broadway in Finian's Rainbow.

The Sixties saw Robert Guillaume appear in the productions Kwamina, Tambourines to Glory, and Purlie on Broadway. In 1964 he appeared in Porgy and Bess at the City Centre in New York City. He made his television debut in 1966 in Porgy in Wien, a special which detailed the production of Porgy and Bess in Vienna. He guest starred on Julia and Marcus Welby M.D.

It was in 1977 that Robert Guillaume began playing Benson, the wisecracking butler on Soap. The character proved popular enough that he was spun off into his own series, Benson, in 1979. Mr. Guillaume also guest starred on Sanford and Son, All in the Family, and The Jeffersons. He appeared in the films Super Fly T.N.T. (1973) and Seems Like Old Times (1980). On Broadway he appeared in a revival of Purlie and Guys and Dolls. 

 In the Eighties Robert Guillaume continued to play Benson on Benson. He also starred on the short lived The Robert Guillaume Show. He guest starred on The Love Boat, Hotel, and Crossbow. Mr. Guillaume played Fredrick Dogulass in the mini-series North and South. He appeared in the films Prince Jack (1984), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987), They Still Call Me Bruce (1987), Lean on Me (1989), and Death Warrant (1990).

In the Nineties Robert Guillaume starred on the short-lived series Pacific Station and the sitcom Sports Night. He was one of the voices on the short lived animated series Fish Police. He guest starred on such shows as L.A. Law, Jack's Place, A Different World, Diagnosis Murder, Burke's Law, Promised Land, The Outer Limits, and Moesha. He was the voice of Rafiki in the film The Lion King (1994). He appeared in the films The Meteor Man (1993), Spy Hard (1996), First Kid (1996), and Silicon Towers (1999). He appeared on Broadway in Cyrano - The Musical.

In the Naughts Mr. Guillaume guest starred on such shows as The Proud Family, 8 Simple Rules, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He appeared in the movies 13th Child (2002), Big Fish (2003), and The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry (2008). In the Teens he appeared in the films Satin (2011), Columbus Circle (2012), and Off the Beach (2013). He had a recurring role on the show Wanda Sykes Presents Herlarious. Late in Mr. Guillaume's career he became the first African American to play the Phantom in a Los Angeles production of Phantom of the Opera.

Benson is one of the most memorable characters in America television, largely because of Robert Guillaume. Mr. Guillaume was an incredible talent, who could bring characters to life in a way that very few actors can. In addition to Benson, over the years he played a number of characters, including travelling preacher Purlie Victorious Judson, school superintendent Dr. Frank Napier in the movie Lean on Me, and historical figures Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King. Over the years he played characters from detectives to lawyers to priests. Robert Guillaume was a great actor who always gave great performances.

1 comment:

Barry Bradford said...

Great and fitting tribute!