It is with heavy hearts that we bring news to you that veteran stage, television and film actor Robert Guillaume has died. Best known for his role as the no-nonsense butler Benson on the ABC series of the same name, the Emmy Award-winning thespian’s career spanned well over five decades.
His wife Donna Brown Guillaume told the Associated Press he died at their Los Angeles home of complications of prostate cancer.
Guillaume often played acerbic, dry-witted, but ultimately lovable characters like the butler Benson Du Bois, which he created on the 1977 series “Soap,” before his character was spun off in 1979. Guillaume won Emmys both for “Soap” (as supporting actor) and “Benson” (as lead actor).
He was also known as the the voice of Rafiki in “The Lion King,” for which he also won a Grammy for a spoken word recording.
“Benson” ran on ABC for seven years until 1986. The butler slowly evolved to become a government official, deflecting early complaints by critics like the Washington Post’s Tom Shales that his character was a “male Mammy.” The show brought Guillaume an Emmy in 1985 for lead actor in a comedy.
Guillaume, born Robert Peter Williams on November 30, 1927, was a native of St. Louis, Missouri. He attended St. Louis University and Washington University studying business and voice respectively all while harboring ambitions of being the first Black tenor for the Metropolitan Opera of New York.
Taking the stage for the first time in 1959 and making his Broadway debut in 1961, Guillaume struggled for some time in the 1970s before his appearance in an all-Black Broadway production of Guys & Dolls garnered him a Tony Awards nomination in 1977.
Guillaume’s television took off after Benson, and he worked well into the 2000s, most recently in the short film Off The Beach in 2013. Blessed with one of the most distinctive voices in his field, Guillaume also did voice work for series such as Captain Planet.
Guillaume was 89.