Family, friends and associates are grieving the death of acclaimed actor Robert Guillaume of “Benson” fame, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles at 89.
“He was a pioneer and what he did with the role of ‘Benson’ was give him integrity,” said actor, director and producer Shiek Mahmud-Bey, who wowed critics earlier this month at a New York Film Festival with his proposed new television series “The Inner Circle.”
“What could have been just another servant or symbolically subservient minority, a butler role, he gave the world an extraordinary insight and exposed us to a human being,” said Mahmud-Bey, who has appeared on screen with stars such as Andy Garcia, James Gandolfini and Richard Dreyfus. “The invisible became viable and we all loved it.”
Anyone who watched “Soap” knew the brilliance of Guillaume, said Mariann Eperjesi-Simms, who runs the Facebook page The Classic Movie Group.
“Benson wasn’t exactly as brilliant as ‘Soap,’ but most things in this world aren’t written to that much perfection. He was a fantastic actor who deserved a lot of recognition,” Eperjesi-Simms said.
Born Robert Peter Williams in St. Louis in 1927, Guillaume began his acting career in the early 1970s when he made guest appearances on “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons.”
However, his recognition and place in popular culture was cemented when he portrayed Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of “Guys and Dolls,” which earned him a 1977 Tony Award nomination.
Later, Guillaume earned the distinction of becoming the first African-American to sing the title role of “Phantom of the Opera,” doing so alongside an otherwise all-white cast.
But it was his role as Benson DuBois in the soap opera satire “Soap,” alongside Billy Crystal, Roscoe Lee Browne, Robert Ulrich and others that made Guillaume a legend.
“The minute I saw the script, I knew I had a live one,” Guillaume said in a 2001 interview. “Every role was written against type, especially Benson, who wasn’t subservient to anyone. To me, Benson was the revenge for all those stereotyped guys who looked like Benson in the ’40s and ’50s [movies] and had to keep their mouths shut.”
The character’s popularity grew so much that it led to a spinoff, “Benson,” which lasted eight seasons and earned Guillaume an Emmy Award.
“I always wanted kids of any background to understand the characters I’ve portrayed were real,” he said on his official website. “That the solutions they found were true and possible. It has always been important to me to stress that there was on diminution of power or universality just because my characters are African-American.”
That resolve has always been appreciated by his peers and those who followed his career.
“I remember the head [Negro] in charge scene with Morgan Freeman where he didn’t use his position to castrate another black man on film,” Mahmud-Bey recalled of the 1989 hit movie “Lean on Me” that starred Guillaume and Freeman. “There was a disagreement and they got it out and agreed to disagree without division. That scene spoke volumes because it makes you see how silly and easy you could lose someone important in your life over ego and small things. As artists, we have a responsibility to be honest, not different, and that’s what Robert Guillaume gave us and we loved every bit of it.”
Guillaume, who won a spoken-word Grammy Award for his role as the voice of Rafiki in “The Lion King,” steered clear of Hollywood’s demeaning black stereotypes and sought quality roles in which he could evoke his characters’ humanity, according to Legacy.com.
Though largely known as a comedic actor, it was the musical theater that was Guillaume’s first love and gave him his entry into the acting world. After completing his education in the music school at Washington University in St. Louis, he joined the Karamu Theatre in Cleveland and debuted in their production of “Carousel.”
In the audience for one of those “Carousel” performances was Oscar Hammerstein, the librettist who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical.
It was an auspicious start, and Guillaume soon made his way to Broadway, where he both toured and appeared on the Broadway stage.
Later, Guillaume would portray Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the movie “Prince Jack,” and then he starred as Frederick Douglass on the TV miniseries “North and South.”
In 1992, Guillaume and his wife founded the Confetti Entertainment Co., creating read-along books for children with Guillaume’s voice as narrator.
In 1995, the Confetti Entertainment books were transformed into the HBO series “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child.” Narrated by Guillaume and featuring a cast of other stars, the series’ 39 episodes retold classic fairy tales with a multicultural focus.
Guillaume is survived by his second wife, Donna Brown, a son and three daughters.