Robert Guillaume, legendary actor of stage, television, and film, passed away today. He was 89. According to his spokesperson, he passed away from prostate cancer at his Los Angeles estate.
Guillaume, whose career started in 1959 and spanned over 50 years, is most widely known for his trailblazing character Benson DuBois. First introduced to television audiences on the popular 1970s sitcom Soap as a crafty butler for the rich but dysfunctional Tate family, Guillaume was so hilarious when trolling the cast in-character that ABC gave him his own namesake spin-off series after only two seasons.
Benson actually lasted longer than Soap, spanning from 1979 to 1986. and it was one of the few shows at the time to show a Black man as the lead actor of a primetime hit program. The image of Benson also displayed black excellence in full splendor as the character ascended from Head of Household Affairs, to State Budget Director, to running for Governor.
Guillaume won three Golden Globes and an Emmy for his iconic character. Before then, Guillaume built his stock in Hollywood with cameos on classic shows such as The Jeffersons, Julia, All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Dr. Marcus Welby M.D., and Good Times. He also was nominated for a Tony for his turn in the 1977 all-Black version of Guys and Dolls. In 1990, Guillaume enthralled audiences and made history in the title role of the stage play The Phantom of the Opera. He was the first Black man to play lead in the musical.
Guillaume's second most famous character was also in a musical and appealed to a much younger audience: Rafiki in The Lion King. Later in life, Guillaume's popularity continued with roles in Lean on Me, Death Warrant, A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Saved By The Bell: The College Years and, in 1998, he struck gold again as the lead in Sports Night. The series was critically acclaimed and just when it seemed like it was hitting its stride, Guillaume suffered a stroke. Still, he would return to work a short time after and his ailment was written into the show. Sports Night, however, was cancelled in 2000. Still, Guillaume would have dozens of more acting gigs all the way up until 2013.