Robert Guillaume, St. Louis Native Who Earned Fame as Benson, Has Died

click to enlarge From Carousel to the The Lion King, Robert Guillaume made his hometown proud. - SHUTTERSTOCK/EVERETT COLLECTION
From Carousel to the The Lion King, Robert Guillaume made his hometown proud.
Robert Guillaume, the actor, singer and St. Louis native, died today at the age of 89, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Best known for his role in the sitcom Benson, as the voice of Rifiki in the film The Lion King and for his long career in music and on stage, Guillaume was committed to the belief that a character's race need not define the role.

The cause of death was not officially reported.

Guillaume was born Robert Peter Williams in St. Louis city in 1927. He wrote in the memoir Guillaume: A Life, "I'm a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums in St. Louis." His grandmother took him in, along with his three siblings, during the middle of the Great Depression. He described it years later as "an enormous act of love, dedication and devotion."

After a brief stint in the U.S. Army, he returned to St. Louis and tried to raise money for college by working a series of jobs, one of which was as a streetcar operator, which he enjoyed because he could sing on the job. People would later pay to hear his rich tenor.

He eventually enrolled in night classes at Saint Louis University to study business, but transferred to Washington University to study music. A teacher there encouraged him to pursue his dream of a career singing opera, and helped him get an apprenticeship at the Karamu Theater in Cleveland, one of the few interracial theaters in the country at the time. Oscar Hammerstein saw him in a show at the Karamu, and from that he was selected for a role in Carousel; he was on his way. Within a decade Guillaume would win a Tony award for his role in the all-black production of Guys and Dolls.
click to enlarge Guillaume in 2015. - SHUTTERSTOCK/KATHY HUTCHINS
Guillaume in 2015.
Guillaume segued into the world of TV and film, eventually landing the role of Benson, the acerbic butler on the comedy Soap. His performance won him an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy, and his popularity allowed him to spin off into his own sitcom, Benson.

Guillaume was always sensitive to the perception of a black actor playing a servant, and made sure the character had higher aspirations. Benson was promoted first to the governor's chief-of-staff, and then successfully ran for lieutenant governor and won. The part earned Guillaume his second Emmy in 1985 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, the first black man to do win the award.

Throughout his career Guillaume returned to the stage, even when audiences would prefer he didn't. When he stepped into the lead role in The Phantom of the Opera in the Los Angeles production in 1990, tickets were returned by audience members who didn't want to see a black man in the show, especially one known for comic TV roles. Guillaume triumphed in the role.

It was a bittersweet success. His son from his first marriage, Jacques, died from complications of AIDS at age 33 during his run. In his memoir, Guillaume discusses his guilt at failing his son, whom he believed had misunderstood a father urging a son to try harder in school as disapproval, and worse, a lack of acceptance.

Guillaume's own belief that "the long arm of the ghetto" had programmed him for failure drove him throughout his career. Realizing that the arts had helped him escape the cycle of poverty, he decided to give back. With his wife Donna he established Confetti Entertainment, which was dedicated to fighting illiteracy through multicultural educational books and teachers resources.

Guillaume is survived by his wife Donna, as well as a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

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