NEW YORK (AP) — Robert Guillaume, died at home Tuesday in Los Angeles, according to his widow, Donna Brown Guillaume. He had been battling prostate cancer.
Guillaume, who rose from the poorest slums of St. Louis to become a star in stage musicals and win Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the sharp-tongued butler in the TV sitcoms “Soap” and “Benson,” has died at age 89.
Among Guillaume’s achievements was playing Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of “Guys and Dolls,” earning a Tony nomination in 1977. He became the first African-American to sing the title role of “Phantom of the Opera,” appearing with an all-white cast in Los Angeles.
While playing in “Guys and Dolls, he was asked to test for the role of a butler at the governor’s mansion on “Soap,” a primetime TV sitcom that satirized soap operas.
“The minute I saw the script, I knew I had a live one,” Guillaume recalled in 2001. “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 became so popular that ABC was persuaded to launch a spinoff, simply called “Benson,” which lasted from 1979 to 1986. The series made Guillaume wealthy and famous, but he regretted that Benson’s wit had to be toned down to make him more appealing as the lead star.
The career of Robert Guillaume almost ended in January 1999 at Walt Disney Studio. He was appearing in the TV series “Sports Night” as Isaac Jaffee, executive producer of a sports highlight show. Returning to his dressing room after a meal away from the studio, he suddenly collapsed.
Guillaume suffered a minor stroke, causing relatively slight damage and little effect on his speech. After six weeks in the hospital, he underwent a therapy sessions. He returned to the second season of “Sports Talk,” and it was written into the script that Isaac Jaffee was recovering from a stroke.
Guillaume resumed his career and traveled as a new spokesman for the American Stroke Association.