In the clip above, Robert Guillaume talks about how he struggled at first with playing Benson on the classic sitcom Soap (1977-1981). He had fought against being stereotyped as an African-American man, and now he was faced with playing a servant waiting on a wealthy, white family. He started looking for ways in the script to portray Benson, and eventually found an irreverent approach that turned this waiter into a rebellious figure. Guillaume became popular enough to get his own spin-off series, Benson (1979-1986). The sitcoms won him two Emmys and multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Guillaume died two days ago at the age of 89.
Born in St. Louis, Robert Guillaume served in the Army before his career in theater. He started appearing on Broadway in the 1960s, where his greatest success came with “Porgy and Bess”. Much later, Guillaume also played the Phantom of the Opera on stage. But his real breakthrough with audiences came on television as Benson. His style was gentle but could be laced with acid, and he inspired confidence.
Guillaume also appeared in a few movies, such as The Lion King (1994) and Big Fish (2003), but he always made his greatest marks on TV. Aaron Sorkin gave him a terrific part on his short-lived comedy series Sports Night (1998-2000). After Guillaume suffered a mild stroke during production, Sorkin wrote that into the show as an affliction for the character to overcome. The clip above from the show is a wonderful scene for Guillaume, one that echoes into current debates about athletes’ social conscience.
Hollywood is mourning Robert Guillaume. Billy Crystal, who also got his breakthrough on Soap, tweeted the following:
Sad to hear of the passing of Robert Guillaume. He was a great support to me on “Soap”.
Great timing, charisma and class. Rest in Peace.
— Billy Crystal (@BillyCrystal) October 24, 2017