The black actor who refused to be stereotyped
Robert Guillaume 1927–2017
When Robert Guillaume won the role of Benson, a black butler in a white household on ABC’s soap-opera satire Soap (1977–81), the actor initially had misgivings. “You’re serving food, you’re serving the family,” he said. “It’s like nothing has changed since the 1800s.” So Guillaume decided Benson wouldn’t adhere to the racial stereotypes of the time: He’d be more erudite, dignified, and sharp-witted than his employers, a servant who refused to be servile. Viewers loved the character—so much so that ABC gave him a spin-off show, Benson (1979–86), in which the butler works for a state governor and eventually becomes a politician himself. Guillaume was proud of Benson’s progress. “I always wanted the character to have that kind of upward mobility,” he said. “It mirrored the American Dream.”
Born in St. Louis, Guillaume “grew up in poverty,” said The New York Times. His father abandoned his mother, an alcoholic prostitute, before he was born; Guillaume was raised by his grandmother after his stepfather “struck him in the head with a red-hot poker.” After briefly serving in the Army in World War II, Guillaume enrolled at St. Louis University to study business. But his real passion was the stage. He left school to serve as an apprentice at theaters in Aspen, Colo., and Cleveland, and in 1960 he moved to New York City. Guillaume quickly established himself as “a force to be reckoned with,” said NBCNews.com. He earned a Tony nomination in 1977 for his role in “the first all-black version of Guys and Dolls” and won two Emmy Awards for his work as Benson.
Guillaume broke new ground in 1989, with a self-titled show about “a black marriage counselor in a relationship with a white woman,” said The Guardian (U.K.). It was canceled after just 12 episodes and remains the only series “built around an interracial relationship to have aired on U.S. network television.” Guillaume remained a prolific actor: He voiced the mandrill Rafiki in Disney’s 1994 animated film The Lion King and played a TV producer on the Aaron Sorkin series Sports Night (1998–2000). But he always felt Benson was the part he was “born to play.” His role, he said, was “revenge for all those stereotyped guys who looked like Benson...and had to keep their mouths shut.” ■