Thursday 13 December 2018

Former Soap and Benson actor Robert Guillaume dies aged 89

Robert Guillaume, star of Benson, gets a hug from Linda Gray of Dallas who presented him with the Emmy (AP)
Robert Guillaume, star of Benson, gets a hug from Linda Gray of Dallas who presented him with the Emmy (AP)

Robert Guillaume, who rose from squalid beginnings in St Louis slums 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 the age of 89.

Guillaume died at home on Tuesday in Los Angeles, according to his widow, Donna Brown Guillaume.

He had been battling prostate cancer, she said.

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 an acerbic butler of a governor's mansion in Soap, a prime time TV sitcom that satirised soap operas.

"The minute I saw the script, I knew I had a live one," he 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 spin-off, 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.

"I fell on the floor, and I couldn't get up," he told an interviewer in 2001.

"I kept floundering about on the floor and I didn't know why I couldn't do it.

"I didn't know it was it was caused by my left side being weaker than the other."

Fortunately, St Joseph Hospital was directly across from the studio.

The 71-year-old actor was taken there and treated for a stroke, the result of a blood clot that blocked circulation of blood to the brain.

They are fatal in 15% of cases.

Guillaume resumed his career and travelled as a new spokesman for the American Stroke Association.

He also made appearance for the American Heart Association.

He was born fatherless on November 30, 1927, in St Louis, one of four children.

Guillaume's first stable relationship came when he married TV producer Donna Brown in the mid-1980s and fathered a daughter, Rachel.

At last he was able to shrug off the bitterness he had felt throughout his life.

"To assuage bitterness requires more than human effort," he wrote at the end of his autobiography.

"Relief comes from a source we cannot see but can only feel.

"I am content to call that source love."


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