Robert Guillaume, perhaps most celebrated for his role as the TV sitcom butler in Benson and Soap, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 89.
Guillaume’s widow, Donna Brown Guillaume, confirmed the news to the Associated Press, noting that he had been battling prostate cancer.
Through the ’70s, Guillaume appeared on episodes of All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Good Times before he first appeared as Benson DuBois in Soap, which ran from 1977-1981. He then got his own spin-off on ABC in 1979 with Benson. The character earned Guillaume two Emmys over the years, but the actor was initially hesitant to play the butler of a white family because of potential racial stereotypes.
“When I got the role of Benson, I was not the happiest camper,” Guillaume told Entertainment Tonight in a 2016 interview. “I had reservations ‘cause you’re serving food, you’re serving a family and all that sort of thing, and it thrusts you back in time. It’s as though nothing has changed since 1800. But then the more I examined the role and read the script, I figured out a way to take some of the stench off the idea.”
Among Guillaume’s lauded career, the actor voiced the character Rafiki in Disney’s animated The Lion King, a role he reprised in the home-released sequels and the Timon & Pumbaa TV show. He also made history in the theater arena: He played Nathan Detroit in an all-black production of Guys and Dolls, which landed him a Tony nomination in 1977, and he became the first African-American Phantom of the Opera against a predominantly white production.
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Watch his performance of “Music of the Night” below.
In 1999, Guillaume suffered a minor stroke in his dressing room for the Aaron Sorkin series Sports Night. “I was fortunate in the sense that the stroke I suffered was not so debilitating that I could not move around with some degree of regularity,” he said in a 2008 interview. “My wife, Donna, suggested to Aaron that perhaps we could incorporate the stroke into the series and he agreed … it allowed me to come back and not pretend that I had not had a stroke.”
He soon bounced back with roles across film, television, and video games; gamers might recognize him as the voice of Dr. Eli Vance in Half-Life.