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Robert Guillaume became one of the best-beloved and respected television actors of the late 1970s and 1980s playing one character in two different series and establishing a trademark capacity to render bone-dry wit, stoic demeanor and even thoughtful compassion. An accomplished Broadway performer and singer through the 1960s and '70s, Guillaume came to national prominence on the groundbreaking and controversial sitcom "Soap" (ABC, 1977-1981) as Benson, the domestic servant with anything but a servile attitude or respect for his upper class employers. Benson proved such a breakthrough character that in 1979, ABC spun Guillaume off into his own eponymous series, in which he eventually, improbably, ran for the office of governor of a Southern state. Nominated seven times, he would become the first African-American to win a Best Actor Emmy. He went on to establish himself as a go-to voiceover actor with extensive work in Disney's much-traveled "Lion King" franchise. His most extended return to series TV, "Sports Night" (ABC, 1998-2000), went conspicuously marked by a stroke he suffered on-set and the producers' and Guillaume's decision to write it and the subsequent recovery process into his character's...
Robert Guillaume became one of the best-beloved and respected television actors of the late 1970s and 1980s playing one character in two different series and establishing a trademark capacity to render bone-dry wit, stoic demeanor and even thoughtful compassion. An accomplished Broadway performer and singer through the 1960s and '70s, Guillaume came to national prominence on the groundbreaking and controversial sitcom "Soap" (ABC, 1977-1981) as Benson, the domestic servant with anything but a servile attitude or respect for his upper class employers. Benson proved such a breakthrough character that in 1979, ABC spun Guillaume off into his own eponymous series, in which he eventually, improbably, ran for the office of governor of a Southern state. Nominated seven times, he would become the first African-American to win a Best Actor Emmy. He went on to establish himself as a go-to voiceover actor with extensive work in Disney's much-traveled "Lion King" franchise. His most extended return to series TV, "Sports Night" (ABC, 1998-2000), went conspicuously marked by a stroke he suffered on-set and the producers' and Guillaume's decision to write it and the subsequent recovery process into his character's arc. Though more broadly remembered for his signature sitcom work, Guillaume built a legacy as a multi-gifted performer who defied the traditional parameters too long drawn for African-American thespians.
Guillaume was born Robert Peter Williams on Nov. 30, 1927, in St. Louis, MO. He grew up in the household of his grandmother, Jeannette Williams, a strong-willed pious woman who worked as a domestic servant. She later told him she had rescued him as a young child from her own daughter, his birth mother, Zoe Bertha Edwards, whose husband, a violent bootlegger and gambler, had physically abused the child because he had been sired by another man. Guillaume's mother later rejected him, providing the catalyst for his growing up angry and rebellious. Tempering that would be the gumption he picked up from his grandmother, who took on extra work to send him to the local Catholic school. Guillaume became an unruly student, even as he scored good grades, attended mass regularly and found an artistic outlet singing with the church choir. He pursued his art in school plays and talent shows, but at the end of World War II, he left school to do a stint in the U.S. Army, where he bridled against the organization's institutional racism. Given an early but honorable discharge, he returned to St. Louis to complete his secondary education and take advantage of his G.I. Bill benefits, attending the Jesuit-run St. Louis University while earning money as a postal clerk, a streetcar driver, and partner in a women's clothing shop - as well as marrying for the first time. The itch to do more with his singing eventually prompted him to transfer to St. Louis's Washington University, whose music school's faculty included a onetime top-tier Hungarian opera singer, László Csabay. Csabay nurtured Robert's talents and hooked him up with an apprenticeship at the Cleveland's Karamu Theater, one of the most venerable interracial theaters in America at the time. An old rookie at age 31, he debuted in the Karamu's production of "Carousel" in a performance attended by one of Broadway's most esteemed auteurs, Oscar Hammerstein.
Hammerstein offered Guillaume his big shot at the Great White Way in the musical "Free and Easy." His foot in the door, he took his stage name from the French iteration of "William," and as Robert Guillaume, would land jobs in both Broadway and touring productions, among them "Finian's Rainbow," "Porgy and Bess" and "Kwamina;" the latter's cast recording putting Guillaume's voice on a record for the first time. In 1972, he won the title role in "Purlie," a Broadway musical adaptation of Ossie Davis' play "Purlie Victorious," and in 1976, he made an even broader splash in an all-African-American-cast revival of "Guys and Dolls," playing Nathan Detroit and garnering a Tony Award nomination. His growing renown by the mid-'70s also netted him increasing television work, with guest-shots on popular shows such as "Sanford and Son" (NBC, 1972-77), "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-77), "The Jeffersons" (CBS, 1975-1985) and "Good Times" (CBS, 1974-79). But when the chance at his first regular series job presented itself - "Soap," a primetime sitcom created by producer Susan Harris as a no-holds-barred satire of daytime soap operas, with all the ribaldry and dark humor that required - Guillaume was initially hesitant. His reluctance had less to do with the imminent controversy over the show's content and more with his prospective role, that of a domestic servant, which smacked of the stereotypes to which Hollywood had relegated African-American actors for decades. But he discovered the part of Benson to be just the opposite, a wise-cracking, glowering house manager to the wealthy Tate family who did anything but step and fetch things; his biting sarcasm often proving the tonic to the preposterous excesses of the household. Harris developed a warm, mentoring relationship between Benson and the sweet but dim and put-upon mistress of the house, Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond), as her immediate and extended family dealt with affairs, illegitimate children, murders, Mafia plots, Latin American revolutionaries, rampant insanity, demonic possessions and alien abductions and couplings.
Guillaume's rapier edge, in fact, made him so popular that Harris and ABC decided that bigger and better things awaited Benson. For the 1979 season, they gave Guillaume his own series, "Benson" (1979-1986), in which he left the Tates to manage the governor's mansion of an unnamed Southern state, quickly becoming far more than just "the help" to Jessica's cousin, the similarly dotty Governor Gatling (James Noble). In the meantime, Guillaume's newfound marquee-value allowed him to reprise Davis' "Purlie" in a small screen adaptation aired by PBS in 1981, earning him opportunities to play some of the greatest African-American leaders, including Frederick Douglas in the much-hyped miniseries "North and South" (ABC, 1985) and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Kennedy-era chronicle "Prince Jack" (1985). He even showed off his vocal talents as a headliner in live-show hotbeds like Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. Fame also had its downside, as he divorced his wife of 28 years in 1983, whom he later admitted he had relied on too heavily to raise their two children. The next year, he married TV producer Donna Brown. Back on Guillaume's show, Benson's advisory capacity eventually earned him the job of state budget director, then lieutenant governor. The show aired for seven seasons - three more, in fact, than "Soap" - netting Guillaume a total of five Emmy nominations leading up to his winning the Lead Actor in a Comedy Series statue in 1985. The final year of the show went highlighted by a curious plot twist in which Benson winds up running for governor against Gatling, yielding a cliffhanger, but ABC cancelled it after the 1985-86 season, leaving the election results up in the air.
In the wake of "Benson," Guillaume earned some supporting roles in feature and TV films, most notably in the sleeper hit "Lean On Me" (1989) and the Jean-Claude Van Dam actioner "Death Warrant" (1990), as well as a return to sitcoms with "The Robert Guillaume Show" (1989). Guillaume conceived it as a light-hearted but thoughtful exploration of the pitfalls of interracial relationships in contemporary America, as his character begins a relationship with a Caucasian woman. He would later charge that ABC failed to grasp the nuances of the project and aired episodes out of order, effectively sabotaging the story arc. The series lasted only 13 episodes. In 1990, producers of the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Phantom of the Opera" chose Guillaume to take over the lead role in the ballyhooed stage spectacular's Los Angeles production, raising eyebrows over the colorblind choice of replacing the previous popular Phantom, Michael Crawford, with a black performer, but Guillaume quickly assuaged critics with his Broadway-caliber singing chops. He picked up a recurring role in "A Different World" (NBC, 1987-1993) in the early 1990s, and returned to Broadway to assume the title role of a musical adaptation of the Dumas classic, "Cyrano," with a 1993-94 run. On the small screen, he turned up in another abortive outing, "Fish Police" (CBS, 1992), an ambitious, all-star animated cartoon that ran only six episodes. But it began a second track to his career, with Guillaume's distinctive voice landing him the part of the sagely primate Rafiki, who serves as a kind of shaman to the kingdom of animals in Disney's smash feature "The Lion King," a role he would reprise numerous times in such projects as "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" (1998), the spin-off TV series "Timon and Pumbaa" (Disney Channel, 1995-98), and the Lion King audiobook, his narration of which would nab him a Grammy. He also took on the role of narrator of HBO's children's series, "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child" (1995-2000), an anthology of classics updated with contemporized characters and scenarios produced by his wife, for which he earned a Daytime Emmy nomination.
Guillaume's next shot at network TV would prove an eventful one. Producer Aaron Sorkin cast him as Isaac Jaffe, the integrity-laden, paternal boss holding together an office of pathos in the unique dramedy, "Sports Night." Toward the end of shooting the first season, Guillaume collapsed while preparing for a scene at the show's studio. Doctors at a nearby hospital told him he was having a stroke, at which point he quipped that Disney, the show's production company, didn't allow strokes during work hours. While in the hospital, Guillaume's wife suggested to Sorkin that if they wrote a story about Jaffe suffering a stroke and dealing with it on-camera, "Sports Night" would not have to work around what would be a difficult rehabilitation process for Guillaume, nor write his character abruptly out of the show. Guillaume, though walking with a cane and slurring sometimes, was able to return for the season finale, which - given the show's anemic ratings - might well have been the final episode. But the show had developed a cult following, and ABC acceded to the "Save 'Sports Night'" campaign and renewed it. But ratings did not improve during the 1999-2000 season and ABC pulled the plug permanently. Thereafter, Guillaume did a handful of TV guest-shots and supporting film roles, most notably his turn in Tim Burton's elegiac "Big Fish" (2003), but he had lost control of his singing voice and still limped, so he opted to do more voiceover work. He returned to long-form animation in "The Adventures of Tom Thumb & Thumbelina" (2002) and "The Lion King 1 1/2" (2004). He also added to his repertoire a raft of high-end, narrative video games, such as the "Kingdom Hearts" and "Half-Life" game series. In the wake of his high-profile health issues, Guillaume also served as a spokesman for such organizations as the American Heart Association and the National Stroke Association.
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CAST: (feature film)
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In 1990, Guillaume replaced Michael Crawford in the title role of "The Phantom of the Opera" in Los Angeles, becoming the first African American performer in the role.
"I don't think I've had that much of a variety, that oppportunity to play a wide range of people. If you're black and you try to play a character that has not been seen, a philosophy professor, say, or has been on the horizon in film, theater and television, you always run up against people who don't understand. People who have a much more limited idea of what African-Americans are. We occupy a wide, wide spectrum of the territory we call the American dream. In the media it's a tiny little area." --Robert Guillaume in Daily News, September 11, 1991.
"If I had to identify what made me successful, I'd say it was a firmly grounded early education which made me unafraid of the English language. The ability to articulate effectively what I wanted to say and felt has served me more than anything else in this business." --Guillaume quoted in "Death Warrant" publicity material
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