He was born to in St. Louis to a single mother on November 30, 1927; growing up in abject poverty. His mother named him Robert Peter Williams. When he began his acting career, he chose Guillaume as a last name, a French version of William, because he was “looking for a measure of distinction”.
“I suppose if I had been born Robert Guillaume I would have changed it to Robert Williams. People have perfectly good names and change them. And for an Afro-American it made no more sense for me to have a Welsh name than it did to have a French one.”
Robert Guillaume was a smoky-voiced, urbane, witty actor who won Emmy Awards for playing the same sarcastic character on two different sitcoms. His wry Benson DuBois began as a supporting character on ABC’s primetime soap opera parody Soap (1977-81). The character, a sharp-tongued butler proved so popular with audiences that he was later spun-off to his own series Benson (1979-86), in which DuBois rose from butler to lieutenant governor.
In 1985, Guillaume became the first African-American to win the Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. In his acceptance speech, Guillaume quipped: “I’d like to thank Bill Cosby for not being here…“, referring to the popularity of that era’s other major black television star, and not because of a fear of being slipped a roofie.
Guillaume demanded that his Benson character, the majordomo of a fictional governor’s mansion, be played with dignity and self-respect, refusing to give in to cheap stereotypes about black servitude.
“In all honesty and candor and modesty, I always wanted the character to have that kind of upward mobility, because it mirrored the American dream. It goes without saying that I’ve tried to conduct myself in the character in such a way that I could look back on it five or 10 years from now and not have to wince.”
I was lucky enough to see Guillaume in his effervescing performance as Nathan Detroit in the first all-black production of Guys And Dolls, a role that brought him a Tony Award nomination in 1977. He was also the first African-American actor to play the lead in Phantom Of The Opera.
Guillaume worked steadily in television with roles on Good Times (1974-79), The Jeffersons (1975-1985), Sanford And Son (1972-79), The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (1990-96) and A Different World (1987-1993). He played abolitionist hero Fredrick Douglass, amazingly still alive and a friend of the current POTUS at 199-years-old, in the mini-series North And South (1985).
I especially appreciated his comic gifts playing television executive Isaac Jaffe on Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant, sexy, short-lived, much loved, critically acclaimed Sports Night (1998–2000). Guillaume suffered a mild stroke in January 1999, while filming an episode Sports Night and the stroke was written into the storyline.
He is known to another generation as the voice of wise mandrill Rakifi in Disney’s The Lion King, and winning a Grammy Award for narrating the audio book version.
Guillaume was married twice. His son Jacques Guillaume died in 1990, at the age of 33-years-old, taken by the plague. Jacques Guilleaume and his brother Kevin had grown up with their mother, while their father pursued his career. Guillaume:
“I felt guilty because what I call the ‘long arm of the ghetto’ where he spent his childhood, had gotten to him and programmed him for defeat. I think he interpreted my urging to put his brain and talents to use as snobbishness and disapproval. He didn’t seem to understand that I loved him without qualification and accepted his homosexuality.”
Guillaume left this world last night at his home in Los Angeles, taken by prostate cancer just a month before his 90th birthday.