Robert Guillaume

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Robert Guillaume
Robert Guillaume (1980).jpg
Guillaume at the premiere of Seems Like Old Times in 1980
Robert Peter Williams

(1927-11-30)November 30, 1927
DiedOctober 24, 2017(2017-10-24) (aged 89)
Alma materWashington University in St. Louis
  • Actor
  • singer
Years active1959–2014
  • Marlene Williams
    (m. 1955; div. 1984)
  • Donna Brown-Guillaume
    (m. 1986)

Robert Guillaume (born Robert Peter Williams; November 30, 1927 – October 24, 2017) was an American actor and singer, known for his role as Benson DuBois in the ABC television series Soap and its spin-off, Benson,[1] as well as for voicing the mandrill Rafiki in The Lion King and related media thereof. In a career that spanned more than 50 years he worked extensively on stage, television and film. For his efforts he was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, and twice won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of the character Benson DuBois, once in 1979 on Soap and in 1985 on Benson. He also won a Grammy Award in 1995 for his spoken word performance of an audiobook version of The Lion King. He is also known for his role as playing Eli Vance in the video game Half-Life 2.

Early life[edit]

Guillaume was born Robert Peter Williams in St. Louis[2] to an alcoholic mother.[citation needed] After she abandoned him and several siblings, they were raised by their grandmother, Jeannette Williams.[3] He studied at Saint Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis and served in the United States Army before pursuing an acting career.[4] He adopted the surname Guillaume (French for William) as his stage name.



George Goodman, William Ray, Robert Guillaume and Olive Moorefield, rehearsal of Porgy and Bess, Théâtre du Capitole. Archives de Toulouse.

After leaving university, Guillaume joined the Karamu Players in Cleveland and performed in musical comedies and opera.[citation needed] He toured the world in 1959 as a cast member of the Broadway musical Free and Easy.[5] He made his Broadway debut in Kwamina in 1961.[6] His other stage appearances included Golden Boy (with Sammy Davis Jr.),[7] Tambourines to Glory, Guys and Dolls, for which he received a Tony Award nomination,[8] Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and Purlie![citation needed] His additional roles included Katherine Dunham's Bambouche and in Fly The Blackbird.[4]

In 1964, he portrayed Sportin' Life in a revival of Porgy and Bess at New York City Center.[2] Guillaume was a member of the Robert de Cormier Singers, performing in concerts and on television.[3] He recorded an LP album, Columbia CS9033, titled Just Arrived as a member of The Pilgrims, a folk trio, with Angeline Butler and Millard Williams.[5] Columbia records producer, Tom Wilson, had set out to create the Pilgrims as an answer to the popular folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary. By early 1964, the Pilgrims had recorded a handful of songs and Wilson was looking for the right song for the group's debut single when then unknown singer/songwriter named Paul Simon arrived for a meeting with Wilson and eventually pitched his new composition, "The Sound of Silence". Wilson liked the song, had Simon record a demo for the group, but when Simon and his friend, Art Garfunkel, sang the song for Wilson in person, he signed them to a record contract instead of using it for The Pilgrims.[9] (In the sixties Guillaume was working in Vienna, Austria at the Vienna Volksoper, Marcel Prawy engaged him for the role of Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess.)[citation needed]

Later in his stage career, he was cast in the lead role in the Los Angeles production of The Phantom of the Opera, replacing Michael Crawford.[6]


As Benson in Soap, 1977.

Guillaume made several guest appearances on sitcoms, including Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Saved By The Bell: The College Years and in the 1990s sitcoms The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and A Different World.[6] Guillaume also played Dr. Franklin in season 6, episode 6 ("Chain Letter") of the series All in the Family, in which he coyly referenced Marcus Welby, M.D., a TV series in which he had guest-starred in 1970.[10]

His series-regular debut was on the ABC series Soap, playing Benson, a butler, from 1977 to 1979.[11] Guillaume continued the role in a spin-off series, Benson, which ran for 158 episodes from 1979 until 1986.[2]

In 1985, Guillaume appeared in the television mini-series North and South as abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and became a leader of the anti-slavery movement prior to the American Civil War.[3]

He also appeared as marriage counselor Edward Sawyer on The Robert Guillaume Show (1989), Detective Bob Ballard on Pacific Station (1991–1992), and television executive Isaac Jaffe on Aaron Sorkin's short-lived but critically acclaimed Sports Night (1998–2000).[2] Guillaume suffered a mild stroke on January 14, 1999, while filming an episode of the latter series.[1] He recovered and his character was later also depicted as having had a stroke. He also made a guest appearance on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.[11] He made one of his final TV appearances during season 5 on Oprah: Where Are They Now?

His voice was employed for characters in television series Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Fish Police, and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child.[4] He was known for the voice of Rafiki in the movie The Lion King and its sequels and spin-offs.[12] He lent his deep tenor voice as Mr. Thicknose in The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze.[13] He also supplied the voice for Eli Vance in the 2004 video game Half-Life 2 and its immediate episodic sequels.[14]

Personal life[edit]

Guillaume was married twice; first to Marlene Williams in 1955, with whom he had two sons, Kevin and Jacques. Despite Guillaume choosing to follow his career early in the marriage, they did not divorce until 1984.[3] He had a daughter in 1980, Melissa, whom he raised with her mother, Patricia. He then married Donna Brown in 1986; the couple had a daughter, Rachel.[6] He fathered but did not raise another daughter, Patricia, by a different mother; she was born in 1950 and was raised by her grandparents.[3] His son Jacques died on December 23, 1990, at the age of 32, of complications of AIDS.[citation needed]

In 1999, Guillaume suffered a stroke while working on Sports Night at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California.[5] The stroke was minor, causing relatively slight damage and little effect on his speech.[2] After six weeks in the hospital, he underwent a therapy of walks and gym sessions.[5]


Guillaume died of prostate cancer on October 24, 2017, at his home in Los Angeles, California.[11]


Guillaume has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.[15] On November 28, 1984, Guillaume received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in the television industry.[16][17]



Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Association Award category Result
1977 Guys and Dolls Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical Nominated
Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical Nominated
1979 Soap Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Won[22]
1980 Benson Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Nominated
1982 Nominated
1983 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Nominated
1984 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Nominated
1985 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Won[23]
1995 The Lion King Read-Along Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children Won[24]
2000 Sports Night Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series Nominated
Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program Nominated


  1. ^ a b Huff, Richard (January 21, 1999). "Stroke Sidelines Guillaume". New York Daily News. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Slotnik, Daniel E. (October 24, 2017). "Robert Guillaume, Emmy Award Winning-Star of 'Benson', Dies at 89". The New York Times. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e Pollard-Terry, Gayle (January 8, 2003). "Robert Guillaume memoir details tumultuous life". The Seattle Times. Retrieved February 2, 2022.
  4. ^ a b c Italie, Hillel (October 24, 2017). "'Benson' star Robert Guillaume dead at 89". Chicago Tribune. Associated Press. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e "Robert Guillaume, Emmy-winning actor in 'Soap' and 'Benson,' dies at 89". The Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. October 24, 2017. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  6. ^ a b c d "Donna Brown Guillaume Actor Robert Guillaume's Wife". Daily Entertainment News. October 25, 2017. Retrieved February 2, 2022.
  7. ^ Guillaume, Robert; Ritz, David (2002). Guillaume, A life. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-8262-1426-3.
  8. ^ Hawkes, Ellen (May 24, 1992). "The Anger Sustained Me". Parade. pp. 12–14. Retrieved February 2, 2022 – via Toledo Blade.
  9. ^ Carlin, Peter Ames (October 11, 2016). Homeward bound: the life of Paul Simon (First ed.). New York: Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 978-1-6277-9034-5.
  10. ^ Guillaume, Robert (October 20, 1975). "Emmy TV Legends Interviews". Emmy TV Legends. Retrieved August 2, 2017. Boy, that Marcus Welby must make fifteen million house calls a week
  11. ^ a b c Italie, Hillel (December 26, 2017). "Emmy Award-winning "Benson" star Robert Guillaume dies at 89". San Francisco Chronicle. Associated Press. Archived from the original on October 25, 2017. Retrieved December 26, 2014.
  12. ^ "Emmy-winning actor Robert Guillaume dies at age 89". KGTV News. October 24, 2017. Archived from the original on October 25, 2017. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  13. ^ "Mr. Thicknose". Behind the Voice Actors. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  14. ^ "Half-Life 2 voice cast revealed". Game Spot. June 25, 2004. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  15. ^ "Inductees: Acting & Entertainment". St. Louis Walk of Fame. Retrieved February 2, 2022.
  16. ^ "Robert Guillaume". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Retrieved October 4, 2016.
  17. ^ "Robert Guillaume – Hollywood Star Walk". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 4, 2016.
  18. ^ "Robert Guillaume, Emmy-winning Benson and Sports Night actor, dies at 89". Entertainment Weekly. October 24, 2017. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  19. ^ "Robert Guillaume: Credits". TV Guide. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  20. ^ "Robert Guillaume". Archived from the original on October 25, 2017. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  21. ^ "Overview for Robert Guillaume". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  22. ^ "Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Or Comedy-Variety Or Music Series 1979". Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
  23. ^ "Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy Series 1985". Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
  24. ^ "Biography". Archived from the original on June 27, 2012. Retrieved September 7, 2012.

External links[edit]