Award winning Broadway and Hollywood actor Robert Guillaume died October 24 in his Los Angeles home as a result of prostrate cancer at the age of 89.
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While best known for his role as Benson the butler on the television series “Soap” and his own show “Benson”, but he also performed on the stage where he played Nathan Detroit in an all African American cast production of “Guys and Dolls”. He was also the first man of colour to perform the role of The Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera”.
Guillaume earned a Grammy Award for the Best Spoken Word Recording when he read “The Lion King”. He won two Emmy Awards and four NAACP Image Awards for his role as Benson on the hit television series by the same name.
After suffering a stroke, he became a spokesman for the American Stroke Association and the American Heart Association. Guillaume was always ready to appear at AIDS benefits
Guillaume made his Broadway debut in 1960 in the revival of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow”. His other Broadway performances were the original musicial “Kwamina, the original play “Tambourines to Glory”, the title role in the original and revival of the musical comedy “Purlie”, “Guys and Dolls”, and “Cyrano: The Musical”. He appeared in the touring production of “Phantom of the Opera”.
Guillaume made his television debut in 1966 in the TV movie “Porgy in Wien”. From there he went on to appear in nearly 100 film and television productions including “Julia”, “Marcus Welby, M.D.”, “Sanford and Son”, “All in the Family”, 50 episodes of “Soap”, “The Love Boat”, six episodes of “North and South”, 159 episodes of Benson”, “Lean on Me”, 12 episodes of “The Robert Guilluame Show”, 13 episodes of “Pacific Station”, “L.A. Law”, “The Meteor Man”, “The Addams Family”, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, the voice of Rafiki in “The Lion King”, “Touched by an Angel”, “The Outer Limits”, 12 episodes of the television series “Timon & Pumbaa” as Rafiki, 45 episodes of “Sportts Night”, the narrator in 36 episodes of “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child”, “Moesha”, and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”.
As himself, Guillaume appeared in variety shows, awards shows, game shows, talk shows, documentaries, and the children’s television series “3-2-1 Contact” and “Reading Rainbow.
He was born Robert Peter Williams on November 30, 1927 in the slums of S t. Louis, Missouri; one of four boys born to a single mother. As a young boy he lived in an apartment that had no indoor plumbing or electricity. After deciding to become an actor, Williams changed his last name to the French pronunciation of William – Guillaume (pronounced Gee-yome).
Before becoming an actor, Giullaume worked at a department store, the post office, and was the first man of colour to work as a streetcar motorman in St. Louis. He also spent some time in the United States Army.
Predeceased by his son Jacques, he is survived by his second wife Donna and children Patricia, Melissa, Rachel, and Kevin; four grandchildren, five great grandchildren, and one great great grandchild.
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