I got the saddest news today that actor Robert Guillaume died. Now before there was “Glee” , and “Will and Grace,” and Shonda Rhimes, television had no gay characters on it. Television series had gay characters and Norman Lear broke through the ceiling with his series. In 1977, ABC had introduced SOAP on September 13, 1977. What made this show so different is that along with its alien abductions and exorcisms, it introduced Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas. For the first time on American television, there was a gay character in the cast. Not only that, the rich Tate family had an African American butler that talked back to his employers. Benson Du Bois was a hit. It was hilarious to see Robert mouth off to the high and mighty Tates. He didn’t care what he said. The show was a hit with the critics and the audience. “SOAP” made Guillaume a star and garnered an Emmy for his portrayal of the Tate’s butler. Benson was also such a hit that ABC gave Guillaume his own spin off “Benson.” Once again, Guillaume was the voice of reason in a house of idiots. This time it was Jessica’s cousin , the Governor. He was basically running the state from the kitchen.
Guillaume was African American entertainment. He had appeared on some of the most controversial shows of the time. He appeared on “Julia” , which was the first modern show to have a black female lead on network television. Dianne Carroll led the way for Kerry Washington and Viola Davis as female leads on hit network shows. He also appeared on “Sanford and Son”, Lear’s “All in the Family.” and “Good Times” . He was born in St Louis on November 30,1927 as Robert Peter Williams. He also served in the US Army and attended St Louis University and Washington University. Following the Army, he changed his name to the French Guillaume and pursued an acting career. The career began in Cleveland with the Karamu Players. He made his Broadway debut in 1961 and was nominated for a Tony for playing Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls.” He was also the first black actor to play the Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera.” Guillaume replaced Michael Crawford in the role.
Guillaume was also well known for his singing voice and made several records. Surprisingly,Guillaume won an Emmy for his speaking voice in a read along for “The Lion King.” He was also known for using his voice in many animated projects as well. This includes Disney’s “The Lion King” as Rafiki.
Following “Benson”, Guillaume had several television series including “Pacific Station.” “The Robert Guillaume Show” and Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night.” “Sports Night” also starred Josh Charles of “The Good Wife” , Felicity Huffman, William H Macy of “Shameless” and Joshua Malina of “The West Wing “ and “Scandal.” While on “Sports Night” , Guillaume had suffered a stroke and then had the stroke written into the script as he recovered.
Along with his two Emmy awards and Grammy award, Guillaume was honored with a star on the St Louis Walk of Fame. He was also honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was first married to Marlene Williams who gave him two sons. One of those sons, Jacques died of complications of AIDS at 33. He then married Donna Brown who gave him a daughter. Guillaume died of complications from prostrate cancer. He was one month from his 90th birthday. Billy Crystal, Felicity Huffman, and Joshua Malina have all said how they were affected by this man on Twitter. We are all sad tonight and am sure that Guillaume is singing in the celestial choir . Chitownstarconnections gives sympathy to his family.