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Breaking News: “Benson” Star Robert Guillaume Dies After Battle With Cancer At The Age Of 89

Emmy Award-winning actor Robert Guillaume, known for his role as dry-witted butler Benson Du Bois on the TV series Soap, has died.

Guillaume passed away at home Tuesday in Los Angeles, according to his widow, Donna Brown Guillaume.

He had been battling prostate cancer, she told The Associated Press.

Among Guillaume’s achievements was playing Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of Guys and Dolls, earning a Tony nomination in 1977.

He became the first African-American to sing the title role of Phantom of the Opera, appearing with an all-white cast in Los Angeles.

He also appeared in movies, including Meteor Man, First Kid and Spy Hard. He also won a Grammy for spoken word recording for The Lion King.

While playing in Guys and Dolls, he was asked to test for the role of an acerbic butler of a governor’s mansion in Soap, a primetime TV sitcom that satirized soap operas.

‘The minute I saw the script, I knew I had a live one,’ he recalled in 2001. ‘Every role was written against type, especially Benson, who wasn’t subservient to anyone.

‘To me, Benson was the revenge for all those stereotyped guys who looked like Benson in the ’40s and ’50s (movies) and had to keep their mouths shut.’

The character became so popular that ABC was persuaded to launch a spinoff, simply called Benson, which lasted from 1979 to 1986.

His work on Soap show won Guillaume won the Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series in 1979.

Guillaume’s character had been a butler on ‘Soap’ but on ‘Benson’ he served as a state governor’s director of household affairs, then state budget director, lieutenant governor and candidate for governor.

Guillaume won the Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series in 1985 for ‘Benson,’ the last of six times that he was nominated for an Emmy playing the character.

He became the first black actor to win that award.

The series made Guillaume wealthy and famous, but he regretted that Benson’s wit had to be toned down to make him more appealing as the lead star.

He came from humble beginnings.

‘I’m a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums of St. Louis.’

This was the opening of ‘Guillaume: A Life,’ his 2002 autobiography in which he laid bare his troubled life. He was born fatherless on Nov. 30, 1927, in St. Louis, one of four children.

His mother named him Robert Peter Williams; when he became a performer he adopted Guillaume, a French version of Williams, believing the change would give him distinction.

His early years were spent in a back-alley apartment without plumbing or electricity; an outhouse was shared with two dozen people.

His alcoholic mother hated him because of his dark skin, and his grandmother rescued him, taught him to read and enrolled him in a Catholic school.

Seeking but denied his mother’s love and scorned by nuns and students because of his dark skin, the boy became a rebel, and that carried into his adult life.

He was expelled from school and then the Army, though he was granted an honorable discharge.

He fathered a daughter and abandoned the child and her mother.

He did the same to his first wife and two sons and to another woman and a daughter.

He worked in a department store, the post office and as St. Louis’s first black streetcar motorman.

Seeking something better, he enrolled at St. Louis University, excelling in philosophy and Shakespeare, and then at Washington University (St. Louis) where a music professor trained the young man’s superb tenor singing voice.

After serving as an apprentice at theaters in Aspen, Colo., and Cleveland, the newly named Guillaume toured with Broadway shows ‘Finian’s Rainbow,’ ”Golden Boy,’ ”Porgy and Bess’ and ‘Purlie,’ and began appearing on sitcoms such as ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘Sanford and Son.’

Then came ‘Soap’ and ‘Benson.’ His period of greatest success was marred by tragedy when his 33-year-old son Jacques died of AIDS.

Guillaume’s first stable relationship came when he married TV producer Donna Brown in the mid-1980s and fathered a daughter, Rachel. At last he was able to shrug off the bitterness he had felt throughout his life.

 ‘To assuage bitterness requires more than human effort,’ he wrote at the end of his autobiography. ‘Relief comes from a source we cannot see but can only feel. I am content to call that source love.’

In 1999 the actor suffered a stroke while on set for TV series Sports Night as Isaac Jaffee, executive producer of a sports highlight show

Returning to his dressing room after a meal away from the studio, he suddenly collapsed.

‘I fell on the floor, and I couldn’t get up,’ he told an interviewer in 2001. ‘I kept floundering about on the floor and I didn’t know why I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know it was it was caused by my left side being weaker than the other.’

Fortunately, St. Joseph Hospital was directly across from the studio. The 71-year-old actor was taken there and treated for a stroke- the result of a blood clot that blocked circulation of blood to the brain. They are fatal in 15 percent of the cases.

Guillaume’s stroke was minor, causing relatively slight damage and little effect on his speech.


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