Emmy Award-winning actor Robert Guillaume, perhaps best known for his role as butler Benson Du Bois on the TV series Soap, has sadly died.
The much loved actor 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 many achievements was playing Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of Guys and Dolls, earning a Tony nomination in 1977.
Guillaume appeared in several movies, including Meteor Man, First Kid and Spy Hard.
His distinctive voice later led him to voice Rafiki, in the 1994 Disney big screen animation The Lion King which earned him a spoken-word Grammy.
While playing in Guys and Dolls, he was asked to test for the role of a 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 launched a spinoff, simply called Benson, which lasted from 1979 to 1986.
His work on Soap won Guillaume the Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series in 1979.
He became the first black actor to win that award.
But his success in later life is a stark difference to his 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 his 2002 autobiography.
He was born fatherless on Nov. 30, 1927, in St. Louis, one of four children.
His mother named him Robert Peter Williams. But when he became a performer, he adopted Guillaume, a French version of Williams, believing the change would make him stand out.
His early years were spent in a back-alley apartment without plumbing or electricity. He lived in an outhouse with two dozen people.
Guillaume claimed his alcoholic mother hated him because of his dark skin. It was his grandmother who rescued him, taught him to read and enrolled him in a Catholic school.
He enrolled at St. Louis University, excelling in philosophy and Shakespeare.
Then at Washington University (St. Louis) a music professor trained Guillaume as a tenor singer.
Then came Soap and Benson. But 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.
He also fathered up to five children from previous relationships.
‘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.’