Remembering Actor Robert Guillaume

Oct 25, 2017
Originally published on October 25, 2017 7:14 am
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The actor Robert Guillaume died yesterday at the age of 89. He was best known as TV's smart-alecky butler-turned-lieutenant governor, Benson DuBois. He won two Emmys playing that role, which could have been an awful stereotype but was transformed into a TV classic by the man who played it. NPR's Eric Deggans has more.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Robert Guillaume spent a long career playing sharp-witted, dignified black men on TV, movies and stage. And he built his most enduring character by bringing those qualities to a butler, Benson DuBois, a servant in two of the most eccentric households on television. So every moment Benson was on camera, Guillaume made sure he wasn't a typical, shuffling stereotype.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BENSON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You must be Benson.

ROBERT GUILLAUME: (As Benson DuBois) Why must I be Benson?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, the only other black the governor has an appointment with is tomorrow with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and everyone know what he looks like.

GUILLAUME: (As Benson DuBois) Well, that would make me Benson.

DEGGANS: A back-talking African-American butler could have been an awful caricature. But when Benson first appeared on the '70s satire "Soap," Guillaume reversed the cliche, playing calm and intelligent while serving a family of delusional characters and serial adulterers. He rose to become lieutenant governor on the spin-off series "Benson," and his journey reflected the upward mobility of many black people in real life and other black characters on TV. But even Guillaume worried at first that he might set an awful example by agreeing to play yet another black servant on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUILLAUME: I was thinking all along, how am I going to do this?

DEGGANS: This is a 1999 interview for the Archive of American Television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUILLAUME: I'm going to be playing the very thing I don't want to play, I never got in the business to play. So I began to try to find things within the script that would allow me to do this character.

DEGGANS: Guillaume was born Robert Peter Williams, raised in a Depression-era St. Louis slum. In his 2003 memoir, he said his mother was an alcoholic prostitute who abandoned him and three siblings with their grandmother. He was drawn to music studies in college. And eventually he took the last name Guillaume - the French translation of Williams - because he liked its sophisticated sound. And that name soon found greater fame on the Broadway stage, where his biggest roles included starring in the 1972 production of "Purlie" and a stint playing Nathan Detroit in an all-black revival of "Guys And Dolls."

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "GUYS AND DOLLS")

GUILLAUME: (As Nathan Detroit, singing) Call a lawyer and sue me, sue me. What can you do me? I love you. Give a holler and hate me.

DEGGANS: As "Guys And Dolls" was closing, another run of unemployment seemed likely, so Guillaume cautiously took the role of Benson, the sarcastic yet sane butler, which would turn him into a TV star. When "Benson" ended, he developed another sitcom built around an interracial couple, "The Robert Guillaume Show." Guillaume personified another dignified character as Isaac Jaffe, executive producer of a sports news program on Aaron Sorkin's first TV series, "Sports Night." When he suffered a stroke on the set in 1999, Guillaume's struggle to keep working was written into the scripts as a crisis for Jaffe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SPORTS NIGHT")

JOSH CHARLES: (As Dan Rydell) Isaac, you can't work full time.

GUILLAUME: (As Isaac Jaffe) I have to.

CHARLES: (As Dan Rydell) Why?

GUILLAUME: (As Isaac Jaffe) Because they pay me to.

CHARLES: (As Dan Rydell) You had a stroke.

GUILLAUME: (As Isaac Jaffe) Is that what that was?

CHARLES: (As Dan Rydell) Yes.

GUILLAUME: (As Isaac Jaffe) I thought it was bad swordfish.

CHARLES: (As Dan Rydell) Isaac, I'm not kidding around here.

GUILLAUME: (As Isaac Jaffe) Leave me alone, Danny.

DEGGANS: For Guillaume, it was one more example of his greatest talent - using off-screen challenges to shatter old stereotypes.

Eric Deggans, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.