Robert "Bob" Guillaume (born November 30, 1927 - October 24, 2017) was an American stage and television actor, best known for his role as Benson Du Bois on the TV-series Soap and the spin-off Benson, voicing the mandrill Rafiki in The Lion King, as Isaac Jaffe on Sports Night, and as Eli Vance in the Half Life 2 series. Also, notably, as superintendent of schools, Dr. Frank Napier, in the 1989 film Lean on Me.
Robert Guillaume was born as Robert Peter Williams (Guillaume is the French form of William) in St. Louis, Missouri. He studied at St. Louis University and Washington University and served in the United States Army before pursuing an acting career.
On leaving the university, Robert joined the Karamu Players in Cleveland and performed in musical comedies and opera. He toured the world in 1959 as a cast member of the Broadway musical Free and Easy. He made his Broadway debut in Kwamina in 1961. (A reference on a Columbia LP shows this as "Dwamina".) Other stage appearances included Golden Boy, Tambourines to Glory, Guys and Dolls, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, the Los Angeles production of The Phantom of the Opera (succeeding Michael Crawford in the lead role), and Purlie!. Added roles were in Katherine Dunham's Bambouche and in Fly The Blackbird. In 1964 he portrayed Sportin' Life in a revival of Porgy and Bess at New York's City Center. Robert has been a member of the Robert de Cormier Singers, performing in concerts and on television. He has soloed on The Tonight Show. He recorded a LP record, Columbia CS9033, titled Just Arrived as a member of The Pilgrims, a folk trio, with Angeline Butler and Millard Williams.
Some minor controversy was stirred when Guillaume replaced Michael Crawford as The Phantom in the National tour of Phantom of the Opera. Guillaume is the first, and to date only, black actor to assume the role. No recording of his performance exists except for a brief excerpt captured on a Sunday Morning episode on CBS shortly after his debut.
Guillaume made several guest appearances on sitcoms, including Good Times, The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son, and in the 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. His series-regular debut began on the ABC series Soap, playing Benson Du Bois, a butler, from 1977 to 1979. Guillaume continued the role in a spinoff series, Benson, from 1979 until 1986. Guillaume is an accomplished singer and several episodes of Benson provided Guillaume a storyline to sing. Guillaume also played Dr. Franklin in Season 6 episode #8 titled "Chain Letter" in the hit series "All in the Family."
He also appeared as marriage counselor Edward Sawyer on The Robert Guillaume Show (1989), Detective Bob Ballard on Pacific Station (1991), and television executive Isaac Jaffe on Aaron Sorkin's short-lived but critically acclaimed Sports Night (1998–2000). Guillaume suffered a mild stroke on January 14, 1999, while filming an episode of the latter series. He recovered and his character was later also depicted as having had a stroke. He also made a guest appearance on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.
In the 1980s, Guillaume was a commercial pitchman for Ocean Spray, promoting its line of grapefruit juice. He also was the spokesman for Milk of Magnesia.
Guillaume died of prostate cancer on October 24, 2017.
Guillaume has also appeared in a number of films:
- Super Fly T.N.T. (1973)
- Seems Like Old Times (1980)
- The Kid with the Broken Halo (co-starring Gary Coleman) (1982)
- The Kid with the 200 I.Q. (also co-starring Gary Coleman) (1983)
- Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987)
- Lean on Me (1989)
- Death Warrant (1990)
- The Meteor Man (1993)
- First Kid (1996)
- The 13th Child: Legend of the Jersey Devil (2002)
- Unchained Memories (2003).
- Big Fish (2003).
His voice has also been used for characters in television series Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Fish Police, and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child and for the voice of Rafiki in the movie The Lion King and its sequels and spin-offs. He voiced Mr. Thicknose in The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze. He also supplied the voice for Eli Vance in the 2004 video game Half-Life 2 and its subsequent sequels. He is featured in the 2009 movie The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry.
Honors and Awards
Guillaume won an Outstanding Supporting Actor - Comedy Series primetime Emmy Award in 1979 for the series Soap, and an Outstanding Lead Comedy Actor primetime Emmy Award in 1985 for the series Benson, making him to this day the only African American actor to win the Lead Comedy Actor award. Guillaume has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
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- Robert Guillaume at TV.com
- Robert Guillaume at the Internet Broadway Database
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- St. Louis Walk of Fame
- Robert Guillaume's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
- Official Website
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