Actor, singer and St. Louis native Robert Guillaume could deliver a look or a line that would spark instantaneous laughter. His impeccable comedic timing eventually led him to make Emmy history.
Guillaume passed away on Tuesday, October 24 at the age of 89. His widow Donna Brown Guillaume told The Associated Press that the Emmy Award and Grammy Award winning performer had been battling prostate cancer.
“He kinda went the way everyone wishes they could, surrounded by love and in his sleep,” Donna Guillaume told CNN.
Born Robert Williams in St. Louis on November 30, 1927, Guillaume was a proud graduate of Sumner High School and Washington University. He also studied at Saint Louis University and served in the Army before heading to Cleveland to pursue a career on stage with the black theatre troupe Karamu Players.
Guillaume made his Broadway debut in “Kwamina” in 1961. Other stage appearances included “Golden Boy,” “Tambourines to Glory” and black adaptation of “Guys and Dolls” – which earned Guillaume a Tony Award nomination. It was a role he would reprise at home on stage at The Muny.
He became a regular on the small screen thanks to several guest appearances on shows like “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son” with fellow St. Louis native Redd Foxx. But he became a household name thanks to his role as Benson on the ABC series “Soap,” a primetime spoof of daytime drama. Through the portrayal Guillaume made history as the first African-American to win an “Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series,” award – a full 25 years after the category was added to the Primetime Emmy Awards.
Guillaume’s performance as Benson DuBois resonated so profoundly that the character was given its own spin-off. He became a staple of primetime television thanks to the seven-year run of “Benson.”
In November 28, 1984, Guillaume received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in the television industry. The next year, he made Emmy history again when he became the first African-American to take home the “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series” in 1985 for “Benson.”
After “Benson” ended, Guillaume once again made several guest appearances on television shows such as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “A Different World” and “Saved By The Bell: The College Years.”
He broke racial barriers on stage by becoming the first African American to sing the title role of “Phantom of The Opera.”
He won over a new generation of fans for his role as Rafiki in the 1994 Disney Blockbuster “The Lion King.” Guillaume captured hearts with wisdom he delivered through his role of Rafiki. He earned Best Spoken Word Album for Children Grammy Award in 1995 as the narrator for “The Lion King Read Along.”
Donna Guillaume added that her husband treasured his role as Rafiki – and that he really loved making music, entertaining and making people laugh.
Guillaume appeared in nearly 25 films and countless stage productions over the course of his career.
He is survived by four children, all of whom had spent time visiting with their father in his final weeks, Donna Guillaume said.
“He was a good father and a good husband,” Donna Guillaume said. “He was a great, great person.”