Robert Guillaume, the portrayer of TV’s witty butler Benson, passed away at age 89 after battling prostate cancer.


Guillaume died in his home in Los Angeles according to his wife Donna Brown Guillaume. He landed a role in the prime-time sitcom Soap, which starred Billy Crystal and satirized the soap opera genre. In it, he played his most well-known role, that of Benson, the acerbic butler in a governor’s mansion. He was such a hit that ABC created a spinoff series about the character called Benson, which ran from 1979 to 1986.

“The minute I saw the script, I knew I had a live one,” Guillaume said of the series in 2001. He became the first black actor to win a comedy Emmy for the role. In fact, he won twice  – first in 1979 for best supporting actor in a comedy for Soap, and again in 1985 for best actor in a comedy for Benson.

The actor was also famed for his work in musical theater. He played Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of Guys and Dolls, and was the first black man to play the title role in Phantom of the Opera. Later, he voiced the cheeky mandrill Rafiki in Disney’s The Lion King.

After appearing in Aaron Sorkin‘s show Sports Night in 1996, Guillaume collapsed and suffered a minor stroke. He returned for the show’s second and final season, and it was written into the script that his character was recovering from a stroke. Soon after, he became a spokesman for the American Stroke Association and a promoter for the American Heart Association. He was also one of the first celebrities to appear at an AIDS fundraiser – his son Jacques died at age 33 of the disease.

Guillaume wrote an autobiography in 2002 called Guillaume: A Life. In it, he detailed his early years, saying, “I’m a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums of St. Louis.”

Ava DuVernay was one of many to pay tribute to the late actor on social media. “Giant of stage + screen. Also let’s remember that Robert Guillaume was among the first celebs to appear at AIDS fundraisers. Thank you, sir,” she wrote.

Guillaume’s Sports Night co-stars Josh Charles and Josh Malina also spoke out about the death. “Robert Guillaume radiated such warmth, light, dignity, and above all, class. That smile and laugh touched us all. RIP to the best boss ever,” wrote Charles. “R.I.P. Robert Guillaume. Saw him play Nathan Detroit on Broadway in 1976. Made me want to be an actor. It was a thrill to work w him on SN,” said Malina.

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