Robert Guillaume – the voice of the wise Rafiki from The Lion King, and two-time Emmy winner who also played the role of butler Benson in multiple ABC sitcoms has passed away, at the age of 89.
The baritone star had also lent his voice in sequels of the Lion King, various video games and TV series. As the first black actor to have the title role in the Phantom of the Opera and consistently breaking racial stereotypes in by playing major roles in sitcoms, was truly an icon.
The legend passed away at his home in Los Angeles. He was suffering from prostate cancer his wife Donna Brown Guillaume told the Associated Press.
Remembered mostly for playing Benson DuBois on Soap, which ran from 1977 to 1981, Guillaume always spoke about how coming from poverty and struggles helped shape and develop his adaptation to the character.
In his autobiography, "Guillaume: A Life" (with David Ritz, 2002), he wrote, "I wanted black people to be proud of Benson." His Emmy for outstanding actor in a comedy in 1985 for the same character also made him the only black man to win in that category.
Born Robert Williams in St. Louis on November 30, 1927, Guillaume was raised by his maternal grandmother. He had also served briefly in the US Army, before attending St. Louis University. Having always fantasized about singing for Broadway, he moved to New York and eventually performed in Finian's Rainbow (1960) and later Kwamina, Tambourines to Glory and Purlie.
In 1999, Robert suffered a mild stroke and upon his wife's suggestion, "we could incorporate the stroke into the series [the Sports Night] and he [Aaron Sorkin] agreed ... it allowed me to come back and not pretend that I had not had a stroke," he shared in a 2008 interview.
The loss of his talent has been acknowledged and mourned by many celebrities who immediately took to social media to share their feelings and condolences.
Sad to hear of the passing of Robert Guillaume. He was a great support to me on "Soap".— Billy Crystal (@BillyCrystal) October 24, 2017
Great timing, charisma and class. Rest in Peace.
Robert Guillaume radiated such warmth, light, dignity, and above all, class. That smile and laugh touched us all. RIP to the best boss ever.— Josh Charles (@MrJoshCharles) October 24, 2017
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.— ?Seasonal Scaryname? (@JoshMalina) October 24, 2017
RIP Robert Guillaume....he was the first Phantom of the Opera I ever saw when it came to Los Angeles. Great actor.— josh goblin ? (@joshgroban) October 24, 2017
I’m missing #RobertGuillaume, an intelligent, groundbreaking actor. He took a side role of a butler and turned it into the key character, becoming a de facto governor. He helped create HBO’s Happily Ever After & helped children of color see themselves in great stories. #RIP— anthonyfoxx (@anthonyfoxx) October 24, 2017
When I was 10, because I was a little brat, I shouted “Benson sucks” at Robert Guillaume, and I’ve felt bad about it ever since. RIP, sir.— Sean O'Neal (@seanoneal) October 24, 2017
ISAAC: Danny, I need to talk to you.— Dan Saffer ?? (@odannyboy) October 24, 2017
DAN: Good, cause I need to talk to you too. Who should go first?
ISAAC: Since I don't really care what you have to say, I think it should be me.
RIP Robert Guillaume
I'll be watching SPORTS NIGHT tonight. pic.twitter.com/EKpw0RDzhk