Actor Robert Guillaume, best known for his title role in the TV series “Benson,” died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 89. His wife Donna Guillaume told CNN he had battled prostate cancer in recent years.
When criticized for playing a black domestic worker in a white household, he responded that he saw Benson as a paean to the black working man’s struggle. When he took the part, he said, he decided that while Benson might be a servant, he would never be servile. “I wanted black people to be proud of Benson,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Guillaume: A Life” (with David Ritz, 2002).
Mr. Guillaume said Benson’s sharp tongue and dignified mien had allowed him to transcend his station while getting laughs. “What made the humor was that he didn’t care what people thought about him,” he said of the character in an interview for this obituary in 2011. “He wasn’t trying to be mean; he was just trying to be his own man.”
He won the Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy series in 1979.
“Benson” was followed in 1989 by “The Robert Guillaume Show,” which was canceled after 12 episodes. Mr. Guillaume went on to play an executive producer, Isaac Jaffe, on Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” (1998-2000), a sitcom about the inner workings of a show much like ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” When Mr. Guillaume had a stroke in 1999, Mr. Sorkin wrote a stroke into the script for the character so that he could continue playing the part.
Mr. Guillaume was born Robert Peter Williams on Nov. 30, 1927, in St. Louis. His mother, Zoe Bertha Edwards, was an alcoholic and a prostitute. He never knew his father. His grandmother Jeanette Williams reared him after a stepfather struck him in the head with a red-hot poker.
Robert attended a Roman Catholic high school, where he sang in the choir. He joined the Army in 1945, but the war was over by the time he reached Okinawa in the Pacific. He was honorably discharged in 1947.
After the war he enrolled at St. Louis University to study business on the G.I. Bill. He later studied singing and theater at Washington University in St. Louis but never earned a degree.
He married Marlene Scott in 1955. They separated but remained married for nearly three decades before divorcing in the mid-1980s.
In the late 1950s Mr. Guillaume moved to Cleveland to play Billy Bigelow in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel” at Karamu House, a historically black theater. It was there that he adopted the surname Guillaume (the French form of William), inspired by his grandfather’s tales of his family’s French heritage.
Mr. Guillaume left Cleveland in 1959 to tour with the short-lived Harold Arlen musical “Free and Easy,” which played in Amsterdam but did not make it to the United States. Soon afterward he moved to New York, where his stage career would flourish.
Mr. Guillaume played the drug dealer Sportin’ Life in a 1964 revival of “Porgy and Bess” at City Center and the lead role, the preacher Purlie Victorious Judson, in the 1972 Broadway revival of “Purlie,” a musical set in the Jim Crow South. He also toured for four years with the musical revue “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”
Mr. Guillaume never made it to the Metropolitan Opera, although he did star in the Los Angeles production of “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1990.
He landed his part in “Soap” in 1977 after a Tony-nominated run as Nathan Detroit in an all-black Broadway revival of “Guys and Dolls.”
Mr. Guillaume appeared in a few feature films, notably “Lean on Me” (1989) and “Big Fish” (2003); guest-starred on shows like “All in the Family” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”; voiced the baboon Rafiki in “The Lion King” and its straight-to-video sequels; released several albums of his singing; and received four N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards. He also won a Grammy in 1995 for best spoken word album for children for his narration on “The Lion King Read Along.”