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R.I.P. Robert Guillaume of 'Benson' and 'Soap'

The Emmy-winning actor was 89.

Image: The Everett Collection

Before he was headlining his own successful sitcom, Robert Guillaume was breaking barriers in the theater. He starred in the first all-black production of Guys and Dolls. Frank Sinatra may have made the role famous, but Guillaume earned an Emmy nomination for playing Nathan Detroit. Later, he became the first black man to play the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, taking over the mask from Michael Crawford.

Of course, between those two notable stage roles, the St. Louis native was best known as Benson, the quick-witting, sharp-tongued butler on the sitcom Soap and its spin-off, Benson. Slotted on ABC the same evening as Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, the boundary-busting Soap surfed through some initial controversy, becoming a hit and a critical darling. For his work, Guillaume took home an Emmy in 1979 for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.

Of course, that was not his only reward that year. In the fall of '79, Benson joined the network lineup. A family sitcom set in the world of politics, Benson lasted far longer than its parent show, largely thanks to the charm of Guillaime in the lead role. It aired for seven seasons. Heading into its final year, Guillaume at least won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.

The actor later headlined his own The Robert Guillaume Show in 1989, in which he comedically explored the dynamics of interracial marriage. Unfortunately, the series lasted a mere 13 episodes, too ahead of its time.

Later in his career, Guillaume found a new channel for his talents in voice work. Most notably, he was Rafiki in The Lion King, and in many of its spin-off cartoons and video games. He landed another recurring TV role on the smart Aaron Sorkin series Sports Night. He always had a nose for sharply written television.

Sadly, Guillaume passed away early today after a battle with prostrate cancer, as reported by Deadline. He was 89 years old.

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  • Roger Moore
  • ERIN MORAN OF 'HAPPY DAYS' AND 'JOANIE LOVES CHACHI'
  • DINA MERRILL, THE BILLIONAIRE HEIRESS WHO PLAYED BATMAN VILLAIN CALAMITY JAN
  • Mike Connors, star of 'Mannix'
  • Don Rickles
  • RICHARD HATCH of 'BATTLESTAR GALACTICA'
  • MICHAEL PARKS OF 'THEN CAME BRONSON' AND 'TWIN PEAKS'
  • Chuck Barris, host of 'The Gong Show'
  • Roger Smith of '77 Sunset Strip'
  • ELENA VERDUGO OF 'MARCUS WELBY, M.D.'
  • CURT LOWENS, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR, WAR HERO AND 'HOGAN'S HEROES' ACTOR
  • JUDGE JOSEPH WAPNER OF 'THE PEOPLE'S COURT'
  • FILM HISTORIAN ROBERT OSBORNE
  • Dick Gautier, Hymie the Robot from 'Get Smart'
  • LAWRENCE MONTAIGNE OF 'STAR TREK'
  • LOLA ALBRIGHT OF 'PETER GUNN'
  • CHELSEA BROWN OF 'ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN'
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  • PETER HANSEN OF 'GENERAL HOSPITAL' AND 'GOMER PYLE, U.S.M.C.'
  • JUNE FORAY, THE VOICE OF ROCKY THE FLYING SQUIRREL
  • RED WEST, THE ELVIS PRESLEY BODYGUARD WHO PLAYED THE PERFECT TV TOUGH GUY
  • JOHN CYGAN OF 'THE COMMISH' AND 'BOB'
  • MIGUEL FERRER, SON OF JOSÉ FERRER AND ROSEMARY CLOONEY
  • Francine York, 'Batman' actress and 1960s star
  • BRUCE LANSBURY, BROTHER OF ANGELA, PRODUCER OF 'WONDER WOMAN' AND 'WILD WILD WEST'
  • JEFFREY HAYDEN, DIRECTOR OF ALL OF OUR FAVORITE TV EPISODES
  • ADAM WEST, TV'S BELOVED BATMAN
  • Mary Tyler Moore
  • BARBARA HALE OF 'PERRY MASON'
  • Roger Moore
  • ERIN MORAN OF 'HAPPY DAYS' AND 'JOANIE LOVES CHACHI'
  • DINA MERRILL, THE BILLIONAIRE HEIRESS WHO PLAYED BATMAN VILLAIN CALAMITY JAN
  • Mike Connors, star of 'Mannix'
  • Don Rickles
  • RICHARD HATCH of 'BATTLESTAR GALACTICA'
  • MICHAEL PARKS OF 'THEN CAME BRONSON' AND 'TWIN PEAKS'
  • Chuck Barris, host of 'The Gong Show'
  • Roger Smith of '77 Sunset Strip'
  • ELENA VERDUGO OF 'MARCUS WELBY, M.D.'
  • CURT LOWENS, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR, WAR HERO AND 'HOGAN'S HEROES' ACTOR
  • JUDGE JOSEPH WAPNER OF 'THE PEOPLE'S COURT'
  • FILM HISTORIAN ROBERT OSBORNE
  • Dick Gautier, Hymie the Robot from 'Get Smart'
  • LAWRENCE MONTAIGNE OF 'STAR TREK'
  • LOLA ALBRIGHT OF 'PETER GUNN'
  • CHELSEA BROWN OF 'ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN'
  • QUINN O'HARA OF 'THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI'
  • PETER HANSEN OF 'GENERAL HOSPITAL' AND 'GOMER PYLE, U.S.M.C.'
  • JUNE FORAY, THE VOICE OF ROCKY THE FLYING SQUIRREL
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  • JEFFREY HAYDEN, DIRECTOR OF ALL OF OUR FAVORITE TV EPISODES

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