Robert Guillaume, star of 'Benson,' dies at 89

Emmy Award-winning actor Robert Guillaume, best known as the title character in the TV sitcom “Benson,” died Tuesday. He was 89.

His wife Donna Brown Guillaume told the Associated Press he died at their Los Angeles home.

Guillaume often played acerbic, dry-witted, but ultimately lovable characters like the butler Benson Du Bois, which he created on the 1977 series “Soap,” before his character was spun off in 1979. Guillaume won Emmys both for “Soap” (as supporting actor) and “Benson” (as lead actor).

“Benson” ran on ABC for seven years until 1986. The butler slowly evolved to become a government official, deflecting early complaints by critics like the Washington Post’s Tom Shales that his character was a “male Mammy.” The show brought Guillaume an Emmy in 1985 for lead actor in a comedy.

See photos of Robert Guillaume:

39 PHOTOS
Robert Guillaume throughout his life
See Gallery
Robert Guillaume throughout his life
FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - 1973: Actor Robert Guillaume in a scene from the stage musical 'Purlie.' (Photo by Ray Fisher/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Actor Robert Guillaume poses for a portrait in circa 1977. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
SOAP - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: August 4, 1977. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ROBERT GUILLAUME
SOAP - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: August 4, 1977. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) CLOCKWISE (FROM BOTTOM, L): KATHERINE HELMOND;ROBERT MANDAN;ROBERT GUILLAUME;RICHARD MULLIGAN;CATHRYN DAMON
SOAP - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: August 4, 1977. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) CLOCKWISE (FROM BOTTOM L): CATHRYN DAMON;RICHARD MULLIGAN;ROBERT GUILLAUME;ROBERT MANDAN;KATHERINE HELMOND
SOAP - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: August 4, 1977. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) L-R: ROBERT GUILLAUME;KATHERINE HELMOND;ROBERT MANDAN
SOAP - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: August 4, 1977. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ROBERT GUILLAUME
SOAP - Show Coverage - Shoot Date: September 1, 1977. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) L-R: ROBERT MANDAN;ROBERT GUILLAUME
SOAP - Pilot - Airdate: September 13, 1977. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) SEATED (L-R): DIANA CANOVA;ROBERT MANDAN;KATHERINE HELMOND;CATHRYN DAMON STANDING (L-R): ARTHUR PETERSON;JENNIFER SALT;ROBERT GUILLAUME;TED WASS;RICHARD MULLIGAN;BILLY CRYSTAL
SOAP - Show Coverage - Shoot Date: February 21, 1978. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ROBERT GUILLAUME
SOAP - Gallery - Shoot Date: September 1, 1978. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) CLOCKWISE (FROM BOTTOM L): ROBERT MANDAN;JENNIFER SALT;REBECCA BALDING;BILLY CRYSTAL;ARTHUR PETERSON;ROBERT GUILLAUME;SAL VISCUSO;BOB SEAGREN;TED WASS;JAY JOHNSON;DIANA CANOVA;DINAH MANOFF;JIMMY BAIO;CATHRYN DAMON;RICHARD MULLIGAN;KATHERINE HELMOND
SOAP - Gallery - Shoot Date: September 1, 1978. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ROBERT GUILLAUME
UNITED STATES - APRIL 04: BENSON - Season One - 4/4/79, Robert Guillaume, David Hedison (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 05: BENSON - Season One - 4/5/79 Robert Guillaume as Benson DuBois (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - SEPTEMBER 9: Actor Robert Guillaume in the press room at The 31st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 9, 1979 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, California (Photo by ABC via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 04: BENSON - 'Benson in Love' - Season One - 10/4/79, Benson (Robert Guillaume) unknowingly fell in love with a State Senator. Missy Gold (Katie) co-starred., (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
NORTH AND SOUTH - TV Miniseries - Airdates: November 3, 5 through 7, 9 and 10, 1985. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ROBERT GUILLAUME
Robert Guillaume during Pro Choice Rally 1989 in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 19: Robert Guillaume (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
SPORTS NIGHT - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: July 27, 1998. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ROBERT GUILLAUME
SPORTS NIGHT - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: August 18, 1998. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ROBERT GUILLAUME
Actor Robert Guillaume sighted on June 22, 1983 at Spindletop Studios in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Actor Robert Guillaume and wife Marlene Williams attend Sixth Annual People's Choice Awards on January 24, 1980 at the Hollywood Palladium in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Betty Galella/WireImage)
Actor Robert Guillaume and wife Donna Brown attend 37th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 22, 1985 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Actor Robert Guillaume and daughter Rachel Guillaume attend Pro-Choice Rally on November 12, 1989 at Rancho Park in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Actor Robert Guillaume and wife Donna Brown attend Planned Parenthood Gala on November 6, 1991 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Actor Robert Guillaume attends Essence Awards on April 14, 2000 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Actor Robert Guillaume and wife Donna Brown attend the premiere of Courage Under Fire on July 8, 1996 at the Academy Theater in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
SPORTS NIGHT - Cast Gallery - Shoot Date: September 1, 1999. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ROBERT GUILLAUME
Robert Guillaume, Gold Nymph Award of Honour during 41st Monte-Carlo Television Festival - The Gold Nymph Awards at Grimaldi Forum in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Tony Barson Archive/WireImage)
SPORTS NIGHT - 'La Forza Del Destino' - Airdate: May 9, 2000. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) FELICITY HUFFMAN;ROBERT GUILLAUME
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 25: Actor Robert Guillaume signs his new book, 'Guillaume: A Life,' at Book Soup on November 25,2002 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)
Actor Robert Guillaume poses for a portrait at his home in Encino. (Photo by Ann Johansson/Corbis via Getty Images)
WESTWOOD , CA - MAY 12: Actor Robert Guillaume arrives at the 'Star Wars Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith' Los Angeles Premiere at the Mann Village Theatre on May 12, 2005 in Westwood, California. The premiere benefits the charity Artists for a New South Africa and its comprehensive, ground-breaking program for South African children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Paul Kreppel, Murphy Cross, Co-Creators and Co-Directors of play and Robert Guillaume (Photo by M. Phillips/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 27: Actor Robert Guillaume arrives at the premiere of Walt Disney Studios' 'The Lion King 3D' at the El Capitan Theater on August 27, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 05: Actor Robert Guillaume attends the Los Angeles Premiere of 'Fraternity' at Nate Holden Theatre Center on October 5, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vincent Sandoval/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 17: Actor Robert Guillaume attends the opening night of 'The Phantom Of The Opera' at the Pantages Theatre on June 17, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

In the late ’90s he took on the role of Isaac Jaffe, executive producer of a cable sports show on the ABC sitcom “Sports Night,” and continued to perform even after being felled by a stroke.

But Guillaume also possessed a powerful, mellifluous voice, which he used most notably to play the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” onstage.

After suffering through a period of unemployment during the ’70s, he was cast in an all-black revival of “Guys and Dolls” as Nathan Detroit, which debuted on Broadway in 1977 and secured him a Tony nomination. He also guested during this period on sitcoms such as “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons,” which led to the supporting role of Benson in “Soap.”

After leaving “Benson” behind, he starred in TV movie “John Grin’s Christmas,” a black retelling of “A Christmas Carol” that was Guillaume’s directorial debut. He tried another sitcom in 1989, “The Robert Guillaume Show,” playing a marriage counselor. The series lasted four months before ABC pulled the plug.

He returned to singing in 1990 in the Los Angeles production of “Phantom of the Opera” and on Broadway in the lead role of “Cyrano — The Musical” for four months beginning in November 1993. He also performed regularly in concert.

He was featured in films such as “Meteor Man,” “First Kid” and “Spy Hard” and did voicework in “The Lion King.” He won a Grammy for a spoken word recording based on “The Lion King.” On television he appeared in the HBO family series “Happily Ever After” and TV movies and miniseries including “Children of the Dust,” “Run for the Dream” and “Pandora’s Clock.”

More stars who have died in 2017:

60 PHOTOS
Celebrities who died in 2017
See Gallery
Celebrities who died in 2017

Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner died in his home at the Playboy Mansion of natural causes on September 27. He was 91 years old.

(Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy)

Singer Chester Bennington of Linkin Park committed suicide in July, he was 41 years old.

(Photo by Scott Dudelson/WireImage)

David Cassidy died on November 21 after having been placed in a medically-induced coma. The '70s heartthrob and "Partridge Family" star was 67.

(Photo by Bobby Bank/Getty Images)

Comedian Jerry Lewis died on August 20. He was 91 years old.

(Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)

Tom Petty, the famed and beloved rocker behind hits like “American Girl” and “Free Fallin,” died in October following a cardiac arrest. He was 66.

(Photo by Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

Actor Adam West attends the Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders Press Room at New York Comic-Con - Day 1 at Jacob Javits Center on October 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

Legendary actress Mary Tyler Moore passed away at the age of 80.

(REUTERS)

John Heard, known for his role as the father in the Home Alone films, died on July 21. Some reports say he was 71-years-old, however, others have his age listed as 72.

(Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor peacefully passed away at his home in Kentucky in July after a long battle with Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 73.


(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

"Touched By an Angel" star Della Reese died at the age of 86 peacefully at her home on November 19.

(Photo by Maury Phillips/WireImage)

Roger Smith, who starred in the series "77 Sunset Strip" and was married to actress Ann-Margret, died Sunday in Sherman Oaks. He was 84.

(Getty)

Gregg Allman, best known for performing in The Allman Brothers Band, passed away at 69.

(Reuters)

Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell died unexpectedly at 52 after he was found in a Detroit hotel room.

(Reuters)

Erin Moran, who is known for her role in TV sitcom "Happy Days," died at the age of 56 after a secret battle with cancer.

(Getty)

Comedian Don Rickles died at the age of 90 from kidney failure.

(Reuters)

Comedian Charlie Murphy died at 57 from complications stemming from a battle with leukemia.

(Getty)

Roger Moore, a former James Bond star, died after a short battle with cancer at 89.

(Reuters)

Jonathan Demme, the director known for his work on thriller "Silence of the Lambs," died at 73 from esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease.

(Getty)

Roger Ailes, who was at FOX News for two decades before being ousted last year for alleged sexual harassment, died at 77 after suffering a fall at his home.

(Reuters)

Bill Paxton died unexpectedly at age 61 on February 25. 

( REUTERS/Fred Prouser)

AC/DC guitarist and co-founded Malcolm Young died in November at the age of 64 after a three-year battle with dementia.

(Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns)

Soul singer Cuba Gooding Sr., who is also Cuba Gooding Jr.'s father, died at 72.

(Getty)

Neil Fingleton, "Britain's tallest man" and "Games of Thrones" star died at 36 from heart failure.

 (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

"Battlestar Galactica" star Richard Hatch died at 71. 

(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) 

John Hurt, star of "The Elephant Man," died at 77. 

REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett 

Butch Trucks, founding member of The Allman Brothers Band, died at 69.

(Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Actor Miguel Ferrer died from throat cancer at 61.

(Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Dick Gautier, known for is role in the Broadway musical 'Bye Bye Birdie' died at 85.

(Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)

Frank Deford, giant of sports journalism, died at 78.

(Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown/WireImage)

Rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry, who is known for hits like ''Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven," died at 90 years old.

(Reuters)

Television personality Christopher 'Big Black' Boykin, known for his MTV show "Rob & Big," died at the age of 45.

(Getty)

Dina Merrill, the actress known for movies like "Butterfield 8" and "Operation Petticoat," died at 93.

(Getty)

Frank Pellegrino Sr. (R) died at age 72 following a battle with lung cancer. He was known for his role on "The Sopranos." 

(Getty)

Former pop singer Tommy Page was found dead at 46 in New York City.

(Getty)

"Doll Squad" star Francine York passed away at 80 after a battle with cancer.

(Getty)

Joni Sledge, the "We Are Family" singer, was found dead in her Phoenix home. She was 60.

(Getty)

Jazz legend Al Jarreau died at the age of 76.

(Getty)

Actor Robert Michael Morris died at age 77. His death was confirmed by friend Lisa Kudrow.

(Getty)

Monty Hall, one of the most popular game show hosts in American television died in September at age 96.

(Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Anne Jeffreys, star of ‘General Hospital’ and Broadway’s ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ died in September at 94.

(Photo by Rodrigo Vaz/FilmMagic)

Barry Dennen, member of the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” died in September at age 79.

(Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)

Famed soul singer Charles Bradley died in September at the age of 68.

(Photo by David A. Smith/Getty Images)

Harry Dean Stanton, the actor known for his roles in "Twin Peaks," "Big Love," "Pretty in Pink" and "Repo Man" died of natural causes in Los Angeles. He was 91.

(Photo by Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images)

Frank Vincent, who had a key role on "The Sopranos" and appeared in a number of Martin Scorsese films, died at age 78.

(Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

Nelsan Ellis, who starred in the HBO series True Blood, died on July 8 from alcohol withdrawal after years of struggling with substance abuse. He was 39 years old.

(Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)

Blake Heron, the child actor who starred in 1996's "Shiloh," died at age 35.

(Photo by Utopia Pictures/Getty Images)

Comedian Shelley Berman, who was famous as a "sit-down" comedian and later as Larry David's dad on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," died at the age of 92.

(Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Dick Gregory, the trailblazing comic and civil rights activist whose unique brand of comedy combined cutting wit and contemporary headlines, died in August at the age of 84.

(Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)

Martin Landau, the all-purpose actor known for his Oscar-winning performance in Ed Wood, died in July. He was 89.

(REUTERS/Danny Moloshok)

Gary DeCarlo, the lead singer of Steam, died in June at the age of 75.

(Photo by Bobby Bank/Getty Images)

Michael Nyqvist, who starred in the Swedish film version of "The Girl With Dragon Tattoo," died after a battle with lung cancer. He was 56.

(HENRIK MONTGOMERY/AFP/Getty Images)

Prodigy, who made up one half of Mobb Deep, died in June. He was 42.

(Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

Comedian Ralphie May was found dead in his Las Vegas home in early October. He died of cardiac arrest at the age of 45.

(Photo by Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images for Pollstar)

"Benson" actor Robert Guillaume died on October 24 at the age of 89 following a long battle with breast cancer.

(Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

Legendary New Orleans musician Fats Domino died of natural causes at the age of 89 at the end of October.

(Photo by James Crump/WireImage)

Former "Veronica Mars" actor Brad Bufanda died of a suspected suicide at the age of 34 at the beginning of November.

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Rising rapper Lil Peep was found dead in his tour bus on November 15 in Arizona. He was 21. Officials are still determining his cause of death, which is suspected to be an accidental overdose.

(Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Wendy Pepper, who was a fan-favorite on "Project Runway," died peacefully surrounded by family at the age of 53 in mid-November. No cause of death was given.

(Photo by Jonathan Grassi /Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Jim Nabors, widely adored for playing Gomer Pyle on "The Andy Griffith Show," passed away in November 2017 at age 87.

(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Guillaume returned to series television in 1998 on “Sports Night” as the fictitious sports program’s producer. A year later he suffered a stroke and was waylaid for a few months. When he returned his illness was worked into the storyline of the series until the series ended its run on ABC the following year.

During the 2000s Guillaume made a few guest appearances on TV shows, including on “8 Simple Rules” in 2003 and “CSI” in 2008, but he focused more heavily on voicework for straight-to-video animated children’s films and videogames.

He appeared in Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” in 2003, and then made more frequent bigscreen appearances later in the decade, appearing in the Christian film “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry” in 2008; in the thriller “Columbus Circle,” starring Selma Blair, in 2010; and in the small musical dramedy “Satin” in 2011.

Robert Peter Williams was born in St. Louis, Mo., changing his name only after he decided on a career in acting. After completing his schooling he joined the Army in 1945 and was discharged 15 months later. He took on a number of menial jobs while studying nights at St. Louis U. He originally intended to study business but became interested in singing and transferred to Washington U. to study voice and theater.

His performance at the 1957 Aspen Music Festival led to an apprenticeship at the Karamu Performing Arts Theater in Cleveland, where he appeared in operas and musical comedies.

After moving to New York, he made his Broadway debut in a 1960 revival of “Finian’s Rainbow” and found regular employment in the chorus of shows like “Fly, Blackbird,” “Golden Boy” and “Porgy and Bess.” In 1972 he took on the title role in the musical “Purlie” and also appeared in the revue “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”

He is survived by his second wife, TV producer Donna Brown Guillaume; one son (another died in 1990); and three daughters.

Subscribe to Variety Newsletters and Email Alerts!

Read Full Story

Sign up for Entertainment Insider by AOL to get the hottest pop culture news delivered straight to your inbox!

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.