Robert Guillaume: The Tragic and Tremendous Life and Career of the Emmy-winning "Soap"/"Benson" Actor

Herbie J Pilato


He was a New York stage actor who became a TV superstar sensation. He guest starred on medical drama shows like Marcus Welby, M.D., and Norman Lear sitcoms like All in the Family. Then came his regular weekly gig on the groundbreaking primetime comedy, Soap, in which he played the sardonic butler named Benson. He became so popular that his character received a spin-off series of his own. His name in real life was Robert Guillaume, who died of complications from prostate cancer in 2017. He was 89 years old.

A Closer Look

Even though Robert Guillaume was an accomplished and experienced Broadway musical performer, there was some controversy when he replaced the original Phantom (Michael Crawford) in the first Los Angeles company of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical The Phantom of the Opera, becoming the first black actor to play the role. Some tickets were returned to protest his selection as a lead actor even before his first performance. His run was nonetheless popular with audiences and critics.

Guillaume (which is the French translation of William) was born Robert Peter Williams on November 30, 1927, in St. Louis, Missouri.

With the Benson and Soap sitcoms, he became the first African-American actor to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.

In 1995, Guillaume was the producers' first choice for the role of the Vulcan Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager, a part that eventually went to Tim Russ. As fate would have it, Guillame's Benson co-star Ethan Phillips was cast as Neelix on the sci-fi sequel to The Original Series (from 1966-1969).

In 1999, Guillaume suffered a mild stroke on the set of his television series, Sports Night. Art imitated life when his character, boss Isaac Jaffe also suffered a stroke and was shown to be missed and idolized by his TV-staff/colleagues.

When he passed away in 2017, his wife Donna Guillaume revealed just how much he loved making music, entertaining, and making people laugh. She said her husband cherished one role in particular: the part of Rafiki in Disney’s 1994 animated film The Lion King.

[Note: Unless otherwise indicated, certain facts and information in this article were resourced from various entertainment news and media outlets including,,,,, and]

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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