Some may know him as Issac Jaffe from Sports Night. Many recognize his voice as Rafiki from 1994’s iconic masterpiece Lion King. But most of us will always know and love the late great Robert Guillaume as Benson DuBois from sitcoms Soap and the self titled Benson. On Soap, Benson was the irreverent and no nonsense butler of the wacky Tate family. After two seasons the character proved so popular that he was spun off into his own sitcom where during the seven season run the character of Benson went from Head of Household Affairs to State Budget Director and lastly Lt. Governor. Robert Guillaume had some of the all time best comic timing and delivery of a line or joke that the sitcom medium has ever seen. He did it all with such skill and craftsmanship that it’s no wonder that he went on to become one of the greatest performers of all time.
It all started when Robert Guillaume got the role of Benson. A sassy butler with a wit as sharp as the knives he used to cut food with. Robert was the perfect person to bring Benson to life, but he wasn’t so sure that playing a butler on television, which along with playing a maid or a pimp etc. was the type of stereotypical roles black actors were often reduced to in those days, was the right career move. But once he figured out how he could make the character of Benson unique and funny he realized how blessed he was with such a gem of an opportunity.
Once Robert got a handle on the Benson character he and the writers ran with it and created one of the funniest and most iconic sitcom characters ever.
Spin offs are inevitable in the tv world, and very few of them are actually any good. There was The Jeffersons, A Different World, and probably the most successful spin off of all, Frasier. I’d say that the 1979–1986 spin off Benson is in good company. It allowed viewers to enjoy the witty retorts of Benson full time as well as deepening the character and giving him a great ensemble of actors to play off of.
The biggest achievement of Benson was how it charted this specific black man’s growth from a household worker to the state budget director to Lt. Governor of the state. That kind of character development is rare on television of any medium but especially a sitcom, and especially one with a black character. One could say that before there was Barack Obama there was Benson DuBois.
But Robert was far more than just Benson. He had the experience and versatility as an actor to play a whole variety of great characters on quite a few tv shows and movies as well as stage productions. He performed in such productions as 1959’s Free and Easy, his Broadway debut in 1961’s Kwamina, 1964’s revival of Porgy & Bess, and later in his career he replaced Michael Crawford in the lead role in The Phantom of The Opera.
As I mentioned earlier, his voice is known to millions of nineties kids as that playful, magical Rafiki from Lion King. He is also remembered fondly by many as Issac Jaffe from iconic drama writer Aaron Sorkin’s late nineties dramedy Sports Night and as Dr. Frank Napier, the Principal and “Head N Word in Charge” from 1989’s Lean on Me with another iconic and legendary actor, Morgan Freeman.
There was also 1979’s The Kid from Left Field. A nice little family television film that he co-starred with child superstar Gary Coleman. The two sparked some magic together in this little film that gave it most of its heart and soul. It also allowed the tv audience to see Guillaume in a totally different type of role. That of a caring father, showing us the more sensitive and warmer side to the forever smart mouthed Benson.
On October 24th, 2017 at age 89 Robert passed away due to complications from prostate cancer. A great loss for sure, I remember feeling it even though I didn’t know the man personally. Although Robert’s body and spirit isn’t here anymore his incredibly long list of incredible work in television, film and stage will always be here. Robert was Benson and so much more, I personally think the world was a much better place when he was in it. Cheers, Robert. You always made us laugh and always made us proud.