He was an icon of the stage and brought to life one of the wisest characters in a beloved Disney classic. On Tuesday, October 24 the world said goodbye to Robert Guillaume at the age of 89. The actor with more than 50 years of experience on stage and screen passed away after a battle with prostate cancer, but leaves behind a legacy that spans multiple mediums of entertainment. An Emmy winner, a Grammy winner, and a Golden Globe nominee Guillaume’s career is worth remembering, so lets take a look back and explore the success of this iconic performer one more time.
Born Robert Williams in St. Louis, Missouri Guillaume endured an alcoholic mother in his youth. He was abandoned and raised by his grandmother Jeannette along with his siblings. Guillaume studied in St. Louis University and Washington University and then served in the Army before his acting career began. It was then that he changed his last name to a French word for William, and officially adopted his stage name.
Guillaume jumped right into stage performing after college, joining the Karamu Players in Cleveland and appearing is everything from comedies to operas. In 1959 he joined his first musical, “Free and Easy”, and made his Broadway debut in the 1961 production of “Kwamina”. His work spread through the 1960s and 1970s with one of his most iconic appearances being in “Guys and Dolls” which earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor as well as a Drama Desk Award. During his early years Guillaume also dabbled in music, recording an LP as a member of The Pilgrims. Little known fun fact a producer at Columbia had originally planned to use “The Sound of Silence” to kick start The Pilgrims as a legitimate radio powerhouse. Instead, however, the producer gave the song to its writers, Simon & Garfunkel.
After establishing himself as a stage powerhouse Guillaume began working on television, debuting as a series regular on the ABC series “Soap” as Benson the butler, a role he held from 1977 through 1979. The role earned him a spin-off series named after his character that ran from 1979 until 1986, giving Guillaume one of his most iconic characters. Both “Soap” and “Benson” made Guillaume a crowd and critic favorite. “Soap” earned him a Primetime Emmy for his supporting role in 1979 and “Benson” brought him three Emmy nominations, three Golden Globe nominations, and a Primetime Emmy for Best Lead Actor. Guillaume because a popular African American guest star on shows like “Good Times”, “All in the Family”, “The Jeffersons”, “Sanford and Son”, and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and in the process made him one of the most notable black actors of the day. In 1989 he appeared in a show named after him, “The Robert Guillaume Show”. His final television role was in “Sports Night”, a short lived series from 1998 until 2000 that earned him and the cast a Screen Actors Guild nomination.
As a big-screen actor Guillaume was most famous for his iconic voice, which spanned several mediums and is by far his most well known trait to the masses. The 1990s saw Guillaume’s first major voice performance on “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” but it was 1995 that introduced the world to Guillaume’s most iconic and well known character on the big screen, Rafiki in “The Lion King”. Guillaume was one of the few actors to reprise their Disney role in straight-to-video sequels, returning as Rafiki in “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride” and “The Lion King 1 ½”. He also voiced Mr. Thicknose in the direct-to-video animated sequel “The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze”. His other film credits include several live action films as well in the 90s and 2000s. Guillaume appeared in “Death Warrant”, “Spy Hard”, and “Big Fish” just to name a few.
In addition to his Emmy and Golden Globe nominations Guillaume was also a Grammy winner, earning the 1995 award for Best Spoken Word Album for a read-along of “The Lion King”. His final award nomination, a Daytime Emmy nod, was received in 2000 for his voice over work on “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child”. Guillaume was honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and in 1984 received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in television to that point. Finally, those who may not have known Guillaume for his work with Disney or on television probably know him as the voice of Eli Vance, a role that introduced him to a whole new audience in 2004’s “Half-Life 2” video game.
Robert Guillaume may not be the first name that comes to people’s minds nowadays when they picture African American actors, but he was one of the best an most significant in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. A true star of stage, screen, and television Guillaume was an underrated national treasure who recovered from a rough family life as a child to become a television icon and the origin of wise words for an entire generation of Disney fans. Whether you know him as Benson, Rafiki, or Eli Vance, his vocal talent and acting skills were undeniable and he will be sourly missed. To Guillaume I say thank you for your contributions to the world of entertainment and may you rest in peace.