Robert Guillaume
Robert Guillaume (1980).jpg
Guillaume at the premiere of Seems Like Old Times in 1980
Robert Peter Williams

(1927-11-30)November 30, 1927
DiedOctober 24, 2017(2017-10-24) (aged 89)
Alma materWashington University in St. Louis
  • Actor
  • singer
Years active1959–2017
  • Marlene Williams
    (m. 1955; div. 1984)
  • Donna Brown-Guillaume
    (m. 1986)

Robert Guillaume (born Robert Peter Williams; November 30, 1927 – October 24, 2017) was an American actor and singer, known for his role as Benson DuBois in the ABC television series Soap and its spin-off, Benson,[1] as well as for voicing the mandrill Rafiki in The Lion King and related media thereof. In a career that spanned more than 50 years he worked extensively on stage, television and film. For his efforts he was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, and twice won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of the character Benson DuBois, once in 1979 on Soap and in 1985 on Benson. He also won a Grammy Award in 1995 for his spoken word performance of an audiobook version of The Lion King. He is also known for his role as Eli Vance in the video game Half-Life 2.

Early life

Guillaume was born Robert Peter Williams in St. Louis[2] to an alcoholic mother. After she abandoned him and several siblings, they were raised by their grandmother, Jeannette Williams.[3] He studied at Saint Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis and served in the United States Army before pursuing an acting career.[4] He adopted the surname Guillaume (French for William) as his stage name.



George Goodman, William Ray, Robert Guillaume and Olive Moorefield, rehearsal of Porgy and Bess, Théâtre du Capitole. Archives de Toulouse.
George Goodman, William Ray, Robert Guillaume and Olive Moorefield, rehearsal of Porgy and Bess, Théâtre du Capitole. Archives de Toulouse.

After leaving university, Guillaume joined the Karamu Players in Cleveland and performed in musical comedies and opera.[citation needed] He toured the world in 1959 as a cast member of the Broadway musical Free and Easy.[5] He made his Broadway debut in Kwamina in 1961.[6] His other stage appearances included Golden Boy (with Sammy Davis Jr.),[7] Tambourines to Glory, Guys and Dolls, for which he received a Tony Award nomination,[8] Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and Purlie![citation needed] His additional roles included Katherine Dunham's Bambouche and in Fly The Blackbird.[4]

In 1964, he portrayed Sportin' Life in a revival of Porgy and Bess at New York City Center.[2] Guillaume was a member of the Robert de Cormier Singers, performing in concerts and on television.[3] He recorded an LP album, Columbia CS9033, titled Just Arrived as a member of The Pilgrims, a folk trio, with Angeline Butler and Millard Williams.[5] Columbia records producer, Tom Wilson, had set out to create the Pilgrims as an answer to the popular folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary. By early 1964, the Pilgrims had recorded a handful of songs and Wilson was looking for the right song for the group's debut single when then unknown singer/songwriter named Paul Simon arrived for a meeting with Wilson and eventually pitched his new composition, "The Sound of Silence". Wilson liked the song, had Simon record a demo for the group, but when Simon and his friend, Art Garfunkel, sang the song for Wilson in person, he signed them to a record contract instead of using it for The Pilgrims.[9]

In 1990, Guillaume was cast in the Los Angeles production of The Phantom of the Opera, replacing Michael Crawford in the title role.[6] Guillaume was the first Black actor to portray the character.[10]


As Benson in Soap, 1977.
As Benson in Soap, 1977.

Guillaume made several guest appearances on sitcoms, including Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Saved By The Bell: The College Years and in the 1990s sitcoms The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and A Different World.[6] Guillaume also played Dr. Franklin in season 6, episode 6 ("Chain Letter") of the series All in the Family, in which he coyly referenced Marcus Welby, M.D., a TV series in which he had guest-starred in 1970.[11]

His series-regular debut was on the ABC series Soap, playing Benson, a butler, from 1977 to 1979.[12] Guillaume continued the role in a spin-off series, Benson, which ran for 158 episodes from 1979 until 1986.[2]

In 1985, Guillaume appeared in the television mini-series North and South as abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and became a leader of the anti-slavery movement prior to the American Civil War.[3]

He also appeared as marriage counselor Edward Sawyer on The Robert Guillaume Show (1989), Detective Bob Ballard on Pacific Station (1991–1992), and television executive Isaac Jaffe on Aaron Sorkin's short-lived but critically acclaimed Sports Night (1998–2000).[2] Guillaume suffered a mild stroke on January 14, 1999, while filming an episode of the latter series.[1] He recovered and his character was later also depicted as having had a stroke. He also made a guest appearance on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.[12] He made one of his final TV appearances during season 5 on Oprah: Where Are They Now?

His voice was employed for characters in television series Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Fish Police, and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child.[4] He was known for the voice of Rafiki in the movie The Lion King and its sequels and spin-offs.[13] He lent his deep tenor voice as Mr. Thicknose in The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze.[14] He also supplied the voice for Eli Vance in the 2004 video game Half-Life 2 and its immediate episodic sequels.[15]

Personal life

Guillaume was married twice; first to Marlene Williams in 1955, with whom he had two sons, Kevin and Jacques. Despite Guillaume choosing to follow his career early in the marriage, they did not divorce until 1984.[3] His daughter, Melissa, was born in 1980; he and her mother, Patricia, raised her. He then married Donna Brown in 1986; the couple had a daughter, Rachel.[6] He fathered but did not raise another daughter, Patricia, by a different mother; she was born in 1950 and was raised by her grandparents.[3] His son Jacques died on December 23, 1990, at the age of 32, of complications of AIDS.[citation needed]

In 1999, Guillaume suffered a stroke while working on Sports Night at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California.[5] The stroke was minor, causing relatively slight damage and little effect on his speech.[2] After six weeks in the hospital, he underwent a therapy of walks and gym sessions.[5]


Guillaume died of prostate cancer on October 24, 2017, at his home in Los Angeles, California.[12]


Guillaume has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.[16] On November 28, 1984, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in the television industry.[17][18]



Year Title Role Notes
1973 Super Fly T.N.T. Jordan Gaines
1980 Seems Like Old Times Fred
1984 Prince Jack Martin Luther King, Jr.
1986 Wanted: Dead or Alive Philmore Walker
1987 They Still Call Me Bruce V.A. Officer
1989 Lean on Me Dr. Frank Napier
1990 Death Warrant Hawkins
1993 The Meteor Man Ted Reed — Jeff's Father
1994 The Lion King Rafiki Voice Role
1996 Spy Hard Agent Steve Bishop
1996 First Kid Wilkes
1998 The Easter Story Keepers Ben (Voice Role) Direct-to-Video
1998 The Lion King II: Simba's Pride Rafiki (Voice Role) Direct-to-Video
1999 Silicon Towers Detective Green
2001 The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze Mr. Thicknose (Voice Role) Direct-to-Video
2002 The Adventures of Tom Thumb & Thumbelina Ben (Voice Role) Direct-to-Video
2002 13th Child Riley
2003 The Lion King Read-Along Rafiki (Voice Role) Direct-to-Video
2003 Big Fish Dr. Bennett (senior)
2004 The Lion King 3: Hakuna Matata Rafiki (Voice Role) Direct-to-Video
2008 The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry Mr. Barnes
2011 Satin Doc Bishop
2012 Columbus Circle Howard Miles
2013 Off the Beach Dr. Black Short Film


Year Title Role Notes
1966 Porgy in Wien unknown role TV movie
1969 Julia Robert Barron "The Wheel Deal"
1970 Marcus Welby, M.D. Aaron Carothers "The Soft Phrase of Peace"
1975 Sanford and Son Albert Brock "Steinberg and Son"
1975 All in the Family Dr. Franklin "Chain Letter"
1975 The Jeffersons Charles Thompson "George Won't Talk"
1977 Good Times Theodopius P. Johnson "Requiem for a Wino"
1977–1980 Soap Benson DuBois Recurring Role (50 episodes)
1978 Dean Martin Celebrity Roast: Jack Klugman Himself TV special
1978 Hollywood Squares Himself (Panelist) "12.18.1978"
1978–1979 The Mike Douglas Show Himself (Guest / Co-Host) 9 episodes
1979 The Kid from Left Field Larry Cooper TV movie
1979 Dinah! Himself (Guest) "05.01.1979"
1979 2nd Annual Black Achievement Awards Himself (Host) TV special
1979–1983 All-Star Family Feud Special Himself (Celebrity Contestant) 3 episodes
1979–1986 Benson Benson DuBois series regular (159 episodes)
1979–1991 The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson Himself (Guest) 9 episodes
1980 The Donna Summer Special An Angel TV special
1980–1981 The Love Boat Frank Belloque / Allan Curtis 3 episodes
1981 Purlie Prulie Victorious Judson TV movie
1981 An Evening at the Improv Himself (Host) TV special
1982 The Kid with the Broken Halo Blake TV movie
1983 The Kid with the 200 I.Q. Professor Mills TV movie
1983 Saturday Night Live Himself (Host) "Robert Guillaume / Duran Duran"
1985 North & South: Book I Frederick Douglas Miniseries (6 episodes)
1986 John Grin's Christmas John Grin TV movie (also Director)
1986 Hotel Frank Stoner "Shadow Play"
1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel Harlan Wade TV movie
1987 Crossbow Nolan Ben Sunniman Al Hedrem 2 episodes
1987 The New Hollywood Squares Himself (Panelist) "10.26.1987"
1989 The Penthouse Eugene St. Clair TV movie
1989 The Robert Guillaume Show Edward Sawyer series regular (12 episodes)
1989 Fire and Rain Carter TV movie
1989 Sister Kate Mr. Townsend "Neville's Hired Hand"
1990 Carol & Company Sam "Soap Gets in Your Eyes"
1990 The Arsenio Hall Show Himself "06.11.1990"
1991–1992 A Different World Dean Winston / Professor Murphy 3 episodes
1991–1992 Pacific Station Detective Bob Ballard series regular (13 episodes)
1992 Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story Police Commissioner TV movie (uncredited)
1992 L.A. Law Edward Rollins "Diet, Diet My Darling"
1992 Fish Police Detective Catfish (Voice Role) 6 episodes
1992 Jack's Place Ted Sill "Romance Takes a Curtain Call"
1992 Driving Miss Daisy Hoke Colburn TV movie
1992 Mastergate Sydley Sellers TV movie
1992 You Must Remember This Uncle Buddy TV movie
1992 One on One with John Tesh Himself (Guest) "#1.86"
1992 Jeopardy! Himself (Contestant) "Celebrity Jeopardy! Game #5"
1993 The Addams Family Mr. Corblarb (Voice Role) "Color Me Addams"
1993 Diagnosis Murder Father Morrissey "Miracle Cure"
1993 Saved by the Bell: The College Years Dr. Arthur Hemmings "A Question of Ethics"
1994 Burke's Law Eugene Sayers "Who Killed the Fashion King?"
1994 Captain Planet and the Planeteers Citizen (Voice Role) "Bug Off"
1994 The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Pete Fletcher "You'd Better Shop Around"
1994 Greyhounds Robert Smith TV movie
1994 Cosmic Slop Gleason Golightly TV movie (segment "Space Traders")
1994 Reading Rainbow Himself (Voice Role) "My Shadow"
1995 Children of the Dust Mossburger Miniseries (2 episodes)
1995–1999 Timon & Pumbaa Rafiki (Voice Role) recurring role (12 episodes)
1995–2000 Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child Narrator (Voice Role) series regular (39 episodes)
1996 Lamb Chop's Chanukah and Passover Surprise Robert TV movie
1996 Run for the Dream: The Gail Devers Story Reverend Devers TV movie
1996 Panic in the Skies Rob Barnes TV movie
1996 Pandora's Clock Ambassador Lee Lancaster Miniseries (2 episodes)
1996 Sparks Professor Bernard Slater "Porky's Revenge"
1996 Promised Land Martin Woolridge "Christmas"
1996 Crystal Cave Merlin TV movie
1996 Alchemy Merlin TV movie
1997 Goode Behavior Dr. Baxter "Goode Daddy"
1997 Mother Goose: A Rappin' and Rhymin' Special Narrator (Voice Role) TV movie
1997 Touched by an Angel Judge Dawes "Jones vs. God"
1997 Merry Christmas, George Bailey Mr. Gower TV movie
1997 Metropolitan Hospital unknown role TV movie
1997 Wheel of Fortune Himself (Celebrity Contestant) "Celebrity Week 2"
1998 The Outer Limits Mr. Brown "Monster"
1998 His Bodyguard Garrett TV movie
1998–2000 Sports Night Isaac Jaffe series regular (45 episodes)
1999 E! True Hollywood Story Himself (Interviewee) "Superfly: The Ron O'Neal Story"
2000 Moesha Arthur "All This and Turkey, Too"
2001 Hollywood Squares Himself (Panelist) 2 episodes
2002 The Proud Family Dr. Parker (Voice Role) "Behind Family Lines"
2003 8 Simple Rules Cody Grant "Every Picture Tells a Story"
2004 Century City Judge "To Know Her"
2005 Larry King Live Himself (Guest) "05.20.2005"
2008 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Sonny Bridges "Young Man with a Horn"
2013 Wanda Sykes Presents Herlarious Historian TV special
2016 Oprah: Where Are They Now? Himself (Interviewee) "Transgender Teen Jazz Jennings/Stars of "Growing Pains"/Robert Guillaume"


Year Title Role Notes
1960 Finian's Rainbow 2nd Geologist / Howard (understudy) 12 performances
1961 Kwamina Ako 32 performances
1963 Tambourines to Glory C.J. Moore 2 previews; 24 performances
1970–1971 Purlie Purlie (replacement) 28 previews; 688 performances
1976–1977 Guys & Dolls Nathan Detroit 12 previews; 239 performances
1990 The Phantom of the Opera The Phantom
1993–1994 Cyrano — The Musical Cyrano (replacement) 39 previews; 137 performances

Music videos

Year Title Role Notes
1980 Dianna Ross: "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" Angel-Man
1994 Elton John: "Circle of Life" Himself uncredited

Video games

Year Title Role Notes
1994 Animated StoryBook: The Lion King Rafiki Voice Role
1995 The Lion King: Activity Center Rafiki Voice Role
1998 The Lion King II: Simba's Pride Active Play Rafiki Voice Role
1998 Disney's Adventures in Typing with Timon & Pumbaa Rafiki Voice Role
2000 The Lion King: Simba's Mighty Adventure Rafiki Voice Role
2003 Extreme Skate Adventure Rafiki Voice Role
2004 Who Wants to King of the Jungle Rafiki Voice Role
2004 Timon & Pumbaa Virtual Safari 1.5 Rafiki Voice Role
2004 Rafiki's Challenge Rafiki Voice Role
2004 Half-Life 2 Dr. Eli Vance Voice Role
2005 Kingdom Hearts II Rafiki Voice Role (English version)
2006 Half-Life 2: Episode One Dr. Eli Vance Voice Role
2007 Kingdom of Hearts II: Final Mix+ Rafiki Voice Role (English version)
2007 Half-Life 2: Episode Two Dr. Eli Vance Voice Role
2012 Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom Rafiki Voice Role

Awards and nominations

Year Association Award category Result
1977 Guys and Dolls Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical Nominated
Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical Nominated
1979 Soap Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Won[24]
1980 Benson Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Nominated
1982 Nominated
1983 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Nominated
1984 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Nominated
1985 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Won[25]
1995 The Lion King Read-Along Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children Won[26]
2000 Sports Night Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series Nominated
Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program Nominated


  1. ^ a b Huff, Richard (January 21, 1999). "Stroke Sidelines Guillaume". New York Daily News. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Slotnik, Daniel E. (October 24, 2017). "Robert Guillaume, Emmy Award Winning-Star of 'Benson', Dies at 89". The New York Times. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e Pollard-Terry, Gayle (January 8, 2003). "Robert Guillaume memoir details tumultuous life". The Seattle Times. Retrieved February 2, 2022.
  4. ^ a b c Italie, Hillel (October 24, 2017). "'Benson' star Robert Guillaume dead at 89". Chicago Tribune. Associated Press. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e "Robert Guillaume, Emmy-winning actor in 'Soap' and 'Benson,' dies at 89". The Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. October 24, 2017. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  6. ^ a b c d "Donna Brown Guillaume Actor Robert Guillaume's Wife". Daily Entertainment News. October 25, 2017. Retrieved February 2, 2022.
  7. ^ Guillaume, Robert; Ritz, David (2002). Guillaume, A life. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-8262-1426-3.
  8. ^ Hawkes, Ellen (May 24, 1992). "The Anger Sustained Me". Parade. pp. 12–14. Retrieved February 2, 2022 – via Toledo Blade.
  9. ^ Carlin, Peter Ames (October 11, 2016). Homeward bound: the life of Paul Simon (First ed.). New York: Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 978-1-6277-9034-5.
  10. ^ Squires, John (October 24, 2017). "R.I.P. Robert Guillaume Was the First African American to Play 'Phantom of the Opera'". Retrieved March 14, 2023.
  11. ^ Guillaume, Robert (October 20, 1975). "Emmy TV Legends Interviews". Emmy TV Legends. Retrieved August 2, 2017. Boy, that Marcus Welby must make fifteen million house calls a week
  12. ^ a b c Italie, Hillel (December 26, 2017). "Emmy Award-winning "Benson" star Robert Guillaume dies at 89". San Francisco Chronicle. Associated Press. Archived from the original on October 25, 2017. Retrieved December 26, 2014.
  13. ^ "Emmy-winning actor Robert Guillaume dies at age 89". KGTV News. October 24, 2017. Archived from the original on October 25, 2017. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  14. ^ "Mr. Thicknose". Behind the Voice Actors. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  15. ^ "Half-Life 2 voice cast revealed". Game Spot. June 25, 2004. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  16. ^ "Inductees: Acting & Entertainment". St. Louis Walk of Fame. Retrieved February 2, 2022.
  17. ^ "Robert Guillaume". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Retrieved October 4, 2016.
  18. ^ "Robert Guillaume – Hollywood Star Walk". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 4, 2016.
  19. ^ "Robert Guillaume, Emmy-winning Benson and Sports Night actor, dies at 89". Entertainment Weekly. October 24, 2017. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  20. ^ "Robert Guillaume: Credits". TV Guide. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  21. ^ "Robert Guillaume". Archived from the original on October 25, 2017. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  22. ^ "Overview for Robert Guillaume". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  23. ^ "Robert Guillaume – Broadway Cast & Staff | IBDB". Retrieved December 6, 2022.
  24. ^ "Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Or Comedy-Variety Or Music Series 1979". Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
  25. ^ "Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy Series 1985". Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Retrieved August 27, 2011.
  26. ^ "Biography". Archived from the original on June 27, 2012. Retrieved September 7, 2012.