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Robert Guillaume, star of 'Soap,' 'Benson,' 'Lion King' and 'Sports Night,' dies at 89

Robert Guillaume, star of 'Soap,' 'Benson,' dies

Emmy and Grammy-winning actor Robert Guillaume died Tuesday at age 89.

His representative, Laura Ackermann, confirmed the cause of death, at the Los Angeles home he shared with wife Donna Brown Guillaume, was complications of prostate cancer.

Robert Guillaume played Isaac Jaffe in Aaron Sorkin's first TV series 'Sports Night.'

After earning a Tony nomination in 1977 for playing Nathan Detroit in the first all-black production of Guys and Dolls, Guillaume — the first African-American to play the Phantom of the Opera —  had doubts about being asked to audition for the role of a Benson DuBois, a butler in a governor's mansion in ABC's satirical Soap, which chronicled the families of two sisters. .

"I had reservations, because you're serving food, you're serving the family and all that sort of thing ... It's like nothing has changed since the 1800s," he recalled in a 2016 episode of Oprah: Where Are They Now?

But thankfully, he changed his mind when the first Soap script arrived.

More: 40-year flashback: ABC's campy 'Soap' drew controversy, and made Billy Crystal a star

“The minute I saw the (Soap) script, I knew I had a live one,” Guillaume told the Associated Press in 2001. “Every role was written against type, especially Benson, who wasn’t subservient to anyone. To me, Benson was the revenge for all those stereotyped guys who looked like Benson in the ‘40s and ‘50s (movies) and had to keep their mouths shut.”

Robert Guillaume, center, shows off his 1976 Emmy for best supporting actor for his work on 'Soap,' alongside Loni Anderson and Tim Conway.

The role would earn him two Emmys: first for supporting actor and later for lead actor when his character was spun off into another hit, Benson, in which DuBois rose from head of household affairs to budget director, lieutenant governor and eventually a candidate for the governorship. (The result of that cliffhanger election episode was left unresolved when the show was canceled in 1986.)

While the spinoff made Guillaume rich, he admitted there were tradeoffs.

That softened version of Benson was ''never as effective'' as the Benson on Soap, an Everyone who was "able to say everything we always wanted to say."

Still, Guillaume didn't chafe under the strain of playing him.

''The amount of money I was receiving was an amelioration," he told USA TODAY in 1989. "When you approach six figures, you only do so much chafing.''

'The Lion King': Rafiki (played by Robert Guillaume) prepares to present King Mufasa and Queen Saraki's son Simba as the future ruler of the Pride Lands.

In 1994, Guillaume lent his voice to Rafiki in Disney's The Lion King, giving the animated primate the same gravitas he brought to every other role he played. (That year, he also won a Grammy for the children's spoken-word album The Lion King Read-Along.)

He returned to ABC in the late 1990s in Aaron Sorkin's first TV series, Sports Night, playing Isaac Jaffe, the executive producer of a sports highlight show. 

Sports Night, a critical darling but ratings-challenged dramedy, almost became the last role of his career: Returning to his dressing room after a meal away from the studio in 1999, Guillaume, then 71, collapsed.

"Putting on my wardrobe, I felt nauseated and fell off the couch. I couldn't get my left side to do a damn thing," he wrote in his 2002 memoir, Guillaume: A Life. "They were calling my name over the PA, my scene was about to be shot, but I was helpless."

He was rushed across the street to St. Joseph Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a minor stroke (a clot blocking blood flow to the brain). After six weeks in the hospital, he underwent a therapy of walks and sessions in the gym. Because Guillaume ability to speak was relatively unaffected, Sorkin wrote the stroke into the storyline for the second and final season of Sports Night.  

"You couldn`t buy support like that," he later said.

Guillaume's medical problem also landed him a new role: Spokesman for the American Stroke Association, representing the cause on TV's biggest night.

“When I agreed to present an Emmy that year, I did so knowing I’d limp out on stage and speak imperfectly," he wrote in his book. "But I hoped that my imperfection might send a message to stroke sufferers: ‘We need not be ashamed, we need not concede.’ The standing ovation indicated my message got across.”

'I'm a bastard'

His memoir also offered a candid account of his troubled youth, right from the opening line: “I’m a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums of St. Louis."

Born fatherless on Nov. 30, 1927, his mother named him Robert Peter Williams. (He later used a French version of his surname as his professional name.)

Abused and neglected by his alcoholic mother because of his dark skin, Guillaume was taken in by his grandmother, who taught him to read and enrolled him in Catholic school, where he also experienced racism.

He rebelled, getting expelled from school and the Army, though he was granted an honorable discharge. He abandoned the mothers of his first three children. 

But Guillaume turned a corner when he enrolled in college at St. Louis' Washington University, where a music professor trained the young man’s superb singing voice, preparing him for roles in touring productions of Finian’s RainbowGolden BoyPorgy and Bess and Purlie. He parlayed that into sitcom roles on  The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son, eventually leading to his big break on Soap

Guillaume’s first stable relationship came when he married TV producer Donna Brown in the mid-1980s and fathered a daughter. But in 1990, he lost his 33-year-old son Jacques to AIDS.

John Wesley, who became friends with Guillaume through a guest-star spot on Benson, spoke of his mentor's resilience in Guillaume: A LIfe.

"His great lesson to me as an actor — to all actors, and especially African American actors — is powerful: Never act out of fear. Act out of strength. Act of out self-knowledge and self-regard. If they reject you, fine. Let them find someone else. But don’t personalize the rejection. Don’t find fault with yourself. Walk through this perilous business with courage and class. Keep your head up. Respect yourself.”

Hollywood remembers Guillaume

His co-stars and admirers paid tribute on Twitter.

Billy Crystal, who starred with Guillaume on Soap, wrote that the late actor had "Great timing, charisma and class."

Josh Charles, who worked with him on Sports Night, wrote, "Robert Guillaume radiated such warmth, light, dignity, and above all, class. That smile and laugh touched us all. RIP to the best boss ever."

Director Ava DuVernay called Guillaume a "giant of stage and screen," adding, Also let's remember that Robert Guillaume was among the first celebs to appear at AIDS fundraisers. Thank you, sir."

Contributing: Associated Press