The product of a tough, impoverished upbringing, African American actor Robert Guillaume fought his way out of the St. Louis slums by virtue of talent, persistence and an unwillingness to bow down to anyone. After military service and college, Guillaume held down short-term jobs ranging from cook to streetcar conductor, all the while training his voice for potential musical comedy work--training that paid off with his first Broadway show, 1961's Kwamina. Among his many stage credits were the musical versions of Golden Boy (with Sammy Davis Jr.) and Purlie Victorious, and the long-running review Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. When New York stage work was scarce, Guillaume created his own opportunities by giving one-man concerts. After guesting in several of the black-oriented TV sitcoms of the 1970s, Guillaume was cast in 1977 as the imperious, outspoken family retainer Benson in the daytime-drama parody Soap (the actor would be first to admit that many of Benson's more contentious traits sprang from Guillaume's own prickly personality). The role won Guillaume a 1978 Emmy as "Outstanding Supporting Actor." In 1979, Guillaume carried over his Soap role into his own starring series, the now classic sitcom Benson, which ran until 1986 and which won Guillaume another Emmy, this time as "Outstanding Lead Actor." Robert Guillaume also headlined the appropriately titled 1989 series The Robert Guillaume Show, wherein for approximately five months he starred as divorced marriage counselor Edward Sawyer. In the several years to follow, Guillaume would star in shows like Sports night, as well as a number of films like Big Fish and Satin.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Raised by his maternal grandmother.
- Served in the United States Army between high school and college; received an honorable discharge.
- Made his Broadway debut in Kwamina in 1961.
- Played sarcastic butler Benson on Soap for two years; the character was then spun-off into his own show, Benson.
- In 1990, replaced Michael Crawford in the lead role in the Los Angeles production of Phantom of the Opera, becoming the first African American to perform the role.
- With wife Donna Brown Guillaume, started the Confetti Entertainment Company, which publishes read-along books and tapes, and is the inspiration behind the award-winning animated HBO series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child.
- Released a CD of show tunes in 1996 called This Is the Moment.
- Suffered a stroke on the set of the comedy Sports Night in 1999, but convinced the producers to write it into the show, allowing him to return.