Robert Guillaume, the Emmy-winning actor who lent wisecracking wisdom to roles like Benson DuBois, Sports Night’s benevolent boss Isaac Jaffe, and mandrill mentor Rafiki in The Lion King, has died. According to Variety, Guillaume died of complications from prostate cancer.
A veteran stage actor—including a Tony-nominated turn in Guys And Dolls, and a starring role in the Los Angeles production of Phantom Of The Opera—Guillaume made his move into TV stardom in 1977, when he was cast in the spoofy primetime comedy Soap, playing snarky domestic servant Benson DuBois. Smarter and quicker than the bumbling upper-class yahoos he was surrounded by, Benson was one of the show’s biggest breakout characters, eventually securing his own spin-off show. Here’s Guillaume in an interview from a few years back, discussing the character’s genesis, and his efforts to make him more than just another black servant on TV:
Benson ran for seven years on ABC, seeing its title character rise from head of household affairs for a state governor, all the way up to gubernatorial candidate himself. The series ended on a cliffhanger, never revealing the results of that election; Benson’s fate was less ambiguous in real life, where Guillaume won two Emmys—one for Benson, and one for Soap—for his decade in the role.
In 1994, Guillaume introduced himself to a new generation of fans, when he took on the role of Rafiki in Disney’s The Lion King, bonking would-be-ruler Simba along on the road to maturity. A few years later, he took on a similar “mentoring manchildren” position on Aaron Sorkin’s first major TV show, Sports Night, where he presided over a world of fast-paced dialogue as one of the first of Sorkin’s noble, eloquent, impassioned leaders, always ready to toss off a speech and serve as a moral guiding light:
Guillaume suffered a stroke in 1999, during the run of Sports Night, which the show worked into its plot. In the years after the series’ cancellation, he worked less frequently, although he still returned frequently to voice various Lion King spin-off projects. (Meanwhile, fans of the Half-Life franchise of video games will recognize him as the warm, defiant voice of heroic scientist/resistance leader Eli Vance.) Guillaume retired from acting in 2013, and reportedly died earlier today. He was 89.