RIP Robert Guillaume, TV’s witty Benson

Robert Guillaume, the classy actor, made inroads on stage and screen, particularly as the witty TV butler Benson. (Courtesy Twitter)

Friends and colleagues are fondly remembering Robert Guillaume, TV’s dry-witted butler Benson, who died Tuesday at 89 after battling prostate cancer.

The first black actor to win an Emmy for best lead performance in a comedy died at this home in Los Angeles, according to his wife Donna Brown Guillaume.

Guillaume also was a musical theater star: He played Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of “Guys and Dolls,” was the first African-American to sing the title role of “Phantom of the Opera” and was the voice of the shaman-mandrill Rafiki in the film version of “The Lion King.”

While onstage in “Guys and Dolls,” Guillaume auditioned for the role of an acerbic butler of a governor’s mansion in “Soap” (costarring Katherine Helmond and Billy Crystal), a prime-time TV sitcom that satirized soap operas.

“The minute I saw the script, I knew I had a live one,” he recalled in 2001.

The character became so popular ABC launched the spinoff “Benson,” which lasted from 1979 to 1986.

In January 1999 at Walt Disney Studio, appearing in Aaron Sorkin’s critically lauded TV series “Sports Night,” he collapsed, suffering a minor stroke. He returned to the show’s second (and final) season; it was written into the script that his character was recovering from a stroke.

He became a spokesman for the American Stroke Association and promoted the American Heart Association.

He started his 2002 biography “Guillaume: A Life,” in which he detailed his troubled early days, with the sentence: “I’m a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums of St. Louis.”

On Tuesday on social media, filmmaker Ava DuVernay said, “Giant of stage screen” and noted that Guillaume was among the first celebrities to appear at AIDS fundraisers. (According to Wikipedia, his son Jacques died at 33 of AIDS.)

On Twitter, his “Sports Night” colleagues Josh Charles and Josh Malina also paid tribute, saying he radiated such “warmth, light, dignity, and above all, class. That smile and laugh touched us all.”


QUICK TAKES

After South American researchers recently revealed that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda didn’t die of cancer in 1973, some are claiming that the Nobel laureate, a close friend of the ousted President Salvador Allende, was poisoned by an injection to his stomach, ordered under Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s rule… A handwritten note written in 1922 by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein containing his theory for happiness sold for $1.3 million at a Jersualem auction Tuesday.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Singer Ciara is 32. … Singer Katy Perry is 33. … Actor Craig Robinson is 46. Comedian Samantha Bee is 48. … Voice actress Nancy Cartwright is 60. … Singer Helen Reddy is 76. … Actress Marion Ross is 89.

— Staff, wire report

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