Guillaume, Robert 1927(?)-

views updated

GUILLAUME, Robert 1927(?)-

PERSONAL: Born Robert Peter Williams, November 30, 1927 (some sources say 1937), in St. Louis, MO; married first wife, Marlene (marriage ended); married Fay Hauser, 1978 (divorced); married Donna Brown (a television producer), 1985; children: (first marriage) Kevin, Jacques; (third marriage) Rachel; (children born outside of marriage) Patricia, Melissa. Education: Attended St. Louis University and Washington University; studied opera and musical theater in Cleveland, OH.

ADDRESSES: Offıce—Confetti Entertainment, 15250 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91403. Agent— Metropolitan Talent Agency, 4526, Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010-3801.

CAREER: Actor, producer, and singer. Worked variously as a dishwasher, sales clerk, postal clerk, and streetcar driver; with wife, Donna, founder of Confetti Entertainment Company, Sherman Oaks, CA.

Work as an actor on stage includes (as Ako) Kwamina, Fifty-Fourth Street Theatre, New York, NY, 1961; (as Carl) Fly Blackbird, Mayfair Theatre, New York, 1962; (ensemble) Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Village Gate Theatre, New York, 1968, Charles Playhouse, Boston, MA, 1969-70; (as Frankie) No Place to Be Somebody, Arena Stage, Washington, DC, 1969-70; (as Karl) The Life and Times of J. Walter Smintheus, Theatre de Lys, New York, 1970; Fire in the Mindhouse, Center Stage, Baltimore, MD, 1970-71; (as Allan) Charlie Was Here and Now He's Gone, Eastside Playhouse, New York, 1971; (title role) Purlie, Shubert Theatre, Philadelphia, PA, Billy Rose Theatre, New York, 1972; Benito Cereno, Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL, 1975-76; (as Marshall) Apple Pie, New York Shakespeare Festival, Public/Anspacher Theatre, New York, 1976; (as Nathan Detroit) Guys and Dolls, Broadway Theatre, New York, 1976; Don Juan Goodman Theatre, 1977; Night of 100 Stars, Radio City Music Hall, New York, 1982; Cabaret, Riverside Resort, Las Vegas, NV, 1987; and Cyrano—The Musical, Broadway, 1994. Stage debut as Billy Bigelow in Carousel; also appeared as title role in New York productions of Phantom of the Opera, Golden Boy, Tambourines to Glory, Finian's Rainbow, Music! Music! Othello, Porgy and Bess, and Miracle Play.

Work as an Actor in films includes (as Jordan Gaines) Super Fly T.N.T., Paramount Pictures, 1973; (as Fred) Seems like Old Times, Columbia Pictures, 1980; (as Martin Luther King, Jr.) Prince Jack, Castle Hill, 1985; (as V.A. officer) They Still Call Me Bruce, Shapiro/Jihee Productions, 1987; (as Philmore Walker) Wanted: Dead or Alive, New World Pictures, 1987; (as Dr. Frank Napier) Lean on Me, Warner Bros., 1989; (as Hawkins) Death Warrant, 1990; (as Mr. Reed) The Meteor Man, 1993; (voice of Rafiki) The Lion King (animated), 1994; (as Steve Bishop) Spy Hard, Buena Vista, 1996; (as Wilkes) First Kid, Buena Vista, 1996; (voice of Rafiki) The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (animated), Buena Vista, 1998; (voice) The Adventures of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina (animated), Miramax, 2000.

Work as actor in television series includes (as Benson) Soap, American Broadcasting Companies (ABC), 1977-79; (title role) Benson, ABC, 1979-86; (as Dr. Edward Sawyer; and executive producer) The Robert Guillaume Show, ABC, 1989; (as Detective Bob Ballard) Pacific Station, 1991; (voice of Detective Catfish) Fish Police (animated), 1992; (voice of Rafiki) The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa (animated), The Disney Channel, 1995; and (as Isaac Jaffe) Sports Night, ABC, 1998-2000.

Work as actor in television movies includes (as Larry Cooper) The Kid from Left Field, National Broadcasting Company (NBC), 1979; (as Blake) The Kid with the Broken Halo, NBC, 1982; (as Professor Mills; and executive producer) The Kid with the 200 I.Q., NBC, 1983; (as Frederick Douglas) North and South (miniseries), ABC, 1985; (as Harlan Wade) "The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel," Perry Mason, NBC, 1987; (as Carter Guthrie) Fire and Rain, USA Network (USA), 1989; (as Eugene St. Clair) The Penthouse, ABC, 1989; (as Uncle Buddy/W. B. Jackson) You Must Remember This, 1992; (as Congressman Sydley Sellers) Mastergate, 1992; (as Robert "Maximum Bob" Smith) Greyhounds, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), 1994; (as Jolson Mossburger) A Good Day to Die (miniseries; also known as Children of the Dust,) CBS, 1995; (as Ambassador Lee Lancaster) Pandora's Clock (miniseries; also known as Doomsday Virus,), NBC, 1996; (as Reverend Devers) Run for the Dream: The Gail Devers Story, Showtime, 1996; (as Rob Barnes) Panic in the Skies! The Family Channel, 1996; (as Merlin) Crystal Cave (also known as The Crystal Cave: Lessons from the Teachings of Merlin), 1996; (as Merlin) Alchemy, 1996; (as Mr. Gower and Mr. Martini) Merry Christmas, George Bailey, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1997; (as Garrett) His Bodyguard (also known as Silent Echoes), USA, 1998; and (narrator) The Happy Prince, 1999.

Has appeared in pilots; appearances as host of television specials, documentaries, and awards shows and appearances in series include: executive producer and director, John Grin's Christmas, ABC, 1986; and co-executive producer, SST: Screen, Stage, Television, ABC, 1989. Producer and narrator of episodes of Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child series, Home Box Office (HBO), 1999—. Narrator of The Confetti Company Presents a Different Kind of Christmas, 1993; The Confetti Company Presents Little Red Riding Hood, 1993; The Confetti Company Presents The Shoemaker and the Elves, 1993; and The Confetti Company Presents Cinderella, 2001, Confetti Entertainment Company (Studio City, CA). Kiss the Girls, reader (with Chris Noth), Time Warner AudioBooks, 1995. Military service: U.S. Army, 1945-46, honorable discharge.

MEMBER: American Federation of Televison and Radio Artists, Screen Actors Guild.

AWARDS, HONORS: Antoinette Perry "Tony" Award nomination, 1977, for Guys and Dolls; Emmy award for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy or comedy-variety series, 1979, for Soap; Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a comedy or comedy-variety series, 1985, and Golden Globe Award nomination for best performance by an actor in a TV series-comedy/musical, 1983-85, all for Benson; inducted into St. Louis Walk of Fame, 1999; Daytime Emmy Award nomination for outstanding performer in an animated program, 2000, for Happily Every After: Fairy Tales for Every Child; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award nominations, outstanding lead actor in a comedy series, 1999, 2001; Image Award nomination for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series, and Screen Actors Guild Award nomination (with others) for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series, both 2000, and Golden Satellite Award nomination, best performance by an actor in a series or musical, 2001, all for Sports Night; recipient of four Image Awards; Tony Award for Purlie.


(With David Ritz) Guillaume: A Life, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS: Robert Guillaume is probably best known for his character Benson, first in the ground-breaking tongue-in-cheek 1980s television series Soap, and then as the lead character in Benson, which enjoyed a long run on television. Guillaume has appeared in musicals, dramas, Shakespearean plays, and a long list of films and television movies. He has been a guest in many specials and episodes of popular television series, as well as being a presenter for awards shows and ceremonies. In his autobiography, Guillaume: A Life, the celebrity reaches back beyond his successes and writes of how he rose from a life of extreme poverty to become one of the most recognizable, and recognized, actors of his time.

Born Robert Williams, Guillaume later changed his name to the French translation of his surname because of its sophistication. He and three siblings were the children of an alcoholic mother who was unable to care for them and a father who abandoned the family. The children were raised by their maternal grandmother, a cleaning woman and laundress. Guillaume completed high school and studied business administration at St. Louis University, but the appeal of a career in music drew him to Washington University, where he was encouraged by opera singer Leslie Chabay, who helped him obtain a scholarship to the 1957 Aspen Music Festival. There he was spotted by Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, founders of the Karamu Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the oldest inter-racial theaters in the country. He debuted in Carousel, then toured Europe in a revival of The St. Louis Blues, titled Free and Easy. He had parts in other shows, including Finian's Rainbow, Golden Boy, and Porgy and Bess, and was offered the lead in Purlie, a musical adaptation of the Ossie Davis play Purlie Victorious. It is one of the roles with which Guillaume is most identified.

Guillaume moved to New York City, where he took voice lessons and found steady work, although he was limited in the roles he was offered because of his color. After a dry spell, he landed the lead role of Nathan Detroit in the all-black revival of Guys and Dolls. His outstanding portrayal earned Guillaume an Antoinette Perry (Tony) award nomination, and guest spots in televison series followed. As the cantankerous butler of the white Tate family in the sexually explicit Soap, he earned an Emmy award, and Benson moved to the governor's mansion in the show named for the title character. He began by managing the household but rose to become lieutenant governor, demonstrating the kind of upward mobility he wanted minorities to aspire to.

Iva Sipal noted in Contemporary Black Biography that "Guillaume's greatest theatrical achievement came in May of 1990, when he was hand-picked as the new star of Andrew Lloyd Webber's spectacular musical The Phantom of the Opera. There was much skepticism that any actor could successfully fill the mask of the wildly popular Michael Crawford—especially a black actor in a traditionally white role. But Guillaume triumphed. He did not attempt to imitate his predecessor's original version of the lonely, disfigured, mad, and lovesick phantom. Instead, Guillaume gave life to his own monster. And the loyal audience loved it. The fact that the phantom was now being performed by a black actor became irrelevant." Less than a year later, Guillaume's son Jacques died of AIDS. He and his brother Kevin had grown up with their mother, Guillaume's first wife, and the actor had missed much of their childhood.

Guillaume and his third wife, Donna, formed Confetti Entertainment, a company that produces children's books and audio tapes. He also became producer and narrator of Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, an animated series for Home Box Office (HBO). The stories are retellings of Grimm's fairy tales, featuring diverse characters. They are created by Hispanic, black, and Asian writers who draw from their own cultures in altering the details. For example, Snow White becomes White Snow, a Native girl born during a blizzard. In this story, children learn how Native American names are chosen.

Guillaume told Anita Merina in an interview for NEA Today that he and his wife had decided on this project when they couldn't find multicultural books to read to their daughter, Rachel. Merina asked him if it had been difficult finding actors. Guillaume said, "No. This is an extraordinary cast—Denzel Washington in Rumpelstiltskin, Tone Loc and Harry Belafonte in Jack and the Beanstalk. We've cast Sonia Braga, Graham Greene, Whoopi Goldberg, B. D. Wong, and Edward James Olmos, just to name a few."

Merina wrote, "Imagine Beauty and the Beast set in Africa or Cinderella dancing to mariachi music. In this series, Little Red Riding Hood becomes Little Red Happy Coat, giving us a richness of Chinese-American images. That's what makes these shows so special."

In 1998, Guillaume took the part of Isaac Jaffee in the ABC series Sports Night, a show inspired by ESPN's SportsCenter. It was applauded for its realism and intelligent mix of drama and comedy. On January 14, 1999, Guillaume suffered a stroke in his dressing room and was away from the set for four months while he underwent intensive therapy. Aaron Sorkin wrote into the script that Jaffee had suffered a stroke, relieving Guillaume of the fear that he wouldn't appear one hundred percent normal. When Guillaume took the stage as a presenter for the Emmy Awards with the help of a cane, he received a standing ovation.

In a People interview, Guillaume said, "I've tried to be positive and not get in a funk about things. . . . To me, my whole life has been spent trying to overcome limitations, to take what I have and make it better. This stroke has given me the same kind of chance to improve. I get a lot of satisfaction out of getting a little better each day."



Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.

Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 36, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Guillaume, Robert, and David Ritz, Guillaume: A Life, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 2002.


Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2002, review of Guillaume: A Life, p. 1280.

Library Journal, November 15, 2002, Rosellen Brewer, review of Guillaume, p. 73.

NEA Today, March, 1995, Anita Merina, "New Twist on Old Tales," p. 7.

People, October 11, 1999, "Role of a Lifetime: An Actor Tackles His Toughest Challenge: Rebounding from a Stroke," p. 77.


Detroit Free Press Online. (May 3, 1999), Mike Duffy, "After a Debilitating Stroke, Robert Guillaume Returns to Sports Night."

Los Angeles Times Web site, (December 30, 2002), Gayle Pollard-Terry, review of Guillaume.

Speaking of Stories Web site (January 3, 2003). "Robert Guillaume."*

About this article

Guillaume, Robert 1927(?)-

Updated About content Print Article