Emmy Award-winning actor Robert Guillaume, best known as the title character in the TV sitcom “Benson” died today, due to complications of prostate cancer. He was 89. In 1990 Guillaume was the first African American to play the Phantom in the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera, replacing Michael Crawford opposite Dale Kristien as Christine, breaking barriers.
Guillaume made his Broadway debut in Finian’s Rainbow, followed by roles in Kwamina and Tambourines to Glory before taking the title role in Purlie. He earned a Tony and a Drama Desk nomination in 1977 playing Nathan Detroit in an all-black revival of Guys and Dolls. He also played the title role in Broadway’s Cyrano – The Musical.
Among his Off-Broadway credits were Fly Blackbird, Apple Pie, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and Porgy and Bess at City Center.
Guillaume guested during this period on sitcoms such as “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons,” which led to the supporting role of Benson in “Soap” in 1977 series “Soap.” His character was spun off in 1979 for his own TV Show. Guillaume won a Emmy for “Soap”, as supporting actor. “Benson” ran on ABC for seven years until 1986. The show brought Guillaume an Emmy in 1985 for lead actor in a comedy.
In the late ’90s he took on the role of Isaac Jaffe, executive producer of a cable sports show on the ABC sitcom “Sports Night,” and continued to perform even after being felled by a stroke.
Among his other on-screen credits were the films Meteor Man, First Kid, Spy Hard, Big Fish, Columbus Circle, and the small musical dramedy Satin, as well as HBO’s Happily Ever After, and miniseries including Children of the Dust, Run for the Dream, Pandora’s Clock, and North and South.
He is survived by his second wife, TV producer Donna Brown Guillaume; one son (another died in 1990); and three daughters.