People watch Robert Guillaume with expectant, sly smiles, waiting for him to perform, to shoot them the cutting glance, the raised eyebrows, the "Hmmm . . ."
Waiting for him to Be Benson.
But usually Guillaume, who on Sunday night won the Emmy Award for best actor in a comedy series, doesn't oblige.
His medium may be comedy, but his manner decidedly is not. Expectant smiles are greeted not with autographs and grins but with an austere nod -- Benson's acerbity without the punch lines.
Guillaume did spice up his Emmy acceptance speech with a sharp quip ("I'd like to thank Bill Cosby for not being here," he said, referring to the fact that the leading contender for the award had taken himself out of the running because he said he didn't want to compete with other actors), but off camera, he sounds more like a cautious candidate for office than an actor.
Which makes a sort of sense. In the eight years since his introduction in ABC's "Soap," Benson has gone from crotchety, irreverent butler to crotchety, irreverent "household head of the governor's mansion" to crotchety, irreverent state budget director to crotchety, irreverent lieutenant governor.
"In all honesty and candor and modesty, I always wanted the character to have that kind of upward mobility, because it mirrored the American dream," said Guillaume when talking of the show, which airs Friday nights at 9 on Channel 7. And now that the show's producers have the results of a national poll of governors' staff members (63 percent of the respondents thought the show realistic and 46 percent would vote for Benson if he ran for governor in their state), they say Benson will be on the gubernatorial ticket by the end of this season.
An unusual progression in the land of situation comedies, where actors may age and characters vanish overnight, but few are exactly eager to take on the American class system.
"It's a Capra-esque kind of show," said Bob Fraser, one of the show's producers. "It's about a character going from butler to elected official based on common sense and the ability to cut through to the heart of things. It's Frank Capra. We owe a great debt to him for the attitude."
Or, as Guillaume put it recently, "We've demonstrated, as much as it's possible to demonstrate through TV, that it is possible for a black person to move from one venue to another without losing credibility."
Guillaume Message No. 1: Patriotism. Optimism. Creation of a video role model. Etc.
But . . .
"I think academicians and sociologists and teachers would like to think of it that way," he said about the label of "role model." "I'm not sure it's absolutely so. I think the extent to which young people like the character, maybe that could be said, but I would caution against putting too much stock in phrases like role models. I don't like to talk about things like that because you overstate the case."
Guillaume Message No. 2: Restraint. A certain skepticism. Etc.
Flags may seem to wave in Guillaume's eyes when he talks about the American dream, but don't imagine they obscure his Bensonite vision. Robert Guillaume takes himself seriously. You are well advised to do the same.
Ask the 57-year-old Guillaume why he -- a singer who appeared on Broadway in "Purlie," received a Tony nomination for his role in "Guys and Dolls" and now has his own nightclub act -- does TV and he's succinct.
Ask him how he feels about the character he plays and he's stern.
"It goes without saying that I've tried to conduct myself in the character in such a way that I could look back on it five or 10 years from now and not have to wince."
Then, the actor emerging for just an instant, he will illustrate with the wince of someone promised a peach and rewarded with a lemon thrust between his teeth.
As Benson the character and then "Benson" the show caught on, there were some who suggested Guillaume had reason to wince. Another black actor playing another butler, critics wrote. A smart butler, perhaps, but nevertheless relegated to the servant's wing.
"It's awfully strange to me, the whole myth, the idea in Americans' minds of master and slave, employer and servant," Guillaume said.
"One of the real problems with our society is because of our close identification with and association with a very corrupting system -- slavery. I think that we have far too much in our mind the idea of working for someone, no matter what the job title -- it being a demeaning idea in some sense, and I think that is wrong. I've been in societies in Europe where they have no such association with slavery, so people who were waiters, cooks, busboys -- things we tend to think of as menial jobs -- those people could still think of them as meaningful positions having to do with a service that was needed, and they could perform it well and figure they had done something with their lives . . .
"I have trouble with the whole concept -- why should we demean people who perform perfectly necessary services? I've never understood that, so when I took a role like Benson, which was in that time-honored sense 'another black person in a servant's role,' I only took the part because it was a good part, it was a part in which I thought, with my own set of ideas about things, I could say something. And indeed that has been the case. We saw Benson was in no way anyone's inferior."
Guillaume was raised in St. Louis by a "servant," his grandmother, who, he said with deliberate emphasis, "worked for people."
"I never knew my father," he said, "and I didn't have a real association with my mother." When he was 2 or 3, he, his brother and two sisters moved in with their grandmother.
"She was a rare breed. There are people who are altruistic and she was one of those people. She saw a need; she rose to the occasion and took us in. She was not wealthy -- she was poor -- but she wanted to keep us together, so she did what she could do to do that."
His grandmother died before he went on the stage, and he is not close to his siblings or their children.
"It's kind of strange being the successful one," he said. "I'm sure to them I'm the Rich Uncle -- things you read about in old gothic novels. It's largely through my celebrity that I'm known, they don't know me personally."
His new wife is a television producer. Two of his three grown children from a previous marriage are involved in show business. His youngest daughter is involved in being 4 years old. She, he said, "is a real pistol" and thinking of her he relaxed into a smile that glistened for just a moment and then faded.
Leaning far, far back in his chair, the short sleeves of a polo shirt reveal smoothly muscular arms. Those muscles probably would surprise Benson devotees. On the set, Guillaume is always well wrapped, a proud man in full uniform, whether it be butler's or bureaucrat's. There hasn't been much opportunity for the well-pressed uniforms to rumple. While Benson has had a few romantic attachments, they have been neither steamy nor long lived. Another stereotype in a medium that has tended to portray blacks as either oversexed or asexual? Or just a victim of sitcom reality?
"You only have 22 minutes," Guillaume said. "It's hard enough to deal with the relationships with all those people, and if you had in addition to deal with a real serious romance, with the tug of war 'Shall we get married or shall we not?,' somebody's going to get short shrift. We bring in girlfriends from time to time, at least alluding to the general heterosexuality of the character. If no girls at all come on, people think, 'Is he a fag?' If too many girls come on, 'Is he a lech?'
"I like to think that what we do with a successful situation comedy is to write with a certain exciting blandness and have interesting actors. I say bland because there's not a lot you can get into in 22 minutes. To have a truly innovative show, you need to get into a lot."
"Soap" was one such innovative show, Guillaume thinks, one he liked a great deal.
"It had controversy from the time it went on to the time it went off, and it lost money."
It also lasted nowhere near seven years.
Now, Guillaume has the time, money and recognition to make three NBC-TV movies with Gary Coleman, sing on a Donna Summer TV special and take a nightclub act on the road.
"They pay me handsomely," he said, "but I haven't been asked to do any movies of the week. I'd like to do some interesting movies. Cachet -- I'm waiting to get enough of that to be able to ask."
Why his cachet quotient has been low is not a subject the ever-cautious Guillaume cares to discuss.
"In this business, theories are no good," he said. "Theories are best kept to yourself."
Which doesn't mean he has none. Guillaume watches, absorbs, considers. Maybe he'll even let out that little "Hmmm . . ." But not much more.
"You have a certain vantage point when you grow up poor," he said. "You have a certain vantage point, which other people who don't grow up poor don't have, and that is you can see more advantaged people dismissing you because you're poor, not knowing you're able to stand there and look at them and decipher what they're doing, because they don't think intelligence goes with being poor, or incisiveness. It's very easy. People are pretty transparent."