If "Benson" stays on television long enough, he may end up running for president. Governor at least.
This season began with Benson's becoming lieutenant governor. His election was the latest in a series of moves that has seen this sharp-tongued character rise from butler to lieutenant governor in a feat of upward mobility that has spanned eight years and two television series.
"Part of my social conscience led me to want to play a character in which a lot of things were possible," said Robert Guillaume. "Society puts labels on people. The founding fathers were tired of people telling them what they could do. You don't get very far telling Americans what to do . . . Benson was labeled as a butler. But if you watch the show, you know that doesn't describe totally what he is. I wanted acharacter who was upwardly mobile."
A lot of people are watching Guillaume play Benson. Now in its sixth season, the series, which might be expected to wear a bit thin by now, has still managed to stay among the top 30 programs in recent weeks as ABC's lead-in to its Friday night lineup.
And watching Guillaume play Guillaume, you see a lot of Benson's penchant for moving up.
"I've always made a decent living," said Guillaume, "but when you hit TV, everything is minuscule compared to that. For the first 10 years in acting I made maybe $1,900 a year -- sharecropper's wages. I never got into acting to make money . . . I got in because it was the only thing that would galvanize my attention."
What first caught his attention was the idea of going into business. Born and raised in St. Louis, he attended St. Louis University with that in mind. But after transferring to Washington University he caught the eye and ear of voice teacher Leslie Chabay, who arranged a scholarship for him to a musical festival in Aspen, Colo. That led to an apprenticeship at the Karamu Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio. Since then, he's gone on to play the leads in "Purlie" and "Golden Boy," and his version of Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls" earned him a Tony nomination.
When Guillaume isn't onstage or in front of a camera, he lives in suburban Tarzana, Calif., and keeps his musical hand in with the piano and guitar. He has three children and is recently divorced.
The production that altered his professional life forever was "Soap," the offbeat situation comedy that introduced the put-down-artist butler to televison in 1977. Guillaume won an Emmy playing the part. The character was spun off and up, with "Benson," going from managing a mere household to managing a governor's mansion. Then it was off to night school and the office of budget director. With the office, Benson acquired a last name for the first time: Dubois.
The idea that Benson could move up in the world was always been a part of the character's makeup, said Guillaume. "It's significant on the one hand, and not on the other," he said. "It's just American."
Benson is more than just a bit surly at times, too. Or is that Guillaume's own roughness showing through?
"I'm happy that I seem to have an attitude that seems to hold me in good standing with a black audience," he said. "At least they're not too upset with me . . . I've mellowed from other positions I've taken . . . When I was just coming into acting, I was like all young Turks, critical of people who had made it . . . I think I've retained some of that and made it a part of the character. I'm still a worker and have a worker's attitude. I'm a worker, not the boss."
Well, sort of. He's formed a production company and is already collecting scripts. "I'm interested in anything that's interesting."
As Guillaume's series ages -- and six seasons is a bit long in the tooth for a TV series -- the question becomes how long the show will hang on.
"Benson" seems to have found its staying power in its blend of ongoing characters, said Guillaume. "We have some people doing the same story each week. In the center of the piece is a crusty guy who says what's on his mind. Maybe people like to think they could be that way too . . .
"We've had a loyal corps of the audience and have added more as we've gone along. There comes a time when you get tired of doing it and people get tired of watching. I don't know when that will happen . . .
"The show should be seen in a positive way," said Guillaume, adding, "It says that in America all things are possible."