Robert Guillaume, who rose from squalid beginnings in the St. Louis slums to become a star in stage musicals and win Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the sharp-tongued butler on the TV sitcoms "Soap" and "Benson," died Oct. 24 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 89.
The cause was complications from prostate cancer, said his wife, Donna Brown Guillaume.
Among Mr. Guillaume's achievements was playing Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of "Guys and Dolls," earning a Tony nomination in 1977. While performing in that musical, he was asked to test for the role of an acerbic butler of a governor's mansion in "Soap," 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. "Every role was written against type, especially Benson, who wasn't subservient to anyone. To me, Benson was the revenge for all those stereotyped guys who looked like Benson in the '40s and '50s [movies] and had to keep their mouths shut."
The character became so popular that ABC was persuaded to launch a spinoff, simply called "Benson," which ran from 1979 to 1986. Eventually Benson proved so capable that he was promoted to state budget director and lieutenant governor. The series made Mr. Guillaume wealthy and famous, but he regretted that Benson's wit had to be toned down to make him more appealing as the lead star.
The career of Robert Guillaume (pronounced with a hard "g'': gee-yome) almost ended in January 1999 at Walt Disney Studio. He was appearing in the TV series "Sports Night" as Isaac Jaffe, executive producer of a sports highlight show. Returning to his dressing room after a meal away from the studio, he suddenly collapsed.
He was rushed to a hospital across from the studio and treated for a stroke — the result of a blood clot that blocked circulation of blood to the brain, which are fatal in 15 percent of cases.
Mr. Guillaume's stroke was minor, causing relatively slight damage and little effect on his speech. He returned to the second season of "Sports Talk," and it was written into the script that Jaffewas recovering from a stroke. Because of slim ratings, the second season proved to be the last for the much-praised show.
Mr. Guillaume resumed his career and traveled as a new spokesman for the American Stroke Association. He also made appearances for the American Heart Association.
His 2002 autobiography, "Guillaume: A Life," in which he laid bare his troubled history, opened with a frank self-assessment: "I'm a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums of St. Louis."
He was born fatherless on Nov. 30, 1927, in St. Louis, one of four children. His mother named him Robert Peter Williams; when he became a performer he adopted Guillaume, a French version of Williams, believing the change would give him distinction.
His early years were spent in a back-alley apartment without plumbing or electricity; an outhouse was shared with two dozen people. His alcoholic mother hated him because of his dark skin, and his grandmother rescued him, taught him to read and enrolled him in a Catholic school.
Scorned by nuns and students because of his skin color, he said he became rebellious. He was expelled from school. He fathered a daughter and abandoned the child and her mother. He did the same to his first wife and two sons and to another woman and a daughter.
He worked in a department store, the post office and as St. Louis's first black streetcar motorman. Seeking something better, he enrolled at St. Louis University, excelling in philosophy and Shakespeare, and then at Washington University in St. Louis, where a music professor trained the young man's superb tenor singing voice.
After serving as an apprentice at theaters in Aspen, Colo., and Cleveland, the newly named Mr. Guillaume toured with the Broadway shows "Finian's Rainbow," "Golden Boy," "Porgy and Bess" and "Purlie," and began appearing on sitcoms such as "The Jeffersons" and "Sanford and Son." Then came "Soap" and "Benson." His period of greatest success was marred by tragedy when his 33-year-old son Jacques died of AIDS.
Mr. Guillaume's first stable relationship came when he married TV producer Donna Brown in the mid-1980s and fathered a daughter, Rachel. At last he was able to shrug off the bitterness he had felt throughout his life.
"To assuage bitterness requires more than human effort," he wrote at the end of his autobiography. "Relief comes from a source we cannot see but can only feel. I am content to call that source love."