“Do not use any facet of yourself that you perceive as a handicap as an excuse.
Be prepared to go over, through and around.”
Robert Guillaume played one of the most memorable TV characters of the 1980s, while doing his part to break down racial stereotypes. Guillaume has received critical acclaim for his singing voice, stage acting, and TV and movie roles. His amazing talent has also earned him numerous awards, including a pair of Emmy’s for his signature role on television.
THE EARLY YEARS
Robert Guillaume was born by the name of Robert Williams on November 30, 1927, and grew up in downtown St. Louis. He was raised by his grandmother, who also nurtured his promising career as a singer. He showed amazing musical abilities in school but was expelled by St. Joseph’s High School and eventually landed in the army in 1945. He returned two years later to graduate from St. Joseph’s. He enrolled at St. Louis University, and then Washington University to major in music.
While at Wash. U., he won a scholarship to study at the Aspen Music Festival. This turned out to be a big break for the young man because it put him in front of influential people in the entertainment industry. He turned the scholarship into a paying job, as producers snatched him up for a role at the Karamu House Theatre in Ohio. It was about this time that he changed his name from Williams to Guillaume to reflect his French-Indian heritage.
RISE TO FAME
After spending time refining his talents at Karamu, he packed his bags for a tour of Europe with an up-and-coming producer named Quincy Jones. The experience greatly expanded his abilities, which put him into position for a number of
musical and acting roles upon his return to the United States. He spent most of the next decade on stage, performing in musicals such Kwamina, Porgy and Bess, and Othello. Less than a year after starring in Guys and Dolls, he got his shot at nationwide stardom on a new television series that took the TV world by storm.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
Guillaume became a weekly fixture on TV in 1977 on the primetime show Soap. He played the sarcastic butler, Benson DuBois, for two years. He was a standout star on the show, which allowed him to take the character to a spin-off show, aptly named Benson. He starred on the show for seven years, ultimately winning two Emmys for his role as Benson.
The Robert Guillaume Show was his next big role in the late 1990s, where he played a marriage counselor named Edward Sawyer. At the same time, he played the role of a television executive on Sports Night. His career and life slowed down after he suffered a stroke during the taping of Sports Night.
He went into semi-retirement but continued to appear in several movies after the incident. His stardom allowed him to break down racial stereotypes on his award-winning shows, and he continues to make an impact on our society to this day, both on and off the camera.
*You can hear his voice as the baboon Rafiki in the movie The Lion King, where he won a Grammy for his performance.
* He supplied the voice for Eli Vance in the video game Half-Life 2.
*He worked as a streetcar driver while attending college in St. Louis.