Robert Guillaume, who rose from squalid beginnings in St. Louis slums to become a star in stage musicals and win Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the sharp-tongued butler in the TV sitcoms Soap and Benson, has died at age 89. Guillaume died at home Tuesday in Los Angeles, according to his widow, Donna Brown Guillaume. He had been battling prostate cancer, she told the AP. Among Guillaume's achievements was playing Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of Guys and Dolls, earning a Tony nomination in 1977. He became the first African-American to sing the title role of Phantom of the Opera, appearing with an all-white cast in Los Angeles.
While playing in Guys and Dolls, he was asked to test for the role of an acerbic butler of a governor's mansion in Soap, a primetime 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 lasted from 1979 to 1986. Click for more on Guillaume's fascinating life, which saw him go from a fatherless child in a back-alley apartment to a rebel who abandoned multiple children before finally finding stability and success.
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