Robert Guillaume Biography
" Family "Pulled Together, A Dream Becomes a Career, From Tony Award to Television
Actor, singer, producer
Before Robert Guillaume became a popular television actor and Broadway musical star, he was Robert Williams from St. Louis, Missouri: a young man with a golden voice and a future in the accounting field. Fortunately for all his fans, the young man threw caution to the wind and opted for show business. He chose a new name, Guillaume, the French translation of Williams, for its sophisticated image, but it was a decision he soon came to regret because so many people tripped on the pronunciation. That concern has long since dissolved. Guillaume, an Emmy Award winner for his roles in the television sitcoms, Soap and Benson, and a star in theater's smash hit musical Phantom of the Opera, is now one of the most respected and recognized talents in the business. And his name—tricky pronunciation and all—has become a household word.
" Family "Pulled Together
Guillaume was born in 1927 and grew up during a difficult era in U.S. history. America suffered through the Great Depression in the 1930s. World War II began in 1939, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States entered the war that was supposed to end all wars. Meanwhile Guillaume's family was facing a much more personal crisis: it was disintegrating. Guillaume's life began in St. Louis, Missouri, just a few miles south of where the Missouri River outflows from the Mississippi. When he was only a toddler his alcoholic mother turned over the care of her four young children to their grandmother. The father had abandoned them early on. The kids grew up in a poor black section of the city under the protective wing of a strong-willed and altruistic woman; Guillaume's grandmother provided for the youngsters as best she could on the wages she earned as a laundress at a Catholic rectory. "The sum total of my grandmother," Guillaume told the Boston Globe, "can be measured in the fact that she took me and three of my sisters and brothers into her family in the middle of the Great Depression. She taught us that we could pull together. It was an enormous task of love, dedication, and devotion."
Early on, Guillaume learned how to use his voice, but not only as a fine instrument in school musicals. By his own admission he was an outspoken boy with an explosive temper—talents that got him suspended from grammar school and then expelled from parochial school in the ninth grade. His dual nature became apparent before he reached his teens: the well-behaved child was a choir boy and an altar boy, while the restless one hung out in the pool halls of St. Louis.
The U.S. Army and Robert Guillaume were not a combination that was meant to be. He joined in 1945, but after 15 months Guillaume resigned with an honorable discharge. "l have a big mouth and I had a Southern captain who hated my guts," he explained in US magazine. "One day he called me into his office and announced, 'This army isn't big enough for the both of us.'" So the captain stayed, and Guillaume left.
After his brief stint in the army, Guillaume finished high school and tried a number of odd jobs to save money for college. He ran a women's clothing store, worked in the post office and as a candy cook, washed dishes, and tried his hand at sales. But his most interesting short-term career was driving a St. Louis street car. His route took him down the same tracks that Judy Garland's "Trolley Song" made famous in the musical Meet Me in St. Louis. "I used to sing as I was barreling along, drowning out customers' screams," he told People magazine. "I was always crashing into the back of a Packard or Dodge. Then everyone would fall down on the floor screaming 'whiplash!'"
Possible exaggerations aside, the story illustrates Guillaume's enduring dream of becoming a professional singer. But in those times of extreme financial hardship, Guillaume, then in his mid-twenties, was sensitive to his grandmother's influence and tried to think practically. He enrolled in night classes at St. Louis University and chose business administration as his major. But it wasn't long before the dream of being a singer resurfaced, and he transferred to the music school at St. Louis's Washington University.
A Dream Becomes a Career
It was there that his talent captured the attention of Hungarian opera tenor and artist-in-residence Laslo Chabay. "Chabay," Guillaume told the Washington Post, "was the first person to say I had potential to sing the classics." With well over 140 hours of credits in liberal arts, Guillaume forgot about business administration and graduating and decided he could make a living with his voice.
It was not a misguided decision. Chabay helped Guillaume obtain a scholarship to the 1957 Aspen Music Festival in Colorado where he caught the attention of Russell and Rowena Jelliffe. The Jelliffes were founders of one of the oldest interracial theaters in America, the Karamu Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, and they offered Guillaume an apprenticeship. Guillaume, then already 31 years old, had his professional debut in the Karamu's production of Carousel. "When I started out," Guillaume told US magazine, "I had pretentious notions and I was somewhat hypocritical. I told myself I didn't care about fame; I just wanted to be an artist. That was a lie. Becoming famous was always important to me."
His debut performance was witnessed and applauded by a very special member of the audience: renowned dramatist Oscar Hammerstein. Guillaume was recruited from Carousel for a Broadway revue called Free and Easy. The musical was a reworking of The St. Louis Blues. Though it soon folded, it had given him the experience of touring Europe.
Guillaume did not spend long between jobs. He toured with Finian's Rainbow, Golden Boy, Kwamina, and Porgy and Bess. In 1970, he appeared in Some Place to Be Somebody, a job he considered to be his first real acting role. In 1972, he was picked for the lead in Purlie, a musical adaption of the Ossie Davis play Purlie Victorious. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described his character as "a resourceful young black preacher who returns home to the Georgia plantation to rally Uncle Toms against oppressive paternalism." To this day, it is one of the roles with which Guillaume is most identified.
Guillaume also had the opportunity to get a taste of the television medium. He performed in the special S' Wonderful, S' Gershwin and took bit acting roles in the shows Marcus Welby, M.D., The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and All in the Family.
From Tony Award to Television
It was during one of his 750 performances in the play Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris that Guillaume received his biggest break yet. Once again he was recruited, this time for the role of Nathan Detroit in the 1976 all-black revival of the hit Guys and Dolls. Guillaume's impressive performance as the street-smart owner of "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York" won him a Tony nomination. He had finally arrived. And then he left—for television. Guillaume explained the circumstances in the Christian Science Monitor: "I was doing Guys and Dolls in New York and we'd been notified we were going to close shortly. We were on pins and needles." Panicked, Guillaume called his agent who informed him that the industry had dried up and chances of finding anything were nil.
"A half hour later my agent called back and told me about plans for a prime time soap opera," Guillaume continued. Soap, the ABC nighttime satire of daytime soaps that became controversial for its brazen storylines riddled with infidelities, murders, and sexual orientations, was searching for a butler. Even after Guillaume successfully progressed through several auditions for the part, he was forced to wait while the producers went back and forth on the decision of the character's ethnicity. But he got the part and became Benson DuBois from the West Indies: the cantankerous, irreverent, and condescending butler who did not suffer fools gladly.
Guillaume received an Emmy for his role in Soap in 1979. His character became so popular that the network decided to create Benson, a spin-off show. Soap's butler turned in his resignation, and the character of Benson DuBois was hired as the head of household at the governor's mansion in the same fictitious town. Benson quickly made his way to state budget director and finally lieutenant governor. Guillaume was given the opportunity to transform Benson into a three-dimensional character, one that symbolized the changing role of black Americans in society. He told the Washington Post, "I wanted the character to have that kind of upward mobility because it mirrored the American dream." At the time, such a dream had rarely been attained by minorities on television.
Actor and Advocate
Benson had a successful run for seven years, earning Guillaume his second Emmy in 1985, before it was canceled a year later. In 1989, Guillaume co-created and was executive co-producer of The Robert Guillaume Show, a short-lived interracial romantic comedy. After his stint with television, Guillaume began pursuing different directions. He hit the nightclub circuits, singing in places like Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and Atlantic City; he added movies to his acting experience with Lean on Me; he formed his own production company, Longridge Enterprises, to develop acting projects; and he returned to the theater.
Guillaume's greatest theatrical achievement came in May of 1990, when he was hand-picked as the new star of Andrew Lloyd Webber's spectacular musical The Phantom of the Opera. There was much skepticism that any actor could successfully fill the mask of the wildly popular Michael Crawford—especially, a black actor in a traditionally white role. But Guillaume triumphed. He did not attempt to imitate his predecessor's original version of the lonely, disfigured, mad, and love-sick phantom. Instead, Guillaume gave life to his own monster. And the loyal audience loved it. The fact that the phantom was now being performed by a black actor became irrelevant. But this high point in Guillaume's professional life coincided with a tragic time in his personal life. His 33-year-old son, Jacques, died on December 23, 1990, following a two-year fight against AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Jacques and his brother Kevin had grown up with their mother, Guillaume's first wife, while the actor pursued his career. "I felt guilty," Guillaume revealed in a Parade interview, "because what I call the 'long arm of the ghetto,' where he spent his childhood, had gotten to him and programmed him for defeat.… I think he interpreted my urging to put his brain and talents to use as snobbishness and disapproval. He didn't seem to understand that, at the same time I loved him without qualification and accepted his homosexuality, I still hoped he'd find direction for his life."
Guillaume is an introspective man. He is also an extremely private and sensitive artist who has held a long-lived struggle with self-esteem and the fear of failure. "As a black man I'd been in a kind of wilderness," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1972. "I did not know I did not like being black. I though I had the whole thing together." He continued, "It was only this emergence, this black thing that happened in the sixties, particularly to black males—becoming aware and appreciating themselves.… I'd lived a whole lifetime and…always felt ugly."
Since then, Guillaume has risen to become one of America's most appreciated and successful black actors and a powerful voice in the fight for fair and equal treatment of African Americans. "It outraged me then, it outrages me now," he asserted in Parade. "It gets me crazy, the assumption that being black and poor is our own fault.… I'll never forget where I came from and how I got here."
For his part, Guillaume has tried to serve as a positive role model. With his wife Donna he co-founded Confetti Entertainment in 1991. The company, that's mission is to combat illiteracy, produces multicultural educational books and teacher resources, as well as the "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child" videos that show children of a variety of ethnicities in classic fairy tales. In 1994, Guillaume lent his voice to the character of Rafiki in Disney's animated film The Lion King. While acting in the sitcom Sports Night in 1999, Guillaume took yet another opportunity to serve as a role model, but this time for older folks. He suffered a debilitating stroke on the set. But within three weeks, he returned to his job, weakened and walking with a cane, but positive about his recovery. He told People Weekly that "I hope that people who have had strokes will see me and take a positive approach toward their own recoveries." He added that "I see the stroke as something that God laid on me as a way of saying, 'This guy has been thinking he's in charge a little too much.' To me, my whole life has been spent trying to overcome limitations, to take what I have and make it better. This stroke has given me the same kind of chance to improve." Guillaume has indeed continued to improve, paving the way for others to follow. After discovering he also had diabetes, Guillaume began speaking out about health issues to alert people that "your health really does matter," as he told Jet. Dividing his time between acting and health advocacy, Guillaume also found time to write his autobiography. Published in 2003, Guillaume: A Life, traces his struggles and triumphs from his early years.
(With David Ritz) Guillaume: A Life, Missouri Press, 2003.
Some Place to Be Somebody, 1970.
Guys and Dolls, 1976.
Phantom of the Opera, 1990.
Cyrano–The Musical, 1994.
Super Fly T.N.T., 1973.
Seems like Old Times, 1980.
Prince Jack, 1985.
They Still Call Me Bruce, 1987.
Wanted: Dead or Alive, 1987.
Lean on Me, 1989.
Death Warrant, 1990.
The Meteor Man, 1993.
The Lion King (animated), 1994.
Spy Hard, 1996.
First Kid, 1996.
The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (animated), 1998.
The Adventures of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina (animated), 2000.
The Robert Guillaume Show, 1989.
Pacific Station, 1991.
Fish Police (animated), 1992.
The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa (animated), 1995.
Sports Night, 1998-2000.
Boston Globe, July 13, 1981.
Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1972.
Christian Science Monitor, September 12, 1979.
Jet, November 3, 2003.
New York Daily News, August 20, 1976.
New York Times, December 18, 1977.
Parade, May 24, 1992.
People, January 23, 1978.
People Weekly, October 11, 1999.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 25, 1972.
US, August 15, 1983.
Washington Post, May 6, 1976; September 15, 1979; September 24, 1985.
—Iva Sipal and
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