The uncommonly excellent stage and screen actor Robert Guillaume died today at the age of 89, of prostate cancer, AP reported. Guillaume was born Robert Peter Williams in St. Louis, MO November 30, 1927. He changed his name after a brief stint in the Army in 1945-'46.
If you are a certain age (say, born between 1961 and 1981) and your rearing was outsourced to the television, there's a good chance that you, like me, developed a feeling for Guillaume that runs deeper than standard issue actor admiration, and feels—however illusory this kind of thing must be—more like love. His best known roles was probably Benson DuBois, who started as the acid-tongued butler on Soap, and wound up as the Lieutenant Governor on the spin-off Benson.
In 1985 he won the Emmy for Best Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy for the role, making him the first black man ever to win that award. The second was Donald Glover, who won it for his work in Atlanta, about five weeks ago, 32 years later.
If you're of another age, (born between 1982 and present, say), you're more likely to recognize him as the voice of Rafiki in The Lion King.
He was in a million other shows and films as well and he was never less than perfect in any of them. (I have a special fondness for his work in Neil Simon's 1980 divorce culture love triangle mess Seems Like Old Times and as Joe Clark/Morgan Freeman's friend and advocate in Lean On Me.)
I struggle to put my finger on what it was about Guillaume that inspired such a powerful response, but I think it has something to do with his ability to combine verbal dexterity, physical suaveness, and what I guess I'd have to call unrepentantly elegant masculinity. Or vice versa. He was smooth, he was tough, and best of all, he was funny. (He could also sing, which matters.)
But for my money, Guillaume was at his absolute best in a pair of roles that couldn't have been less alike:
The first was in the lead role of the musical Purlie—based on Ossie Davis's play Purlie Vicorious—on Broadway in 1970. Guillaume was charisma itself in the role of the righteous preacher who comes to Jim Crow Georgia to save an old church and provokes a variety of responses—from love to hate—in the process.
He struts and sings with a trouper's panache, but it's the cascading flexibility of his speaking voice—from high, elegant locution to low, lascivious aside—that makes him such an electrifying presence. The production was revived in 1981 and filmed for broadcast on Showtime, where I don't think it's an exaggeration to say I watched at least 100 times.
Guillaume's other ultimate role was as Isaac Jaffe on Aaron Sorkin's short-lived West Wing predecessor series Sports Night. In many ways the show—about the behind-the-scenes machinations of an ESPN-style TV show—suffers from the same issue that plagues all of Sorkin's non WW shows, which is that it confers grand-scale nobility on an inherently corrupt, even tawdry pursuit (i.e. television about sports).
HOWEVER, it also benefits from the extraordinarily catchy musicality of Sorkin's dialogue, and more to the point, it positions Guillaume as the embodiment of integrity, experience, probity, rigor, and paternal warmth. He tends to get all the best moments, and even when the plot is transparently designed to make him the mechanism of forgiveness for one of the leads, it still works because Guillaume was so good at portraying integrity, experience, probity, rigor, and paternal warmth.
When Guillaume had a stroke in 1998, Sorkin wrote the actor's recovery into the character, thus enabling Guillaume to bring yet another facet of his humanity to the screen. It made for uncomfortable viewing, which in turn brought a depth the show that it couldn't have had otherwise.
Best of all, however, in a context where everyone was forever giving stirring monologues, no one could ever touch Robert Guillaume at delivering them: