Robert Guillaume

by Eirik Knutzen | Jul 9, 2001
Robert Guillaume Robert Guillaume was relaxing in his dressing room on Stage 6 waiting to tape a scene in the sitcom "Sports Night" at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank when he suffered a mild stroke.

"I fell on the floor and couldn`t get up," says the gray, spare 73-year-old actor, who made his mark as the acerbic butler, Benson DuBois, on "Soap" and its spin-off, "Benson."

"I kept floundering about on the floor and almost getting up, but I didn`t know why I couldn`t do it. I didn`t know it was caused by my left side being weaker than the other. Looking back, how could I not have known?"

Having a stroke is a very strange sensation, because their is no pain connected with it, according to Guillaume.

"I was in a massive state of denial, because the more I suffered the symptoms, the less I knew about what was happening to me. I became more and more frightened, thinking my life as I knew it would be over. The only question was how crippled I would be."

Rushed to the state-of-the-art hospital virtually next door and attended by top-notch cardiologists, the stroke only caused a relatively slight amount of damage and hardly affected his speech. Once reality set in, he threw his body and soul into physical therapy. His daily regimen includes brisk walks on the treadmill, lifting weights and various upper-body exercises.

"The stroke changed my life, but ,for the most part, I don`t think it impacted my career as much as I thought it might," says the new and enthusiastic spokesman for the American Stroke Association. "I don`t always have the energy I wished I had, but I have been blessed with a good attitude about everything. On `Sport Night,` my character, Isaac Jaffe, suffered a stroke at the same time I did. It was built into the show`s plot. You couldn`t buy support like that."

A few years ago, Guillaume would have been left for dead - and he knows it. Now he is super-charged, always looking for work when others his age are looking for a soft spot to land. He just finished principal photography on a feature film titled "The 13th Child, Legend of the Jersey Devil" in Philadelphia, Pa., and is currently thumbing through a pile of scripts.

"I want to work a lot," he explains, "and I`ve been traveling more since I had the stroke than I died before. If I`m not in Baltimore giving a speech to the American Heart Association, I may be in Chicago for the American Stroke Association, talking about warning signs. A few months ago, I went to Monaco to accept an acting award from Prince Albert and had a great time."

When things are slow, he frequently accompanies his producer wife, Donna Brown Guillaume, on the road. They have produced a number of projects together, including the children`s TV series "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child" (1995-96).

With their 12-year-old daughter, Rachel, set for an exclusive private school in the fall and his teen-age daughter, Melissa, by a previous liaison old enough to take care of herself, their schedule will soon kick up a notch.

In 1977, Guillaume`s life changed even more radically than by his recent stroke. His long career took a dramatic turn for the better the day he took a break from starring in the Broadway production of "Guys And Dolls" to audition for "Soap," a strange new sitcom that soon achieved cult status.

In a matter of minutes, he was cast as Benson, the sneering, leering and totally obnoxious butler in the Tate household - headed by utterly nutty Robert Mandan (Chester) and Katherine Helmond (Jessica).

"The minute I saw the (script), I knew that I had a live one," laughs Guillaume, taking a break between barbells and the treadmill. "Every role was written against type, especially Benson, who wasn`t subservient to anyone. To me, Benson was the revenge of all those stereotyped guys who looked like Benson in the `40s and `50s, and had to keep their mouths shut. I loved just about every word they put in my mouth, and they were put there by some pretty enlightened people. Especially (writer/producer) Susan Harris."

Only in retrospect, did Guillaume realize that the Benson character was inspired by his brother, James, and grandmother, Jeanette.

"Visually, I think he was my brother. James could be saying the most terrible things, but his deadpan expression would make you laugh. And I modeled (Benson) a little bit after the attitude of my grandmother, who worked as a domestic in the `30s and `40s."

Behind the scenes at the ABC Studios in Hollywood, "Soap" was an extraordinary experience, but not friction-free, according to Guillaume.

"We had good actors and writers. The seasoned actors included Richard Mulligan and Cathryn Damon; the relative newcomers were Billy Crystal and Robert Urich. Sometimes the relationship between the actors and the writers/producers was a little strained - they don`t quite trust actors not to be self-serving."

He was "overjoyed" when his character took off like a bottle rocket and the producers were persuaded by the network to create the enormously successful spin-off series, "Benson" (1979-86). Guillaume was rich, famous and grateful by the time the show was canceled, but would have been a little happier if the character hadn`t been toned down to fit a programming executive`s mold for the lead character in a sitcom.

"I think Benson of `Soap` was much more free and hilarious than he was on `Benson,`" he says. "On `Soap,` I just had the feeling that I could do anything."

Born Robert Williams ("I gave it a French twist later") in St. Louis, along with three siblings, he was raised in an impoverished section of town by his hard-working grandmother. He "didn`t have much of a relationship with his mother" and "I don`t know my father," and basically was left to fend for himself.

Singing in church choirs lead to high school musicals and formal voice studies at Washington University in St. Louis, but he made his living as a streetcar conductor and postal worker before serving a two-year apprenticeship at Cleveland`s Karamu Theatre in the late 1950s.

Earning a 1976 Tony Award nomination as Nathan Detroit took another 17, sometimes bitter, years that include the loss of a son 11 years ago to AIDS (surviving son, Kevin, is a songwriter).

Guillaume has done it all, including starring in the Los Angeles production of "The Phantom of the Opera" and providing the voice of Rafiki in the feature film-version of "The Lion King" (1994). And he`s not going anywhere "as long as it`s fun."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Eirik Knutzen


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