Robert Guillaume (born Robert Peter Williams; November 30, 1927 – October 24, 2017) was an American actor, known for his role as Isaac Jaffe on Sports Night and as Benson on the TV-series Soap and the spin-off Benson, as well as for voicing the mandrill Rafiki in The Lion King. In a career that spanned more than 50 years he worked extensively on stage (including a Tony Award nomination), television (including winning two Emmy Awards), and film.
Guillaume was born in St. Louis, Missouri., as Robert Williams. He studied at St. Louis University and Washington University and served in the United States Army before pursuing an acting career. He adopted the surname “Guillaume,” French for William, as his stage name.
After leaving the university, Guillaume joined the Karamu Players in Cleveland and performed in musical comedies and opera. He toured the world in 1959 as a cast member of the Broadway musical Free and Easy. He made his Broadway debut in Kwamina in 1961. His other stage appearances included Golden Boy, Tambourines to Glory, Guys and Dolls, for which he received a Tony Award nomination, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and Purlie!. His additional roles included Katherine Dunham’s Bambouche and in Fly The Blackbird.
In 1964 he portrayed Sportin’ Life in a revival of Porgy and Bess at New York’s City Center. Guillaume was a member of the Robert de Cormier Singers, performing in concerts and on television. He recorded a LP record, Columbia CS9033, titled Just Arrived as a member of The Pilgrims, a folk trio, with Angeline Butler and Millard Williams. In the sixties he was in Vienna, Austria at the Vienna Volksoper. Marcel Prawy engaged Robert Guillaume for the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess.
Later in his stage career, he was cast in the lead role in the Los Angeles production of The Phantom of the Opera replacing Michael Crawford.
Guillaume made several guest appearances on sitcoms, including Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Saved By The Bell: The College Years and in the 1990s sitcoms The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and A Different World. His series-regular debut was on the ABC series Soap, playing Benson, a butler, from 1977 to 1979. Guillaume continued the role in a spin-off series, Benson, from 1979 until 1986. Guillaume also played Dr. Franklin in season 6, episode 8 (“Chain Letter”) of the series All in the Family, which he coyly referenced Marcus Welby, M.D., a TV series in which he had guest-starred on in 1970.
In 1985, Guillaume appeared in the television mini-series North and South as abolitionist leader Fredrick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and became a leader of the anti-slavery movement prior to the American Civil War.
He also appeared as marriage counselor Edward Sawyer on The Robert Guillaume Show (1989), Detective Bob Ballard on Pacific Station (1991–1992), and television executive Isaac Jaffe on Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived but critically acclaimed Sports Night (1998–2000). Guillaume suffered a mild stroke on January 14, 1999, while filming an episode of the latter series. He recovered and his character was later also depicted as having had a stroke. He also made a guest appearance on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.
His voice was employed for characters in television series Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Fish Police, and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. He was known for the voice of Rafiki in the movie The Lion King and its sequels and spin-offs. He voiced Mr. Thicknose in The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze. He also supplied the voice for Eli Vance in the 2004 video game Half-Life 2 and its subsequent sequels.
Photo: St. Louis Post Dispatch1