Lion King and Big Fish star Robert Guillaume dies at 89

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Oct 24, 2017

The distinguished actor Robert Guillaume, whose urbane presence and voice were the trademarks of a long and diverse career, has passed away.

Guillaume, who was 89, died on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles after a battle with prostate cancer, according to The Hollywood Reporter. While he was perhaps best known for playing the butler Benson on the classic late '70s ABC sitcom Soap and its spin-off Benson — where the character's arc took him from servant all the way to lieutenant governor — he also made his mark on the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres.

He provided the voice for the mandrill Rafiki in the 1994 animated Disney masterpiece The Lion King, reprising the role in sequels, TV shows, and video games. He also appeared in Tim Burton's 2003 fantasy film Big Fish and, with his baritone singing voice, replaced the original Phantom, Michael Crawford, in a Los Angeles production of The Phantom of the Opera. His other genre-related credits included the 1993 superhero satire The Meteor Man and the voice of Eli Vance in the 2004 video game Half-Life 2 and its sequels.

Outside his genre work, Guillaume's resume also included a starring role in the TV series Sports Night, as well as appearances over the years in films like Seems Like Old Times (1980), Lean on Me (1989), Death Warrant (1990), and Spy Hard (1996), while his other TV work included The Robert Guillaume Show, Marcus Welby, M.D., All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, The Love Boat, L.A. Law, Diagnosis Murder, Touched by an Angel, and more.

He was nominated six times and won two Emmys for playing Benson; his second, in 1985, for outstanding actor in a comedy made him the only black man to win in that category.

Guillaume was born Robert Williams in St. Louis on Nov. 30, 1927. Raised by his maternal grandmother, he served in the U.S. Army after high school, then attended St. Louis University. Although he majored in business administration, he eventually found his way to New York and began appearing in a string of Broadway musicals before jumping to films and TV.

He is survived by his wife Donna and four children, and his voice and always classy demeanor will be missed.