Robert Guillaume, Emmy Winner as ‘Benson,’ Dies at 89

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Robert Guillaume
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He also portrayed Isaac Jaffe on ‘Sports Night,’ voiced Rafiki in ‘The Lion King’ and earned a Tony nomination for ‘Guys and Dolls.’

Robert Guillaume, the urbane actor who received two Emmy Awards for portraying the acidic butler Benson on a pair of ABC sitcoms, died Tuesday. He was 89.

Guillaume, a baritone who also starred on the stage and voiced the wise mandrill Rafiki in The Lion King (1994) and its related sequels, video games and TV series, died at his home in Los Angeles, his wife, Donna Brown Guillaume, told the Associated Press. He had been battling prostate cancer.

Guillaume’s penchant for playing distinguished characters resolutely defied racial stereotypes — as he did on ABC’s critically acclaimed Aaron Sorkin series Sports Night, on which he played Isaac Jaffe, the managing editor of a ESPN-style news program.

In 1999, Guillaume had a mild stroke while in his dressing room on the Sports Night set.

“I was fortunate in the sense that the stroke I suffered was not so debilitating that I could not move around with some degree of regularity,” he said in a 2008 interview. “My wife Donna suggested to Aaron that perhaps we could incorporate the stroke into the series and he agreed … it allowed me to come back and not pretend that I had not had a stroke.”

Guillaume’s polished portrayal of the imperious family retainer Benson DuBois endured for nine years, first in three seasons on Soap (1977-80) and then on the spinoff Benson, which ran until April 1986. Both shows were created by Susan Harris.

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