November 3, 2017
Gone…but not forgotten
November 30, 1927 - October 24, 2017
In my youth, one of the joys of the end of the school day was being able to rush home and see my favorite television shows. Usually this consisted of a healthy (or unhealthy depending on who you ask) dose of afterschool cartoons, such as the embarrassingly amusing He-Man, those robots in disguise, The Transformers and The Go-Bots, and the amazing fantasy of Harmony Gold’s Robotech. As the years went by, I added syndicated television to my routine. At the time, this consisted of earlier seasons of prime-time television shows, as well as television shows that had long ago stopped having new episodes. It was in this capacity that I first came across Soap and Robert Guillaume.
My memories of these times have somewhat faded, but I distinctly remember being aware of Benson, Guillaume’s character in the show. He was no nonsense, didn’t feign respect for people who weren’t worthy of it, and was unafraid. During one season, the Tate’s house was haunted, and who do you think it was that went to confront the demon upstairs? At that time it was common for African-American characters to be used a comic fodder whenever ghosts appeared, especially in cartoons. This often meant they would scream and run as fast as they could in the other direction, yet there was Benson going toward the danger and talking about how his mother had taught him to confront problems.
I was not a regular watcher of Soap, and I doubt I understood it all given my age, but at some point I become aware that the character had been spun off into his own television show. If I remember it correctly, Benson was on soon after reruns of Happy Days, another of my childhood favorites. I ended up watching these shows regularly, much to the chagrin of my parents, who always maintained that I watched too much television in the afternoon. They were probably right.
For some reason, Benson stuck with me. I remember fondly hearing my mother hackle at his duel of insults with the much-overmatched Clayton, his frequently sarcastic responses to Kraus, and the genuine support he gave to Governor Gatling. I remember him solving a murder on a cruise ship, as well as an episode in which he learned of the poor service offered to military veterans and subsequently volunteered to be part of the solution. And I remember his joyful proclamation, “I’m the new lieutenant governor!” It almost brought tears to me eyes.
I was a fan. When The Robert Guillaume Show premiered, I made sure to see it, and when Sports Night premiered, I was right there too. I can’t say I was always the most knowledgeable of fans. When I first heard he had been cast as the Phantom, my eyes rolled. To me, he was Benson, and Benson had never given me any reason to think he could sing. How little I knew back then.
Years later, I was browsing in Border’s when I happened across his autobiography Guillaume: A Life, and immediately my curiosity was piqued. Eventually I purchased it, and what I read was a revelation. Here was a man completely open about his professional successes and personal failures. At times, he even turned the book over to the people in his past and let them relate their chapter in his life, and what they said was not always flattering. Guillaume didn’t hide anything. He had achieved fame late in life, and I have always believed he found reconciliation during that time as well, an acceptance of an imperfect past and a determination to make the present and future different.
It is that that I will most remember him for. While I will always have fond memories of his television work, his dramatic moments in Lean On Me, and his memorable work in The Lion King, to me, his life – and his honesty about it – provides a lesson in determination and passion; it is a cautionary tale of the terrible cost that sometimes comes with that and of the never-ending possibility of finding both true love and contentment. Simply put, it is never too late. That message resonated with me then. It still does today.