Remembering Robert Guillaume

I never met the multi-talented Robert Guillaume face-to-face; however, I did have several telephone conversations with him.

These talks were made possible by H.B. Barnum. Barnum is a Houston, Texas born pianist, arranger, record producer, songwriter, and former child actor.

For decades Barnum was Aretha Franklin’s music director. The legendary producer lived next door to my family in the Aliso Village projects in Los Angeles.

The passing of Guillaume caught me completely by surprise. 

I am and will continue to be a firm believer in African people owning and controlling our own media.

I was deeply disappointed after reading the December 21 – January 3 edition of NOW magazine. NOW’s “R.I.P. 2017 Year in Review” section failed to mention two GIANT Africans born in America –Robert Guillaume and Cuba Gooding Sr. who joined the ancestors in 2017.

This is horrible when you consider that Guillaume and Gooding Sr. were not “minor league players.”

Both played in the “major league” of the entertainment industry.

Cuba Gooding Sr. (April 27, 1944 – April 20, 2017) was an African born in the United States with Barbadian roots.

Gooding Sr. was a singer and actor who was the lead vocalist of The Main Ingredient.

He sang lead on the smash hit, “Everybody Plays the Fool”.

Gooding Sr. was the father of the Academy Award winning actor Cuba “Show Me the Money” Gooding Jr. Here is how Wikipedia described Guillaume: “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, television and film.

“For his efforts, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, and twice won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of the character Benson DuBois: once in 1979 on Soap and in 1985 on Benson.

“He also won a Grammy Award in 1995 for his spoken word performance of an audio book version of The Lion King.”

He changed his name to Robert Guillaume to make it more distinctive (Guillaume is French for William). Reuters pointed out when he died, “He was raised by his strong-willed grandmother in a St. Louis slum after his alcoholic mother gave up her children and his father abandoned the family.”


Africans and our allies loved Guillaume because he refused to be a buffoon or coon.

The St. Louis-born Guillaume once said: “To me, Benson was the revenge for all these stereotyped guys who looked like Benson in the ‘40s and ‘50s and had to keep their mouths shut”.

Guillaume explained that he had second and third thoughts about playing Benson. He said he loved the irreverence of the character Benson DuBois.

Guillaume continued, “I had found a way to make people laugh without being a buffoon and without being stupid, or servile or seemly idiotic.

“And that to me was great. That was cool. ‘Cause I could earn the money then.

“One of the things I was trying to avoid was “dignity”. That terrible term that you’re either a buffoon if you’re black or you play it with “dignity”.

“I hated that idea all together, because I know that dignity did not make people laugh.

“I wanted desperately to make people laugh, so I found a way to say what I was going to say in the script without demeaning black people or myself.”

Guillaume’s role was reminiscent of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson

Guillaume’s role was reminiscent of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson who played Rochester on Jack Benny’s television series.

In coon comedy, the joke is always on or about us (African people). In coon free comedy, the joke is mostly on those who exploit and oppress us and Negros who give them a Flava Flav, “Ya Boy!”

The next time NOW wraps up another year, they ‘‘better ask somebody” as Snoop Dogg once opined.

I will never forget watching Guillaume on the Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson.

Carson asked Guillaume to talk about Black cowboys and Guillaume’s reply went something like: “I don’t think you want to know the real deal. Let me just promote what I am doing currently.”  

Gil Scott-Heron once told me that he refused to appear on the Tonight Show until Bill Cosby guest-hosted the program.

He said it was too hard for him to bite his tongue about black people being on the bottom of the economic barrel.

Scott-Heron worried that he might have said or done something that could have ended his career.

Guillaume is part of the Black Radical Tradition on the artistic plain.

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