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Robert Guillaume, the respected, Emmy award-winning stage actor who is probably best known as Benson DuBois in both the television series, Soap, and its spinoff, Benson, has died at the age of 89. What was Guillaume’s cause of death? How did he die?
Guillaume passed away from complications of prostate cancer on Tuesday, October 24, 2017. During his lifetime, he transcended a difficult childhood to become a respected figure on the American stage, on television screens, and even as an operatic singer, according to The Root. Guillaume had lived with prostate cancer for 25 years, and his wife, Donna Brown Guillaume, provided his cause of death to the New York Times. He died at home. He had previously suffered a stroke in the 1990s.
According to The Root, Guillaume was born “into poverty in St. Louis on Nov. 30, 1927” as Robert Peters Williams, but he changed his surname, choosing a French version. His grandmother rescued him from his mother’s rejection. “He was raised by his loving, strict grandmother, who sent him to Catholic school. In his autobiography, Guillaume: A Life, Guillaume said that his mother, an alcoholic and a prostitute, rejected him because of his dark skin,” reported The Root. The book opened with the jarring line, “I’m a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums of St. Louis.”
Guillaume worked as everything from a postal worker to a street car driver before he turned to acting, but he was able to transform the character of Benson, “a black domestic worker in a white household” into a man who would “never be servile,” by drawing on the richness of his life experiences, The New York Times reported. He found stability with his wife Donna in the 1980s, and they had a child together named Rachel, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Although known best for the Benson character, Guillaume did have an accomplished career in musicals. “Among Guillaume’s achievements was playing Nathan Detroit in the first all-black version of ‘Guys and Dolls,’ earning a Tony nomination in 1977. He became the first African-American to sing the title role of ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ appearing with an all-white cast in Los Angeles,” The Chicago Tribune reported.
Guillaume won Emmys for Soap and Benson (the latter ran from 1979 through 1986). “He was also known as the the voice of Rafiki in ‘The Lion King,’ for which he also won a Grammy for a spoken word recording,” Daily Variety reported. He starred on ABC’s Sports Night sitcom in the 1990s, made guest appearances on other television programs, as well as appearances in a smattering of movies, such as Big Fish by Tim Burton, according to Daily Variety.