Robert Guillaume, First African-American Actor to Play Phantom, Dies at 89

Obituaries   Robert Guillaume, First African-American Actor to Play Phantom, Dies at 89
The Emmy-winning Benson star passed away following a battle with cancer and a long career on the stage and screen.
Robert Guilluame
Robert Guilluame Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Stage and screen actor Robert Guillaume has passed away at age 89 from complications from prostate cancer, the Associated Press has reported. Guillaume made history in 1990 as the first African-American performer to play the title role in The Phantom of the Opera when he took over from Michael Crawford in the Los Angeles production in 1990.

Robert Guillaume in <i>Phantom of the Opera</i>
Robert Guillaume in Phantom of the Opera

“We cast Robert Guillaume because we auditioned countless people and he, by far, displayed the most authority and elegance,“ director Harold Prince said in a statement released at the time. “He has a lovely voice and a great command and understanding of the role. He has an intellect; he looks like a man who could write symphonies and operas and design buildings.”

Guillaume, a Tony nominee for a 1977 revival of Guys and Dolls, performed on Broadway numerous times throughout his long career. His credits included Finian’s Rainbow, Purlie, and Cyrano The Musical.

Onscreen, the actor was best known as the title star of ABC’s Benson, which earned him an Emmy Award and three Golden Globe nominations. The long-running comedy series (1979–1986), about a former butler who moves up in the world, was a spinoff of Soap, on which Guillaume quickly became a fan favorite. The role earned him his first Emmy Award in 1979.

Other screen credits include the voice of Rafiki in the 1994 Disney classic The Lion King, and the TV series Sports Night, among many more.

In 1999, the actor suffered a stroke but made a speedy recovery, and a few years later he released his autobiography Guillaume: A Life.

Guillaume died at his home in Los Angeles on October 24 and is survived by his wife, TV producer Donna Brown Guillaume.

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