‘The ruckus,’ he says, ‘was a puzzlement to me’
The most lurid tease in prime time TV history was ABC’s Soap. The working premise was more or less that husbands are either philandering or impotent, wives adulterous, sons transsexual and daughters nymphomaniacal. But even that story line would never have worked—the series is one of maybe three (out of 23 this fall) to survive—without Robert Guillaume, 49, who plays the condescending butler Benson. He wallows in the honkie protagonists’ dirty laundry, but no way will he wash it.
Guillaume is himself hardly more respectful of the network. “Let’s face it,” he says, “homosexuality in itself is no more funny than heterosexuality. In this day and age it has little shock value. So this comedy is going to make it or fail on its scripts—and therein lies the trouble. The ruckus the series has caused,” he muses, “I couldn’t believe it.” Robert’s original frustration was over cornering the part: “My agent said the network first thought an older Benson wouldn’t be so offensive. Then they were thinking about a black woman. Then a West Indian or a Chinese.”
Of course Guillaume is feeling good enough about the show’s long-run prospects to lease a glorious two-story homestead in trendy Laurel Canyon, though he’s holding onto his Manhattan pad. “You gain a measure of respectability,” he explains, “when you live beyond your means.” Guillaume shares the quarters with actress-singer Fay Hauser. (His 1955 marriage lasted only long enough to produce sons Kevin, 21, and Jacques, 20, but Guillaume never divorced.) Fay, some 20 years his junior, has been his offstage lady since they met in the Broadway musical Purlie, in which he starred in 1972.
“Up until a few years ago the Hausers would have a family reunion every year—both the blacks and the whites,” reports Bob of Fay’s mixed North Carolina plantation heritage. Of her relationship with Guillaume, Fay has only one nit to pick: “Robert hasn’t the vaguest idea how to have fun. Everything is work to him. Acting, singing, jogging, tennis, whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it for keeps.” He responds, “Not true. I complain for fun. I’m one of the world’s more talented kvetchers”—Yiddish for gripers.
Both the workaholism and the mouthing-off were nurtured in the St. Louis ghetto where Guillaume grew up (he Frenchified his last name, Williams, because he “wanted something different”). His father abandoned the family early, and his mother, who had a drinking problem, turned over care of Robert to his grandmother. She was a Catholic convert in her middle years, and Guillaume remembers her as “a wonderful woman, but she had her ways. She resented the church’s formality and to liven things up used to faint once or twice a month coming back from the communion rail.” His own lip made him “terrific in glee club and debating” but got him bounced from parochial school in ninth grade. “Mostly I heard ‘Be a good boy.’ ”
He found no satisfaction in an Army hitch (“My discharge was honorable, but barely”) or subsequently as “the dude, the front man” for a women’s clothing store called Geraldine’s. Ditto for stints as a postal employee, dishwasher, salesman, clerk and streetcar motorman. “I used to sing as I was barreling along, drowning out customers’ screams. I was always crashing into the back of a Packard or Dodge. Then everyone would fall down on the floor, screaming ‘whiplash.’ ” He studied nights at local universities, and in his late 20s Guillaume’s indirection was changed by music teacher Leslie Cha-bay, “the first man ever to say to me, ‘I think you have potential.’ ”
Though he calls himself “an actor who sings,” for most of his Broadway career Guillaume has been a singer who acted in Porgy and Bess, Golden Boy, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well, Purlie and—finally, after two years when “the bottom fell out, nothing happened”—the plummy role of Nathan Detroit in the all-black revival of Guys and Dolls. His current recognition has gotten him a bit as “Kunte Lincoln,” Abe’s long-lost brother, on the upcoming Just for Laughs NBC comedy show, and the chance to appear on Danny Thomas’ charity telethon. Guillaume’s hoping it will get him to Vegas as a headliner—and “the opportunity to give something, maybe teach or contribute to kids in some way. I’m not ready for sainthood,” he notes, “but I am ready to share some of my blessings.”