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‘A quiet giant’: Local actors reflect on St. Louis native Robert Guillaume’s influence

J. Samuel Davis (L) and Ron Himes (R) joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh.
Alex Heuer, provided | St. Louis Public Radio
J. Samuel Davis (L) and Ron Himes (R) joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh.

Actor and St. Louis native Robert Guillaume died at the age of 89 on Tuesday, October 24.

His role as the butler Benson won him Emmys for best supporting actor in a comedy in 1979 and best actor in a comedy in 1985, making him the first African-American to win either.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with members of the local acting community about how Guillaume influenced their careers.

“I was best friends with his son Jacques,” said J. Samuel Davis, a local actor, who lived with Guillaume and his son for a time in the early 1980s. “I was influenced by him because he was a black man from St. Louis. He was coming up through the ranks doing Broadway which is what I wanted to do.”

Guillaume played the butler Benson on Soap (1977-81) and its spinoff, Benson (1979-86). Some people may know him as the voice of Rafiki in The Lion King (1994).

“We used to call him a quiet giant,” said Davis. “Robert was the leader of a major TV show long before it was popular for any African-American man to do so. They gave him a spin off because he was so good on Soap.”

Ron Himes, founder and producing director of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, was also aware and appreciative of Guillaume’s contributions, especially in the early days of the company when its home was the 23rd Street Theatre.

“He was always a great role model in terms of the kind of role he played,” Himes said. “The dignity that his characters had and then just sort of his background,” he explained about Guillaume growing up poor in St. Louis but managing to escape poverty.

Listen to the audio below to hear more of Davis and Himes’ reflections of Guillaume.


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Where: Washington University 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity, St. Louis, MO 63130

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St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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