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The Butler Did It

6 Aug, 2007 By: John Latchem

(L-R): James Noble as Gov. Gatling and Robert Guillaume as Benson, posing as an African Dignitary in "The President's Double," on the first-season DVD set of "Benson."

Robert Guillaume wasn't looking for a legacy, but he's glad he found one. The 79-year-old actor, best known as the wise-cracking title character on seminal 1980s political sitcom “Benson,” relished the chance to revisit the series in the lead-up to the release of Benson: The Complete First Season.

The recently released $29.95 three-DVD set from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment contains all 24 episodes from the 1979-80 debut season, plus a video introduction by Guillaume and a half-hour retrospective featurette.

“Benson” began as a spinoff of the controversial sitcom “Soap,” which starred Katherine Helmond as Jessica Tate, and Guillaume as her sarcastic butler, Benson DuBois.

“Most of these characters came out of the fertile brain of Susan Harris,” Guillaume said. “The best thing I can say about Susan was she was crazy. She was an actor's writer.”

The first episode of “Benson” depicts Guillaume's character being sent to help Jessica's cousin, the newly widowed Gov. Gatling (James Noble). Benson stays on as the head of household services for the governor's mansion.

“I felt I was in a nice place,” Guillaume said. “I thought it was good luck because it meant a steady paycheck if we caught on, and we did.”

The show ended its run in 1986 after seven seasons and 154 episodes, and was groundbreaking in its portrayal of a black lead character.

“As time moves on, we take a look and wonder if we actually did what we attempted to do,” Guillaume said. “And I think we did. It's very rewarding. As an African-American, I could look at the show and feel we had done a good job.”

Guillaume said “Benson” was more conventional than “Soap,” but maintained a high level of quality thanks to a talented cast and crew.

“The writers always gave us a pretty good start, and what we would add was a certain devil-may-care approach,” Guillaume said. “It was a mix of spontaneity and zaniness, mixed with a certain attitude always bordering on being nuts.”

During the run of the show, Benson wasn't always limited to heading the household staff. He became the state's budget director in the third season, and the lieutenant governor in the sixth.

“It was just a trajectory we thought might work,” Guillaume said. “We wanted it to come about naturally. We wanted a sense the character was constantly evolving. We thought it might work, and indeed it did.”

That set up a storyline in the seventh year in which Benson ran for governor against Gatling, with the final episode taking place on election night but ending before the results were announced.

“We had been anticipating an eighth and ninth season,” Guillaume said. “And we were canceled at the end of the seventh season, and that left the election up in the air. We had written an episode in which Benson would have won, and the show would have become about him as the governor.”

Although Guillaume said the show really started to gel in the second season, when Rene Auberjonois and Ethan Phillips joined the cast, there were some first-season episodes he remembered fondly. His favorite was “The President's Double,” in which Benson impersonates an African president to foil an assassination plot. The role required a higher level of over-the-top humor than Guillaume was used to.

“I was particularly afraid because there were things I had to try to do and I didn't know they would work,” Guillaume said.

That meant putting faith in the writers and directors, as well as his years of stage training, although Guillaume said he didn't really have a background in comedy.

“I had been acting, and I finally got strong enough to feel I'll just do what I think makes sense, and nothing more,” Guillaume said. “I got sick of going on stage and fidgeting.”

The results paid off for Guillaume, who won two Emmy Awards for playing Benson — one in 1979 as a supporting actor on “Soap,” and the other for his own show in 1985.

“It confirmed I had at least a little talent,” Guillaume said.

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