Question: I know I'm right and my girlfriend's wrong about this: Wasn't Benson a spinoff of Soap? — Ron R., Hutchinson, Kans.
Televisionary: That you are and that it was, Ron. Robert Guillaume left the popular Soap and jumped to his own series in September 1979, when his butler character went to work for Jessica Tate's cousin, Gov. James Gatling (James Noble), and his clan. And by the time he did so, the Benson folks benefited from the fact that the outspoken Guillaume had already worked the bugs out of the character on his previous show.
"Back then," an unnamed member of the Soap cast said of that series' early days, "things could get real uncomfortable around the set, almost scary. At note sessions, when we were going over scripts, Bob fought violently about his lines. He felt that the Benson character had no substance. That all he had were one-liners. That he had an ethnic responsibility to get some dignity into the role. He'd be explosive. It was tense: 'No, I can't say that. No, I won't say that. Just what do you know about black people?'"
Guillaume made no apologies for standing up for his views. "Oh, occasionally the producers would invest the character with an ingredient I wasn't altogether pleased with," he told TV Guide in 1979. "I told them one day, 'This is not going to be one of those plantation-darky roles.' I wanted it well understood that Benson was performing a job, that he had specific responsibilities, but that he was an independent man outside of that. It was employer-employee, not master-servant. If he had to give comfort to Jessica Tate, then it had to be as one human being to another, not as a loyal servant. It was not going to be Gone with the Wind."
After time passed, however, Guillaume realized that "the public knew what Benson stood for and liked him — and if I wanted to receive some benefits from that, I had to begin to control my jumping up and down."
Control it he did. Of course, Guillaume wasn't alone in being outspoken in his criticism. However, he aimed it outward while costar Noble, for instance, teed off on himself. The reason he was able to portray the discombobulated Gatling so well, he explained in 1982, was because he could relate — a little too well. "I think there's a part of me that's like the governor or I couldn't play him," he said. "Sometimes, for instance, my answer to somebody's questions will have nothing to do with the question — I've just been thinking about something else. Gatling does that. Not because he's dumb — I don't play down his mental capacities — but because he's just a little confused about what's going on in his head at the moment and what's going on in the outside world."
Hearing that, Noble's wife, actress Carolyn Coates, jumped to defend her husband against himself. "Jim may seem a little absent-minded at times because he's likely to be thinking about something he just read in Scientific American or a psychology book instead of listening to someone's small talk," she said. "But there's none of Gatling's naïveté in Jim. He's just been through too much in his life to be naïve."
She had a point there. Noble faced kamikaze attacks as a naval officer in World War II, lost an older brother in that conflict, endured hearing problems that started in childhood and went through long, lean periods in between acting gigs. Thus, he knew when he had it good on this show, and so did his best friend on the set, Guillaume.
When the series launched, Guillaume was too cautious to celebrate his success just yet, but the star certainly had a scenario in mind. "Maybe in the second part of the season," he said. "Maybe, then, we'll go to some big Hollywood restaurant and sit around like pashas. Or, better, go back home to the 79th Street Café. It's a dive, but I got good buddies there. That's what I'd like to do. Yeah. Go back someplace like the 79th Street Café, set up everybody at the counter: 'What are you having? Ham 'n' eggs? Wheatena? What's the special today, George?' That would be the way to celebrate, yeah. People don't celebrate the proper way because, see, celebrating has to do with, 'I told you so.' So you have to go back to where those people said, 'Hey, you'll never make it'; that's where you have to go and celebrate.... You got to go back to your home, your old neighborhood. Show up with fistfuls of money. Yeah, come into town with a fistful of money and a white charger. Ride down the main street beating a white charger and listen to them: 'Hey, who was that, ain't that Bob? Gah-lee. Man, hey, he's the one who just made it.'"