Meet Robert Guillaume, the talented actor behind the animated character ‘Rafiki’ in The Lion King

Stephen Nartey April 27, 2023
Robert Guillaume/Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Guillaume perhaps stumbled into the world of acting by accident. He majored in music at St. Louis University and Washington University. During this period, he dealt with the post-high school dilemma of every young black graduate. He worked as a postal clerk and streetcar driver to fund his education, and overcame the challenges of growing up in the segregated South to make a name for himself in the entertainment industry.  

Raised by his grandmother, he experienced racial injustice firsthand, but his determination and talent propelled him to New York, where he achieved success on stage and in voice acting, leaving a lasting legacy in the world of entertainment. He experienced a career breakthrough in 1957 when he won a nine-week classical music summer scholarship to Aspen, Colorado. It was at this point in his life he encountered Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, who offered him the invitation to join Karamu House Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio.

It was Karamu Robert who changed his name from Williams to Guillaume, which is the French version of the name. He met Ron O’Neal through Karamu, who would later be cast in Superfly TNT in 1973. During the 1960s and 1970s, Guillaume spent a major part of his decade in music theatre and drama while touring Europe in the musical, Free and Easy, according to History Makers.

Born on November 30, 1927, in St. Louis, Missouri, as Robert P. Williams, Guillaume grew up during a time of deep racial segregation in the southern states of the United States. He had his education at St. Nicholas School, where he showed promise as a singer. His role models were Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and William Warfield.

Though he was expelled from high school, he returned to St. Joseph High School to complete his education after a short stint in the military. Despite facing discrimination and limited opportunities, Guillaume found solace in his passion for performing. He developed his talents and nurtured his love for theater, dreaming of a better life beyond the constraints of segregation.

In pursuit of his dreams, he moved to New York, where he immersed himself in the theater scene. He worked tirelessly for 19 years, honing his craft and building a reputation as a versatile and talented actor. His breakthrough came with his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in the Broadway production of “Guys and Dolls,” which earned him critical acclaim.  

He tasted fame when he won an Emmy Award for his role as the acerbic butler, Benson, on ABC’s hit sitcom, Soap in 1979. This success marked the beginning of a thriving career on the stage, with Guillaume earning a reputation as a skilled and charismatic performer.

In addition to his accomplishments on stage, he made a significant impact in the world of voice acting. He became widely recognized as the voice of Rafiki, the wise and beloved mandrill in Disney’s animated classic, “The Lion King.” His iconic performance brought the character to life, capturing the hearts of audiences around the world.

Guillaume’s vocal talents were also showcased as the narrator in the animated series, “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child,” where he continued to captivate audiences with his rich and resonant voice. Throughout his career, Robert was known not only for his talent as an actor but also for his integrity and grace.

He broke barriers as a black actor in a predominantly white industry, paving the way for future generations of performers. He used his platform to speak out against racism and discrimination, and was a trailblazer in promoting diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry. Guillaume sadly passed away on October 24, 2017, at age 89.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: April 27, 2023


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