About Benson – the TV sitcom starring Robert Guillaume & Rene Auberjonois (1979-1986)

'Benson' TV show starred Robert Guillaume & Rene Auberjonois (1979-1986)

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Benson was a sitcom offshoot of Soap, and starred Robert Guillaume as the title character, Benson DuBois, the “director of household affairs” for a widowed state governor. The fun lasted for 158 episodes over seven seasons, from September 13, 1979 until April 19, 1986.

The show’s other stars included James Noble (as Governor Eugene Gatling), Inga Swenson (Gretchen Wilhemina Kraus), Missy Gold (Katie Gatling), Rene Auberjonois (Clayton Runnymede Endicott III), Caroline McWilliams (Marcy Hill), Ethan Phillips (Pete Downey) and Didi Conn (Denise Downey).

Robert Guillaume interview: Actor’s style helps make ‘Benson’ a top new TV series

The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida) November 1, 1979

From its trashy beginnings to its just plain silly current state, “Soap,” ABC’s soap opera spoof, has seldom done more than lightly massage my funnybone.

But I’m glad it succeeded. If it hadn’t, chances are that Robert Guillaume would still be a respected stage actor virtually unknown outside of New York City.

As Benson, “Soap’s” rock of sanity, the black butler who served up more sardonic put-downs than meals, Guillaume was the serial’s standout from the start. For his work last season, he collected an Emmy.

But it’s only this season, starring in a spinoff comedy of his own, “Benson,” that Guillaume is getting to demonstrate fully what a fine actor and commanding personality he is.

Vintage TV show Benson, starring Robert Guillaume and Rene Auberjonois

In “Benson,” Guillaume’s character has left the employ of “Soap’s” kooky Tate family, and become household manager for the newly-elected governor of an anonymous state.

Benson’s sarcasm has been muted, partly because he’s now a lead character, partly because it’s not called for as often. He is, after all, working with a higher grade of people.

Governor Gatling (James Noble) is a nice, though hopelessly naive, fellow; Gatling’s daughter Katie (Missy Gold), for all her TV-kid precociousness, is a sweetie pie; and his secretary, Marcie (Caroline McWilliams), is a bright as she is pretty. Even Gretchen Kraus (Inga Swenson), the martinet-like German housekeeper who serves as Benson’s chief foil, occasionally shows a streak of humanity.

ABC’s “The Associates” promised to be the best new comedy of the season, but it hasn’t come close to matching the deft mixture of wit and social consciousness of its pilot episode.

“Benson,” on the other hand, started with a cute but rather frivolous installment, then went up, not down. It has a smart, clean look to it, crisp pacing, and its basic sense of decency, if not always its writing, puts it in the same league with “M*A*S*H” and “Barney Miller.”

Robert Guillaume Jet magazine cover 1986

One particularly affecting episode, shown only a few weeks after the series debuted, boldly opted for romantic drama instead of jokes. Benson fell for a black congresswoman he met in Gov. Gatling’s office.

His initial fear, that she’d look down on him, a glorified butler, was unfounded. She looked beyond the vocation to the man.

Eventually, he broached the subject of marriage, explaining that he’d stayed a bachelor because he was working to put his brothers and sisters through school. Her avowals of love didn’t keep him from being crushed when she turned him down, because her political career came first.

Beautifully acted and written, the episode was touching in the manner TV’s classiest comedies can be. And that quality often characterizes the show.

Last Thursday, a budget cut forced Benson to fire the member of the household staff he determined to be the least essential. The obvious candidate was the pastry chef, an elderly lady everyone loved, and Benson grudgingly dropped the axe.

Benson TV show scene from 1979

Little Katie, who’s wild about Benson, turned on him, calling him mean and heartless.

Feeling like the world’s greatest jerk, Benson was sitting limply on the couch, head in hands, when Gretchen Kraus walked over to him and put her hand on his shoulder.

Surprised by this apparent show of sympathy, Benson looked up and smiled, only to hear the housekeeper deadpan, “The child speaks the truth,” and walk away.

The ending was upbeat, of course; Gov. Gatling had a fatherly chat with Katie about duty and the sad side of having power over other people’s lives, and Benson found the pastry chef another job.

But the emotions displayed in the episode were never false. Many comedy shows tack on sentimental endings or contrive scenes to put a lump in viewers’ throats, but on “Benson,” the warmth runs deep and true.

Not to slight the writers’ contribution fo this, but Guillaume is mainly responsible. He’s a proud, thoughtful man who cares about his craft and about the portrayal of blacks on television. His intelligence, dignified bearing and good will comes out in Benson and, thus, set the whole show’s tone.

Benson TV show scene

At the outset of “Soap,” Guillaume found himself having to defend Benson to blacks who saw the character, his piercing wisecracks notwithstanding, as a stereotype they’d been trying to break out of for years: the domestic servant. But Guillaume, quite rightly, wouldn’t hear of it.

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“They wanted to know, ‘Why play a butler?”‘ the actor said in an interview in Los Angeles a while back. “I said, ‘Why not play a butler?’ They’re human beings. The mere fact that a black was in a position to say something positive was important.

“The same is true with ‘Benson,”‘ Guillaume continued. “Benson is in a comedy, but he’s not a comic. He’s proof that you don’t have to do a vaudeville turn or be a buffoon to be a success.

“The show is a breakthrough for black actors, and I’m proud to be part of it.” Hear, hear.

YouTube video

Rene Auberjonois interview: Stage actor finds fame on ‘Benson’ TV show

Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin) August 7, 1983

Hollywood — Spending an afternoon with “Benson” co-star Rene Auberjonois is a bit like watching one of those graceful public TV presentations of an “artist’s life” — enriching and immensely satisfying.

Beyond a wooden path lined with roses, snap-dragons and bluebells stands his Hollywood Hills home, an airy, sunlit place. It’s ironic that the house is only a short walk from the action and sleaze of Hollywood Boulevard.

It’s much more ironic, considering Auberjonois’ accomplishments, that he is known to much of the public only as the stuffy, persnickety governor’s aide, Clayton Endicott III, on “Benson.”

Rene Auberjonois

Two Tony nominations

Those accomplishments include a Tony for “Coco,” a Tony nomination for “The Good Doctor,” dozens of other stage credits from Shakespearean plays to “Charley’s Aunt,” and the farce, “Chekhov at Yalta.”

Also, he’s a founding member of the prestigious American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

Sitting and sipping ice water at his dining room table, wearing a dark t-shirt and white tennis shorts, Auberjonois looks very different from his video manifestation. His mustache is gone. His dark blond hair falls casually around his ears. His pliable face is relaxed into a pleasant, interested expression.

“People in Walnut, Iowa, likely don’t know me as anyone but Clayton,” Auberjonois said, “but that’s television. I reach more people on a single Friday night (7 p.m. when Milwaukee Brewers baseball doesn’t interfere) than I could if I went on stage every night for the rest of my life. It’s a wonderful thing to reach that many people.

“I’m very happy to be doing ‘Benson.’ And I take the work as seriously as I do ‘Richard III.’ It’s a tremendous responsibility, considering the size of the audience and the amount of money I’m paid (for) 22 weeks a year.”

Benson opening titles/theme video (1980s version)

YouTube video

Worked with co-stars before

He considers his “Benson” co-stars “top-notch.”

“I worked with Robert Guillaume in regional theater. And, in 1963, I did ‘Othello’ with Inga Swenson as Desdemona, although she’d probably rather I didn’t mention the year.”

He adds that with their not-so-richly-recompensed theater backgrounds, “We sometimes look at each other and say, ‘They’re paying us for this!”‘

Certainly, Auberjonois’ early life and ancestry has everything to do with his artistic nature. He’s the grandson of acclaimed Swiss artist Rene Auberjonois (for whom a street was named in Lausanne).

His father, Ferdinand, recently retired, but the younger Auberjonois said his father is “busier than ever” after decades as a foreign correspondent.

At 8, Auberjonois moved from the continent to New York, where his father served as head of the French desk of the Voice of America.

Benson new television show debuts 1979

“We lived on a country road in Rockland County, outside of New York City,” he recalls. “It was really like an artists’ colony, and walking through the area reading the mailboxes was like reading a Who’s Who of the Theater: Helen Hayes, Alan Jay Lerner, Lotte Lenya, Burgess Meredith, John Houseman…”

It was Houseman who became Auberjonois’ mentor and gave him his first job, as an apprentice actor, in Stratford, Connecticut, when he was 15.

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“I’d learned that one of the neighbors — the daughter of an actor-producer who did the Alfred Hitchcock TV series — was going to work up there, and I was so jealous that I sort of started fantasizing that I was going to work there, too. And I started telling people I was going to do it.

“One night at dinner, the phone rang, and my father came in and said, ‘It’s John Houseman, and he wants to talk to you.’ And I had dread in my heart, because I realized what I’d been telling people had gotten back to him.

“I answered the phone, and he said, ‘Well, dear boy, I understand you’re going to be with us this summer, and I just wanted to call and thank you for agreeing to join us.'”

Vintage PR photo - Benson TV sitcom
The Auberjonois family left the Rockland community — and the country — following Auberjonois Sr.’s brush with McCarthy-era witchhunting.

“Although he was totally cleared, there were some big shakeups at that time,” says Rene. “And he chose to leave. He’s been back, and he’s still an American citizen, but he’s lived in England since then.”

Rene lived in England, and learned to love the ways of the English theater before returning to attend Carnegie-Mellon University.

Now another generation of the Auberjonois family is waiting in the wings. Rene and his wife, Judith, a theater critic for a Los Angeles weekly newspaper, are very proud of their 8-year-old son, Remy, an aspiring actor, and their daughter, Tessa, 11, an aspiring ballerina.

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