Benson TV show: A look back at the brilliance of Robert Guillaume & Rene Auberjonois (1979-1986)

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

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Benson is a television sitcom that aired from 1979 to 1986, serving as a spin-off from the show Soap. It follows the character Benson DuBois, originally the butler in Soap, as he transitions to the role of head of household affairs for a governor. As the series progresses, Benson climbs the career ladder within the political landscape, even running for governor himself.
Years on air: 1979 to 1986
# of seasons: 7
# of episodes: 158

Cast/characters:

  • Benson DuBois (portrayed by Robert Guillaume): The titular character, originally a butler who rises through the ranks to become the state budget director, lieutenant governor, and eventually runs for governor. Known for his wit, wisdom, and ability to bring humor into serious situations.
  • Governor Eugene X. Gatling (portrayed by James Noble): The well-meaning but often clueless governor whom Benson serves. Gatling is kind-hearted but relies heavily on Benson’s guidance.
  • Gretchen Wilhemina Kraus (portrayed by Inga Swenson): The German-accented housekeeper of the governor’s mansion. She often finds herself at odds with Benson, although they share mutual respect.
  • Marcy Hill (portrayed by Caroline McWilliams): The governor’s secretary who is professional and efficient. She is friendly with Benson and leaves the show after the second season.
  • John Taylor (portrayed by Lewis J. Stadlen, later by Rene Auberjonois): The press secretary in the governor’s office. Initially portrayed by Stadlen, the character was later recast and renamed Clayton Endicott III.
  • Clayton Endicott III (portrayed by Rene Auberjonois): The uptight, and often antagonistic, chief of staff to Governor Gatling. Replaces John Taylor as the governor’s aide.
  • Pete Downey (portrayed by Ethan Phillips): A reporter who often hounds the governor and his staff, sometimes serving as a comic foil.
  • Katie Gatling (portrayed by Missy Gold): The governor’s precocious daughter who looks up to Benson as a father figure.
  • Denise Stevens Downey (portrayed by Didi Conn): A secretary in the governor’s mansion who later becomes Pete Downey’s wife.
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When it comes to memorable television, the Benson TV show holds a special place in the archives. Airing from 1979 to 1986, the series was more than just a spin-off from its parent show, Soap. While it provided ample comedy, the show also took on social and political matters, making it both entertaining and thought-provoking.

The genesis of the Benson TV show

The story of Benson starts with a character from another show: Benson DuBois, a butler in the soap opera spoof, Soap. The character’s unique blend of humor and wisdom made him a standout, deserving of his own platform.

Thus, Benson was born, chronicling the adventures of Benson DuBois as he climbs the career ladder, from running a governor’s household to aiming for the governor’s seat himself.

Robert Guillaume brought the character of Benson DuBois to life with an irresistible blend of humor and gravitas. Far from serving as mere comic relief, Benson was often the most level-headed person in the room. His insights and clever one-liners didn’t just elicit laughs; they often served up wisdom in easily digestible bites.

The Benson TV show broke racial barriers

Debuting in a period when racial diversity was not the norm on American television, Benson took steps in the right direction. The show featured a Black man in a position of authority, challenging the status quo and breaking down racial stereotypes. While not overly preachy, the show subtly presented themes of social justice and equality.

Vintage TV show Benson, starring Robert Guillaume and Rene Auberjonois

Highlight episodes and notable storylines of the Benson TV show

Benson had its share of episodes that went beyond mere humor. Whether it was tackling issues like public-sector strikes or navigating political challenges, the series had something for everyone. Guest appearances from Soap characters added another layer of intrigue.

However, the series finale left viewers hanging, with a cliffhanger that never got resolved on screen. Benson runs for governor against his friend and incumbent, Governor Gatling, but the show ends before revealing the election outcome.

Later interviews with the show runner clarified that if the show had continued, Benson would have lost the gubernatorial race but landed a spot as a US senator — maintaining his political influence in a different but significant way.

Awards and recognition for the Benson TV show

Accolades weren’t scarce for Benson. The show received numerous nominations, but the pinnacle was Robert Guillaume winning an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. The recognition highlighted the actor’s contributions, as well as the quality of the show.

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). After the series ended, many of the actors continued to flourish in other roles, both on stage and on screen.

The Benson TV show may have ended, but its legacy lives on. With a thoughtful mixture of comedy and socio-political topics, the series managed to be both entertaining and impactful.

Below, we have reprinted some interviews with Guillaume and Auberjonois that were published first back when the program was on the air.

Benson theme song & opening credits (1980s version)

The Benson theme song, composed by George Tipton, serves as a cheerful prelude to each episode. Rather than using lyrics, the song relies on a catchy, upbeat instrumental melody.

This tune does an excellent job of setting the tone for the show, capturing its mix of lighthearted humor and subtle gravitas. The music conjures a welcoming atmosphere, effectively inviting viewers into the world of Benson DuBois and the quirky characters that populate his universe.

YouTube video

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.

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.”

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 witch-hunting.

“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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02/19/2024 08:49 am GMT

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