Early on a Wednesday morning in 1999, Robert Guillaume was called down to Stage 6 on the Disney lot. He was one of the stars of “Sports Night,” playing Isaac Jaffe, the boss at the fictional cable network that hosted a sports show. The crew was done lighting the set that served as his office, and Tommy Schlamme, our director, was ready to shoot.
But Robert wasn’t responding to the calls that went out over the intercom. A PA was sent up to his dressing room. The PA kept knocking, but there was no answer. In a few moments we would know that Robert was on the other side of the door but that he was unconscious due to the stroke he’d suffered minutes earlier.
During a hospital visit early in his recovery, I told Robert and his extraordinary wife, Donna, that Isaac Jaffe’s office would be waiting any time he wanted to come back to the show. I’d given the character a stroke too, so any physical or speech impairment would be explained. Nine weeks later Robert walked onstage for the season one finale. This man was strong as a tree and he was determined. Robert died Oct. 24 at the age of 89.
Among the cast, the crew and his many fans, he was larger than life. We knew him as Benson, of course, and we knew him from his thunderous turns on Broadway, but mostly we knew him as the person we least wanted to disappoint. He was true north as an actor, as a company member and as a man. We’ll miss our friend very much, and we’ll always be better for having shared a stage with him.