Remembering Robert Guillaume

Composer Robert Wykes on a student with “the personality to go with that talent”

Robert Guillaume, who died Oct. 24, was among the most celebrated actors of his generation — a Tony Award nominee who also won a pair of Emmy Awards, for his portrayal of the ABC-TV character Benson DuBois, and a Grammy Award for his audiobook version of “The Lion King.”

But before making his Broadway debut, the St. Louis native studied voice and musical theory in the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Robert Wykes, professor emeritus of music, remembers Guillaume’s time on campus:

Robert Guillaume at the premier of Tim Burton’s film “Big Fish” in 2003. (Photo: Shutterstock)

“Robert was a student in 1955, my first year on the faculty. Leslie Chabay, then the distinguished professor of voice, had become Robert’s mentor because he already had a professional-level tenor — and the personality to go with that talent.

“Robert, who was just a year younger than I, was placed in the advanced theory course I had been talked into giving. The class by-passed the conventional freshman theory. It was like an introduction to Schenkerian analysis — in fact, we were doing Bartok!

“But after a class or two, Robert put up his hand and asked, ‘What about the music of the people?’

“Being a hot shot just out of grad school, I was dumbfounded — and made aware of my own narrow view of music. And I did begin including spirituals as a part of my course!

“Robert had a lot of forward thrust about this talent and his goals. He had that rare gift we call ‘presence,” which gave him gave him an advantage in the world of on-stage performance. Those of us who were aware of his professional progress were not entirely surprised that he moved along with few setbacks to stardom.”

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