Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Benson Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

In the early '80s, the sitcom "Benson" was a Friday-night, family-friendly staple, starring Robert Guillaume as Benson DuBois, the level-headed and clever "Soap"-butler-turned-head-of-household at the Governor's mansion. The series ran from 1979 to 1986, chronicling the happenings — and conflicts — inside the home of the honest but hapless politician Eugene Gatling (James Noble). Eventually, Benson himself moved up on the totem pole until he ended up challenging Gatling for the position of governor in the series' finale. 

The house's residents included the governor's wiser-than-she-has-any-right-to-be daughter Katie (Missy Gold); German immigrant chef Gretchen (Inga Swenson), whose line "I hear you!" becomes a running gag; the governor's personal secretaries (Caroline McWilliams and Didi Conn) over the course of the series; and Clayton Endicott II (René Auberjonois), the governor's chief of staff. John Taylor (Lewis J. Stadlin), who was chief of staff before Clayton, and press secretary Pete Downey (Ethan Phillips) were also on staff for part of the show. 

It's been more than 35 years since "Benson" left the air, leaving a gap in the TV landscape that was once filled by the show's witty but warm brand of humor. In that time, it's only natural that some of the actors are no longer with us. Here are some of the stars from "Benson" you might not have known passed away. 

Robert Guillaume

As Benson DuBois both on the series "Soap" and "Benson," Robert Guillaume won two Emmys for best leading actor in a series — one in 1979 and one in 1985 — and was nominated for six. He also appeared in shows like "Sanford and Son," "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons," "Good Times," "The Love Boat," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Sports Night," and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." On the big screen, Guillaume voiced the mandrill Rafiki in "The Lion King," and was in "Lean on Me," "Spy Hard," and others.

Though he was sometimes criticized for playing a Black domestic worker in a white household, Guillaume said he wanted Black people to be proud of Benson. "My hope for Benson, beyond television land and beyond the marketplace, is that he will give a sense of integrity and dignity and beauty to Black people, to all people who perform jobs that don't have any glamour," he told the New York Times in 1979. "The reason I am buoyed by Benson is because he is an ordinary man, with the foibles and failures and aspirations of any man. To be able to play such a man makes me enormously happy, because the invisible man who exists beyond television land can then become visible."

Robert Guillaume died on October 24, 2017, at the age of 89. According to his widow, the cause of death was complications from prostate cancer he'd had for 25 years (via the New York Times).

James Noble

James Noble played Governor Eugene Xavier Gatling, Benson's absent-minded and somewhat guileless boss with a young daughter. Noble served in the U.S. Navy in World War II before starting his career in the theater, per Playbill. He first entered TV through the soap opera tradition, with roles on shows like "The Brighter Day," "As the World Turns," "Another World," and "The Doctors." Noble also appeared in movies like "1776," "Chances Are," "Airplane 2: The Sequel," and "10," in which he played Bo Derek's father. His television appearances included guest roles in shows like "McCloud," "The Love Boat," "ABC Afterschool Specials," and "Law and Order," among others. 

On March 28, 2016, the actor died in a Connecticut hospital as the result of a stroke, as reported by the New York Times. Fellow "Benson" actor Rene Auberjonois posted to Twitter a tribute to Noble, calling him "a dear man, a superb actor" and sending love to his family. Noble was 94 years old when he died.

René Auberjonois

René Auberjonois may actually be better known for his work on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" as security officer Odo, but on "Benson" more than a decade earlier, he played Clayton Runnymede Endicott III — Benson's rude, selfish, pompous adversary with insecurity issues. The character joined the show in the second season, and often ended up second-best against Benson in contests of wit or prestige. In one episode, his own father chose Benson to run the family business over Clayton. Ouch.

Auberjonois started out in the theater, gaining multiple Tony nominations and a Best Actor award in 1970 for "Coco." The actor started his TV career in the 1960s and acted until the year of his death. His long and storied career included guest-starring roles and voiceovers on every show from "M.A.S.H." (as Father John Mulcahey) to "Ben 10: Omniverse" (as Azmuth), with semi-regular or regular stints on shows like "Boston Legal," "Snorks," "The New Adventures of Jonny Quest," and more. 

You may also recall Auberjonois's memorable turn in "The Little Mermaid": He was Louis, the French chef who sang "Les Poissons" before attempting to capture a slippery Sebastian (voiced by Samuel E. Wright). "I am all of those characters, and I love that," Auberjonois said in a 2011 interview with the "Star Trek" website (via the Chicago Tribune). "I also run into people, and they think I'm their cousin or their dry cleaner. I love that, too."

René Auberjonois died on December 8, 2019, at the age of 79 from metastatic lung cancer (via the Washington Post).

Caroline McWilliams

Caroline McWilliams played Marcy Hill during the first two seasons of "Benson." She was the personal secretary of Governor Gatling and Benson's close, unlucky-in-love friend. It's unclear why her character was married off at the end of the second season, although fans have speculated that she left to spend more time with her family, or because her character wasn't resonating with audiences the way Inga Swenson's Gretchen Wilomena Kraus did. Others think that the timing appears to favor the idea that McWilliams left "Benson" to marry fellow actor Michael Keaton. The two tied the knot in 1982, had a son in 1983, then divorced in 1990. 

McWilliams was another who came out of the soap world, starring on "Another World" and "Guiding Light" early in her career. Like Robert Guillaume, she was on "Soap" prior to "Benson," and her later career included guest roles on "Cagney & Lacey," "Nearly Departed," and "Beverly Hills 90210," in which she played Luann Pruit, Ray's (Jamie Walters) mom. 

She stopped acting after her role on "Judging Amy" in the early 2000s, and on February 11, 2010, Caroline McWilliams died from complications of multiple myeloma, a type of cancer (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Billie Bird

Billie Bird, whose full name was Billie Bird Sellen, was a latecomer to the "Benson" family, joining in Season 6 as the governor's chef when Gretchen is promoted to administrative assistant. Her character Rose Cassidy is a funny, sassy widow on a fixed income who often references her husband, the late Mr. Cassidy, although in many episodes, her role is fairly minor. Bird was also a Hollywood veteran by the time she joined the cast, with roots in vaudeville and experience on USO tours entertaining troops in Vietnam. She was one of the only women to ever receive an honorary membership in the Green Berets, as reported by the Kansas City Star (via Newspapers.com).

If you watched TV in the latter half of the 20th century, you probably saw Bird someplace, like in "Sixteen Candles," "Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol," "Police Academy 6: City Under Siege," "Ernest Saves Christmas," and "Home Alone" — or maybe even "Dennis the Menace" (John Hughes was apparently a fan). And those were just the movies. Bird had guest-starring roles in a whole bunch of TV shows, from "Remington Steele" and "Facts of Life" to "CBS Summer Playhouse" and "The Wonder Years."

Billie Bird died of Alzheimer's disease on November 27, 2002. She was 94 years old (via Variety).