‘Benson’ (Season 1): Robert Guillaume steals the show

With the death of Robert Guillaume today, we thought it would be a nice tribute to go back to the first season of Guillaume’s best-remembered role, Benson.

By Paul Mavis

The most entertaining season of the series, Benson‘s first go-around is a welcome trip back to Sitcom-Land, circa 1979. Robert Guillaume is almost the whole show here, and he’s wonderful as the snarky, muttering, disdainful yet loveable Benson. The scripts may not be the most original, but they’re fairly well-written, with plenty of snappy one-liners, while the supporting cast is fine.

Back in the summer of 1977, the most hotly debated show on television hadn’t even debuted yet. Soap, creator Susan Harris’ spoof of soap operas, had generated hate mail, boycotts and nervous advertisers without ever airing a single episode. When it did premiere, America was treated to two hysterically over-the-top dysfunctional families whose sexual hijinks, a threatened sex change, insanity, mob connections, a snotty ventriloquist dummy, and murder, garnered big-time ratings for its network, ABC.

One of the audience’s favorite characters, Benson, the wisecracking butler who seemed to be the only person in the whole show who had all his marbles, was deemed suitable for a spin-off. Premiering on ABC in 1979, Benson, starring Robert Guillaume in the part he originated on Soap, was much more middle-of-the-road in its design and focus, with any controversy kept safely within the confines of a 24-minute plotline that Benson could resolve; the outrageous, frequently instigating multi-arc storylines of Soap were absent from Benson. The spin-off was achieved by inventing a widowed cousin for Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) in the guise of Governor James Gatling (James Noble), who was having a difficult time getting his mansion–and life–in order after his unexpected win at the polls. Benson left the Tate household and joined the naive, bumbling governor as a personal favor to Jessica.

Once there, he found his hands full. Not only did he have to steer Gatling away from the crooked politicians who could easily take advantage of the simple governor, Benson also had to negotiate the tricky office politics that permeated the mansion, including dealing with the stern, disapproving German housekeeper Gretchen Kraus (Inga Swenson) and John Taylor (Lewis J. Stadlen), the officious aide to Gatling. As well, he found himself helping raise Gatling’s precocious daughter Katie (Missy Gold), who spoke, as Benson stated, like “a 47-year-old.” Luckily, Benson had the governor’s competent, loving secretary Marcy Hill (Caroline McWilliams) to help mediate most disputes.

Coming off rather like a cross between the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the TV sitcom hit, The Jeffersons, Benson allowed the wickedly smart-assed Benson of Soap to mellow into a still-waspish (small caps…) but essentially good-guy outsider. The governor, a meek, timid lost soul who could also be brashly dense when he was sure he was in the right (which was never), was almost constant prey for those who wished to manipulate him for their own political or economic gain (hence the Mr. Smith angle). Fortunately, he had the wise, smart-mouthed Benson (performing the same “commentary-on-action” role not unlike Marla Gibbs’ Florence from The Jeffersons) who actively influenced the outcome of the daily political and personal problems encountered by the governor.

Heavily hyped and predicted to be one of the new fall hits of 1979, Benson indeed scored some nice numbers its first season, hitting number 23 for the year in the Nielsen ratings, beating out its fast-fading host series Soap, which had started its inevitable slide in the ratings (it was 25th for the year). Considered a shoo-in on Thursday nights, following the previous season’s number one show for the year, Laverne and Shirley, Benson actually charted higher than that sitcom, which slid disastrously out of the Top Thirty when loyal fans couldn’t find it in its usual Tuesday night slot. With ratings winners Barney Miller and Soap following it, Benson looked like it had a solid start to its run.

And although it ran for seven long seasons, Benson never charted again in the celebrated Nielsen Top Thirty. A solid middle-level performer, I suspect fans of the character had the same reaction I had to Benson after its first season or so: once they started to make Benson rise to the top of the political echelon within the show, his “outsider” status was compromised. In several interviews, Guillaume and the creators of the show all commented on how they were pleased to be able to show an African-American succeeding on a series without resorting to the cliched stereotypes that were often associated with such characters on other series. That’s one of the strong points of the series as a whole.

However, the minute Benson became “respectable,” it changed the dynamics of the series. I’m not discussing race here; I’m discussing a classic comedy structure that allows the audience to root for the anarchistic, rebellious nose-thumber, especially when he’s pitched against the established order, such as the government or politics in general. It’s a proven formula that goes, at least in terms of discussing movies, as far back as Chaplin, the Marx Bros., Keaton and W. C. Fields. And Guillaume’s beautifully tempoed snide asides and grumblings as he skewers the rich and influential (I love his half-muttered, half-swallowed insults that people just manage to hear) fit perfectly into that tradition. So the minute the series took the Benson from Soap and made him the more respectful, the more dutiful and ultimately the more respectable Benson of Benson (they even made him Lieutenant Governor in a later season), the edge went out of the character. Just as they did with The Fonz on Happy Days (to use a similar example in TV at the time), as they made him more and more respectable (from punk to garage owner to school teacher to father), they made him less and less rebellious and relevant–and far less funny, too. And so too with Benson. It was inevitable from the start, considering how the show was structured, and after the first or second season, I started to tune out.

Getting back to Guillaume, though; I can’t say enough about how funny and charming he is as Benson here in this first season. A classically trained stage actor, Guillaume can put about twenty different spins on variations of the same put-down, and he has a stage presence that immediately attracts the audience to him. He’s the whole show here, and while Noble has great moments as the goof-ball governor (Noble, a New York stage actor, too, has a nice rapport with Guillaume), the character often times becomes too sappy, too sweet for his own good. That “sweetness,” applied to many of the characters in Benson, would crop up increasingly as the show matured, further blunting the edge that Soap people expected when tuning in to Benson.

Still, you have to admit that Benson is a cannily crafted piece of entertainment, with sharp, funny lines (most of them Guillaume’s), good casting, and a smooth, self-assured production that almost guarantees the viewers that they’re going to witness a polished piece that will make them laugh (although, like most sitcoms from this era, that incessant laugh track, used to sweeten the live audience feed, can be a little much). The series’ strongest season, Benson‘s first season still manages big, solid laughs during most of the episodes of this clever comedy.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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