Robert Guillaume Remembers The Lion King and His Struggle to Find Good Roles for African-Americans in Film

On a recent day in Los Angeles the charismatic, now-83-year-old Robert Guillaume recalled with little effort and copious charm the skepticism he initially felt at the idea of a cartoon film about a lion who becomes the king of the animals, for which the filmmakers wanted him to voice a wise mandrill-baboon. "When they first described it to me I wasn't all that impressed with the idea," he admitted. "It didn't make a lot of sense." Eventually the parts combined into Disney's 1994 classic The Lion King, and Guillaume saw what made it all so special. "I still think it's kind of a miracle, that it must have touched people very deeply when they first saw it."

Indeed: Disney's The Lion King eventually became one of the Mouse House's most beloved animated films of the period spanning 1989-1999, when films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas turned into worldwide successes and hit multi-media franchises. With indelible songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, handsome African-set visuals, and familial themes aimed at children, The Lion King easily won the hearts of a generation of young moviegoers. (It will be re-released theatrically in a limited two-week engagement before becoming available in 3-D on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3-D.)

Movieline sat down with the Tony-nominated stage veteran and two-time Emmy-winning star of Soap and Benson to discuss his work over 17 years ago as The Lion King's sage baboon shaman Rafiki, how he finally found the right voice after weeks of searching, why he considers the film a "miracle" and how the lack of decent roles for African-American actors decades ago switched his focus from film to other mediums in which he thrived.

When The Lion King was first described to you, was there something that made it sound special to you? Could you tell back then that it would become such a beloved film?

I didn't know that it was going to be a special project. It sort of grew on me. When they first described it to me I wasn't all that impressed with the idea. It didn't make a lot of sense. "The Lion King." And when they said they wanted me to be in it, I thought they meant they wanted me to play the Lion King! I began to fantasize about that, and then they quickly brought me down and said, "You're going to play the monkey." I said, "I've been playing monkeys all my life."

At what moment did you realize that you had something distinctive?

After we searched to find the voice for the character -- we did that for about two weeks -- and we finally hit on something that we thought would work, we came up with the voice and characterization that was Rafiki. That was both a relief and a revelation. It was a relief because it said, okay -- when they said, "We think that will work," it meant the search was over and I had at least another day to work. And the revelation came later, when I heard and saw the character that we had created. Saw it in interaction, in the story. And that's when I began to get the idea that hey -- we've really got something here!

The process of making an animated film is like that, with so many pieces assimilated together over a long period time and not much of an idea of how the final product might turn out. Do you remember the first time you saw the finished film and what you thought of it?

I don't know if I felt anything all that special about it, but I do remember thinking that it works. I didn't know at that time how impressive that story would be, as people saw it. I still think it's kind of a miracle, that it must have touched people very deeply when they first saw it. And I think that manifests itself in children. Children seeing it, and they see those animals and they see the story that doesn't talk down to them but still talks to them at their level -- I think that is very impressive about that story.

As someone who was 13 when The Lion King came out, I can confirm that it's one of the films of that generation that really stayed with young people. I wonder if kids these days feel that way about their films.

I don't think so. I think The Lion King is special. And I think that is, again, a miracle. Because miracles in things like this, they happen because a number of things come together at the same time, at the same point. Good storytelling, great characterizations, animation and elements that by themselves might not mean that much, but coming together it's a force. And it's beautiful to see when you see a story like The Lion King. I have not been impressed as much by any cartoon.

It seems to speak to adults as well more than a lot of children's animated films do.

I think so too, and I'd be reluctant to say that anywhere else. [Laughs]

You have this great, iconic voice -- this wonderful voice. It's such a rare thing. People know your voice.

I think they would know anyone's voice if they'd heard it over and over long enough!

Really! There's special, unmistakable quality to your voice.

[Smiling] OK, I'll accept that.

You've done a lot of voice work during your career, and also a lot of television and stage work. Looking back at your work over the years, would you have liked to have done more film as well?

Yes. It's where, had I had my druthers, I would have put myself. In a good film, of some sort. But when I think of the terrain that African-Americans have been forced to reside in, in film, it's not all that promising. I didn't see it as promising. Because I see a vast, vast terrain, but I don't see African-Americans existing in much of it.

Has that changed much, do you think, to where we are today?

No, I don't think so.

So you just found better opportunities for yourself elsewhere?

Yeah... but I was never offered much in film. I did a few things, but they never amounted to much.

You mentioned that it took a while to find the right voice for Rafiki. Why was that the case, and what sort of different directions were you going in?

I think it's part of the normal process, because we had nothing else to relate it to. Make it sound like such and such -- you couldn't go in any direction like that. Because we didn't know, with all these animals and all this space, where are we? And I think in some strange, or not so strange kind of way, the voice of Rafiki sets the story in Africa.

Partly due to the sageness of his character, and his identity as a shaman type of figure.

Mmm-hmm. And I think in a lot of ways it was the accent itself. I couldn't use just any foreign accent. I had been playing around in my head at parties and things, trying to sound like a Jamaican or something like that, and I was never any good at that. I never was able to put together a decent Jamaican accent, because I love it so much! But this was my interpretation of that kind of accent, at that time. And while I fell short of Jamaican, it was another ersatz character put together that worked, oddly enough.


  • The Cantankerist says:

    "We all know him as Rafiki"? Oh, yeah, there was that SEVEN-SEASON 150+ EPISODE NETWORK SERIES he played the TITLE CHARACTER in, a spinoff of another show in which he played that same character, but... yeah. Sure. That's how we all remember him. The animated mandrill with about five lines.
    And yes, I know this is done on the back of the Lion King rerelease. All the same. We're not all under 40 here.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Oh yeah, I forgot. Guillaume is still (I think) the only African-American actor to win the Best Actor In A Comedy Emmy. It was not for Rafiki.

  • Jen Yamato says:

    Alas! If only we could have talked about Benson all day. Nowhere does the piece say "We all know him as Rafiki." Nor do we all know him as only Benson. He's Robert Guillaume.

  • Brian says:

    It doesn't say it in the article, but it does in the Facebook post that brought me (and presumably The Cantankerist) here.

  • Jen Yamato says:

    Updated with a Benson/Soap citation.