Insolent butler goes to work for a US Governor.
1979 - 86
This spin-off of the Susan Harris-created farce 'Soap' sent the Tate family’s insolent African-American butler Benson (Robert Guillaume) to the mansion of Jessica Tate’s bumbling cousin, Governor James Gatling (James Noble). In other words, Benson (who finally had a last name, DuBois) went from one dysfunctional family to another.
We never learned the state that Gatling ran, but we did meet his young daughter Katie (Missy Gold), his German housekeeper and Benson’s nemesis Gretchen Kraus (Inga Swenson), the governor’s secretary Marcy Hill (Caroline McWilliams) and chief aide John Taylor (Lewis J. Stadlen.) When the show premiered on ABC in September 1979, Benson’s job was running the governor’s household. But he soon became involved in the workings of the executive mansion, helping Gatling out of more than one political jam. In the second season, press secretary Pete Downey (Ethan Phillips later to star as Neelix in 'Star Trek: Voyager') joined the administration; Taylor was replaced by the pompous Clayton Endicott III (Rene Auberjonois, who also joined the 'Trek family' as Odo in 'Deep Space 9'), who soon became yet another nemesis for the sarcastic and straight-talking Benson. Also in the show’s second season was Frankie the messenger boy (played by a young Jerry Seinfeld; he lasted only one year).
Season three brought more changes as Benson became the state’s budget director and gained his own secretary, Denise Stevens (Didi Conn), who later married press secretary Pete. Also that season, Gatling found himself dumped by his own political party; he ran for reelection as an independent candidate and won (with help from Benson, of course). Benson also did well in the political arena; in 1984 he was elected the state’s Lieutenant Governor, second-in-command to Gatling.
The final season of 'Benson' brought him a steady girlfriend-fiancée Diane Hartford (Donna LaBrie). Also that season, the friendship between Benson and Gatling became strained when the two ran against each other for governor. But we never knew who won the election; the final episode in 1986 showed the two men patching up differences and watching the election returns on television. (The episode ended just as the TV announcer was about to announce the projected winner.)
It may have been a stretch having Benson rise from butler to a political force, but it worked thanks to Robert Guillaume’s presence and skill for comedy; he won two Emmy awards as Benson DuBois--one as a supporting actor on 'Soap'; the other in 1985 for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. While never a top-20 hit, 'Benson' nevertheless enjoyed a seven-season run--nearly twice as long as its parent.
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