A Film by Michael Kantor



Ben Vereen

A Broadway star actor-singer-dancer who has made some inroads in TV, Ben Vereen also has seen his career plagued by personal problems, including a near-fatal car accident in 1992. His elastic movements, ready broad smile, and exuberant energy have made him popular with audiences. But Vereen has also shown himself to be a viable dramatic actor with such roles as Chicken George, the mulatto ancestor of Alex Haley, in ROOTS (ABC, 1977). A graduate of NYC’s High School of Performing Arts, the multitalented performer made his Off-Broadway debut not long after completing his studies in “The Prodigal Son” (1965) at the Greenwich Mews Theater. By the following year, he was in Las Vegas, performing in “Sweet Charity,” a show with which he toured in 1967-68. He returned to NYC to play Claude in “Hair” in the Broadway production, before joining the national touring company. Vereen first won real notice on Broadway in 1971, playing Judas Iscariot in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” for which he earned his first Tony nomination. He earned the Tony as Best Actor in a Musical for his galvanizing turn as The Leading Player in “Pippin,” although he did not have the title role. Vereen’s singing “Join us, leave your cares behind you …” on the TV commercials (the first for a Broadway musical) helped filled the theater. He was now a star and seen around town with Liza Minnelli, Bob Fosse, and the elite of Broadway. Vereen would return to Broadway in 1985 in the short-lived “Grind” and replaced Keith David as The Chimney Man in “Jelly’s Last Jam” in 1993.

Like so many others, Broadway success meant a chance to break out into other media. Vereen had first appeared in feature films as a frug dancer in Bob Fosse’s SWEET CHARITY (1969), a lesser role than what he had played on tour. He had a good shot in FUNNY LADY (1975) playing legendary stage performer Bert Robbins, but much of his work landed on the cutting-room floor and the end result was practically a cameo. He co-starred in ALL THAT JAZZ (1979), Fosse’s semiautobiographical film, in which Vereen could have been playing himself. By the ’80s, however, there were only parts in low-budget independent films like 1988’s BUY AND CELL (1988).

First won real notice on Broadway in 1971, playing Judas Iscariot.

The small screen proved more hospitable. BEN VEREEN … COMIN’ AT YA (NBC, 1975), was his shot at a variety series, but the summer tryout, while proving popular with critics and the audience, was too near the end of the variety show cycle. In 1980, ABC teamed Vereen with Jeff Goldblum in TENSPEED AND BROWNSHOE, in which Vereen was the former, a con artist detective. The first episode of the show was a smash, but the ratings inexplicably collapsed and the show was canceled after its initial short run. In 1984-85, Vereen played Uncle Philip, the diabetic relative of WEBSTER on the ABC sitcom, but by 1986, he was the mayor of ZOOBILEE ZOO, the syndicated kids’ show, off prime time TV. He hosted the syndicated tryout show YOU WRITE THE SONGS (1986-87) and reprised the character of Tenspeed Turner on J. J. STARBUCK (NBC, 1988). Vereen displayed his versatility and dramatic abilities in roles ranging from the trumpeter in LOUIS ARMSTRONG: CHICAGO STYLE (ABC, 1976) and Chicken George, the grandson of Kunte Kinte who wins his freedom, but not that of his wife and children, in the landmark miniseries ROOTS. Vereen also appeared in the miniseries ELLIS ISLAND (CBS, 1984) and A.D. (NBC, 1985). Additionally, he was Emmanuel Lewis’ father estranged from his wife in LOST IN LONDON (CBS, 1985). Vereen also continued as a variety performer, playing several characters in the heralded Mary Tyler Moore special MARY’S INCREDIBLE DREAM (CBS, 1976), headlining BEN VEREEN — HIS ROOTS (ABC, 1978), and guesting on specials hosted by Lynda Carter and David Copperfield.

Ben Vereen

Born: October 10, 1946
Key Shows
  • "Hair"
  • "Jelly's Last Jam"
  • "Jesus Christ Superstar"
  • "Pippin
Related Artists
  • Ann Reinking
  • Tim Rice
  • Stephen Schwartz
  • Robin Wagner
  • Tony Walton
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber
In 1987, Vereen’s daughter Naja was killed in a freak accident when a truck overturned on the car in which she was a passenger. The actor curtailed his workload somewhat, but reemerged in 1991 as the grumpy boss of the detectives on SILK STALKINGS, a USA Network series on which he appeared for two seasons. In 1992, Vereen was walking on Pacific Coast Highway and was struck by a car driven by record producer and composer David Foster. While he was severely injured and early reports were that he might not survive, within a year he was wowing audiences on Broadway as Keith David’s replacement in “Jelly’s Last Jam.” In 1995, Vereen co-starred in a musical version of “A Christmas Carol” for the holiday season.

Source: Excerpted from Baseline. BaselineStudioSystems — A Hollywood Media Corp. Company.

Photo credits: Photofest