Vereen, Ben 1946–
VEREEN, Ben 1946–
Full name, Benjamin Augustus Vereen; born October 10, 1946, in Miami, FL; son of James (a factory worker) and Pauline (a theatre wardrobe mistress, migrant worker, and maid) Vereen; married Andrea Townsley (marriage ended); married Nancy Brunner (a dancer), 1968; children: (first marriage) Benjamin; (second marriage) Malakia, Naja (deceased), Kabara, Karon. Education: Attended High School of Performing Arts, New York City; attended Pentecostal Theological Seminary, c. 1965.
Addresses: Agent—Paul Kohner, 9300 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 555, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; Bernard Carneol, Progressive Artists Agency, 400 South Beverly Dr., Suite 216, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Manager—Sterling/Winters Company, 10877 Wilshire Blvd., 15th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90024; Hillard Elkins, Elkins Entertainment, 8306 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 438, Beverly Hills, CA 90211.
Career: Actor, singer, and dancer. Performed in nightclubs and theatres throughout the world, including appearances with the Ron Davis Dancers and Arthur Mitchell Dance Company. Appeared in television commercials. National Dance Week, spokesperson. American Lung Association, chair, 1977; established Naja Vereen Memorial Scholarship Fund, 1988; American Heart Association, chair of Dance for Heart campaign; Celebrities for a Drug–Free America, founding member, president, national celebrity spokesperson, and motivational speaker, including talks at juvenile detention facilities; Big Brothers, spokesperson; international chair for a sudden infant death syndrome organization; participant in benefits and awards presentations.
Member: Actors' Equity Association, American Guild of Variety Artists, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Screen Actors Guild.
Awards, Honors: Theatre World Award, Variety–New York Drama Critics' Poll winner, best supporting actor, and Antoinette Perry Award nomination, best supporting or featured actor in a musical, all 1972, for Jesus Christ Superstar; Antoinette Perry Award, best actor in a musical, 1973, and Drama Desk Award, outstanding performance, both 1973, for Pippin; Clio Award (with others), 1974, for television commercial for Pippin; George M. Cohan Award, American Guild of Variety Artists, 1976; Golden Globe Award nomination, best male acting debut in a motion picture, 1976, for FunnyLady; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding lead actor for a single appearance in a drama or comedy series, and Television Critics' Circle Award, both 1977, for Roots; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding continuing or single performance by a supporting actor in a variety or music program, 1977, for The Bell Telephone Jubilee; honorary L.H.D., Emerson College, 1977; Entertainer of the Year, Rising Star, and Song and Dance Star awards, all American Guild of Variety Artists, 1978, for a solo show; eight Emmy Award nominations, 1978, all for Ben Vereen–His Roots; Israeli Cultural Award, 1978; Image awards, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1978 and 1979; Israeli Humanitarian Award, 1979; Annual CableACE Award nomination, National Cable Television Association, best actor in a theatrical or musical program, 1983, for Pippin: His Life and Times; Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award, 1983; Golden Globe Award nomination, best performance by an actor in a supporting role in a series, miniseries, or motion picture made for television, 1985, for Ellis Island; named king of Brooklyn, Back to Brooklyn Festival, 1985; Dolores Kohl Education Foundation Award, 1987, for Zoobilee Zoo; Victory Award, 1990; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding supporting actor in a miniseries or special, 1992, for Intruders; Helping Enforcement Reach Our Streets Award, city of Miami, FL, 2002; Lifetime Achievement Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2003; honorary doctorates from St. Francis College, Brooklyn, New York City, and Columbia College, Chicago, IL.
The Prodigal Son, Greenwich Mews Theatre, New York City, 1965.
Brother Ben, Sweet Charity (musical), Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, NV, 1966.
Sweet Charity (musical), San Francisco, CA, 1966.
Claude, Hair (musical; also known as Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical), Biltmore Theatre, New York City, 1968.
Flight announcer, Golden Boy, Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, IL, 1968.
Alternated roles of Hud and Berger, Hair (musical; also known as Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical), Aquarius Theatre, Los Angeles, 1968–1970.
Judas Iscariot, Jesus Christ Superstar (musical), Mark Hellinger Theatre, New York City, beginning 1971.
The leading player, Pippin (musical), Imperial Theatre, New York City, c. 1972–1973.
Night of 100 Stars (also known as Night of One Hundred Stars), Radio City Music Hall, New York City, 1983.
Leroy, Grind (musical), Mark Hellinger Theatre, 1985.
I'm Not Rappaport, San Francisco, 1989.
Give My Regards to Broadway, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1991.
Chimney man, Jelly's Last Jam (musical), Virginia Theatre, New York City, 1993.
A Christmas Carol, Madison Square Garden, New York City, 1995–1996.
Broadway Rocks! (benefit concert), China Club, New York City, 2001.
Destination: Groove (benefit performance), Limelight Theatre, New York City, 2001.
Fosse (musical revue), Broadhurst Theatre, New York City, 2001.
Host, Love, Janis (concert), Bryant Park, New York City, c. 2001.
Midge, I'm Not Rappaport, Booth Theatre, New York City, 2002.
The Exonerated, 45 Bleecker Street Theatre, New York City, 2003.
Very Special Arts Festival, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, 2004.
Performed a solo show at Walt Whitman Theatre, Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, Brooklyn, New York City, 2003; also frequent performer in other concert, cabaret, and benefit shows, including regional appearances in his solo show.
Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck and police officer, Sweet Charity (musical), U.S. and Canadian cities, 1967–1968.
Hud, Hair (musical; also known as Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical), U.S. cities, 1968.
The leading player, Pippin, U.S. cities, 1968.
Johnny Williams, No Place to Be Somebody, National Shakespeare Company, U.S. cities, 1970–1971.
Billy Flynn, Chicago (musical), U.S. and Canadian cities, 1999.
Midge, I'm Not Rappaport, U.S. cities, 2002.
Stage Director and Choreographer:
The Odd Potato (children's musical; also known as Broadway Sings The Odd Potato), Peter Norton Symphony Space, New York City, 2003.
Frug dancer, Sweet Charity (also known as Sweet Charity: The Adventures of a Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved), Universal, 1969.
Carlos, Gas–s–s–s! (also known as Gas!, Gas–s–s–s, or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It, and Gas–s–s–s, or It May Become Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It), American International Pictures, 1970.
Bert Robbins, Funny Lady, Columbia, 1975.
O'Connor Flood, All That Jazz, Columbia/Twentieth Century–Fox, 1979.
Himself, Cycling through China, 1982.
Stanley, Sabine, 1982.
Leatherface (The Winch), The Zoo Gang (also known as Winners Take All), New World, 1985.
Shaka, Buy & Cell, Trans World Entertainment, 1988.
Voice of Phineas, Once upon a Forest (animated), Twentieth Century–Fox, 1993.
Richard Barrett, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Warner Bros., 1998.
Mr. Gwin, I'll Take You There, DEJ Productions, 1999.
Whistlin' Willie Weston, The Painting, 2002.
Television Appearances; Series:
Host, Ben Vereen ... Comin' at Ya, NBC, 1975.
E. L. "Tenspeed" Turner, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, ABC, 1980.
Uncle Phillip Long, Webster, ABC, 1984–1985.
Host, You Write the Songs, syndicated, 1986.
Mayor Ben, Zoobilee Zoo, syndicated, 1986.
E. L. "Tenspeed" Turner, J. J. Starbuck, NBC, 1988.
Captain "Hutch" Hutchinson, Silk Stalkings, CBS and USA Network, 1991–1993.
Television Appearances; Miniseries:
"Chicken George" Moore, Roots, ABC, 1977.
Herb Douglas, The Jesse Owens Story, syndicated, 1984.
Roscoe Haines, Ellis Island, CBS, 1984.
Ethiopian, A.D. (also known as A.D.—Anno Domini), NBC, 1985.
Gene Randall, Intruders (also known as They Are among Us), CBS, 1992.
Rudolphe Lermontant, Feast of All Saints (also known as Anne Rice's The Feast of All Saints), ABC, 2001.
Himself, Broadway: The American Musical, PBS, 2004.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Louis Armstrong, Louis Armstrong—Chicago Style, ABC, 1976.
Paul Williams, Lost in London, CBS, 1985.
Joe, Jenny's Song, syndicated, 1988.
Itsy Bitsy Spider, Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme, The Disney Channel, 1990.
Morris Fontaine, The Kid Who Loved Christmas (also known as The Boy Who Loved Christmas), syndicated, 1990.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Himself, The Bell Telephone Jubilee (also known as Jubilee!), NBC, 1976.
Devil, Noah, and man, Mary's Incredible Dream, CBS, 1976.
Host, Ben Vereen—His Roots (also known as The Sentry Collection Presents Ben Vereen—His Roots), ABC, 1978.
Rockette: A Holiday Tribute to Radio City Music Hall, 1978.
The Stars Salute Israel at 30, ABC, 1978.
The Cheryl Ladd Special, ABC, 1979.
Guest, Uptown—A Tribute to the Apollo Theatre (also known as Uptown: A Musical Comedy History of Harlem's Apollo Theatre), NBC, 1980.
Himself, "Walt Disney ... One Man's Dream," The Wonderful World of Disney, CBS, 1981.
The leading player, Pippin: His Life and Times, 1981.
Guest, Christmas in Washington, NBC, 1982.
Night of 100 Stars (also known as Night of One Hundred Stars), NBC, 1983.
Himself, Lynda Carter: Body and Soul (also known as Body and Soul), CBS, 1984.
Salute to Lady Liberty, CBS, 1984.
Secret World of the Very Young, CBS, 1984.
Host, Here's Television Entertainment, syndicated, 1985.
Host, 115th Edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, CBS, 1985.
The ABC All–Star Spectacular, ABC, 1985.
An All Star Party for "Dutch" Reagan, CBS, 1985.
Breakin' Through (musical), 1985.
52nd Annual King Orange Jamboree Parade, NBC, 1985.
Host, Walt Disney World's Very Merry Christmas Parade, ABC, 1986.
Kraft Salutes the Magic of David Copperfield ... in China (also known as The Magic of David Copperfield VIII: Walking through the Great Wall of China), CBS, 1986.
Miss Hollywood, 1986, ABC, 1986.
116th Edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, CBS, 1986.
Cohost, Walt Disney World's Happy Easter, ABC, 1987.
Host, CBS's Happy New Year, America, CBS, 1987.
Host, Six Hours for Life, syndicated, 1987.
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, NBC, 1987.
A Star–Spangled Celebration, ABC, 1987.
Leader of circus band, The 14th Annual Circus of the Stars, CBS, 1989.
Host from New York, Starathon '90: A Weekend with the Stars for Cerebral Palsy, syndicated, 1990.
Host from New York, The 25th Anniversary MDA Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, syndicated, 1990.
Bob Fosse: Various Dances, PBS, 1990.
The Chipmunks Rockin' through the Decades (animated), NBC, 1990.
Sea World Summer Night Magic, ABC, 1990.
Himself, Children's Miracle Network Telethon, syndicated, 1991.
Himself, George Burns' 95th Birthday Party, CBS, 1991.
Himself, The 65th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, NBC, 1991.
Host from New York, Starathon '91: Weekend with the Stars for Cerebral Palsy, syndicated, 1991.
Host from New York, Starathon '92: A Weekend with the Stars, syndicated, 1992.
Himself, David Foster's Christmas Album, NBC, 1993.
In a New Light '93, ABC, 1993.
The Golden Globe's 50th Anniversary Celebration, NBC, 1994.
The 69th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, NBC, 1995.
Gail Sheehy's New Passages, ABC, 1996.
Narrator, Vaudeville: An "American Masters" Special, PBS, 1997.
I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African–American Arts, PBS, 1999.
Fosse (also known as From Broadway: Fosse), PBS, 2001.
Himself, Roots: Celebrating 25 Years, NBC, 2002.
Television Appearances; Awards Presentations:
The 49th Annual Academy Awards, 1977.
Presenter, The 52nd Annual Academy Awards, 1980.
The 36th Annual Tony Awards, 1982.
The 40th Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1986.
Presenter, The 19th Annual NAACP Image Awards, NBC, 1987.
Golden Globe Awards, syndicated, 1987.
Golden Globe Awards, TBS, 1989.
Danny Kaye's International Children's Awards for UNICEF, The Disney Channel, 1992.
The 47th Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1993.
The 50th Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1996.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Guest, Soul Train, syndicated, 1975.
Himself, The Muppet Show, syndicated, 1976.
Guest, The Carol Burnett Show, CBS, 1977.
Guest, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, NBC, 1979, 1980.
Dr. John Hanson, "Pal–i–Mony–o–Mine/Does Father Know Best?/An 'A' for Gopher," The Love Boat, ABC, 1982.
Puss, "Puss 'n' Boots," Faerie Tale Theater (also known as Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theater), Showtime, 1982.
Himself, "Bobby Bittman's Retirement," SCTV Network 90 (also known as SCTV Comedy Network and SCTV Network), NBC and [Canada], 1983.
Himself, "That's Entertainment," Webster, ABC, 1983.
Himself, "Ty's One Man Band," Reading Rainbow, PBS, 1983.
Voice of Dragonweed, The Charmkins (animated), syndicated, 1985.
Isaac West, Bordertown, Global Television and The Family Channel, 1989.
Ben McQueen, "The Life and Death of Chick Sterling," Booker, Fox, 1990.
Commander Dr. Edward M. LaForge, "Interface," Star Trek: The Next Generation (also known as The Next Generation and Star Trek: TNG), syndicated, 1993.
Himself, "Pinske Business," The Nanny, CBS, 1994.
Dr. Andre Novak, "Illusions of Grandeur," Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (also known as Lois & Clark and The New Adventures of Superman), ABC, 1994.
Lou Smith, "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse," The Fresh Prince of Bel–Air, NBC, 1994.
Louie, "Eliminate the Middleman," New York Undercover, Fox, 1995.
Voice of Snake, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child (animated), HBO, 1995.
Ulysses Dodd, "Secret Service," Touched by an Angel, CBS, 1996.
Sweet Billy, "Desperately Seeking Mickey," Second Noah, ABC, 1997.
Himself, "Della Reese: Outspoken Angel," Biography, Arts and Entertainment, 1998.
Senator Stanford Parks, "Party Girl," SOF: Special Ops Force (also known as SOF, Inc., S.O.F., Inc., S.O.F. Special Ops Force, Soldier of Fortune, and Soldier of Fortune, Inc.), syndicated, 1998.
Lawrence Taggert, Sr., "It's All in the Family," Promised Land, CBS, 1999.
Lawrence Taggert, Sr., "The Visitor," Promised Land, CBS, 1999.
Lawrence Taggert, Sr., "Wounded Hearts," Promised Land, CBS, 1999.
Royal, "Taps for Royal," The Jamie Foxx Show, The WB, 1999.
Himself, Bob Fosse: The E! True Hollywood Story, E! Entertainment Television, 1999.
Himself, "Ben Vereen: The Hard Way," Biography, Arts and Entertainment, 2000.
Himself, Sammy Davis Jr.: The E! True Hollywood Story, E! Entertainment Television, 2001.
Guest, Theater Talk, PBS, 2001.
A. R. Whitworth (Prisoner #02W424), "Good Intentions," Oz, HBO, 2002.
Guest, On Stage, 2002.
Appeared in Nick Jr. Rocks, Nickelodeon; appeared in episodes of other series.
Television Appearances; Pilots:
E. L. "Tenspeed" Turner, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, ABC, 1979.
Guest, Opryland: Night of Stars and Future Stars, NBC, 1981.
Nightclub pianist, "The Saint" (also known as "The Saint in Manhattan"), broadcast as an episode of CBS Summer Playhouse, CBS, 1987.
The Nerd, NBC, 1996.
Guest, Radio Playbill, 2002.
Stop Your Half–Steppin' Mama, Buddah, 1976.
Soundtrack Albums; Stage Productions:
Jesus Christ Superstar, Decca, 1971.
Pippin, Motown, 1972.
Grind, Jay Records, 1998.
Soundtrack Albums; Films:
Funny Lady, Arista, 1975.
Performer in the soundtrack recording for All That Jazz.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 4, Gale, 1993.
New York Post, November 14, 1995; January 24, 2001.
Playbill Online,http://www.playbill.com, September 6, 2002.
Theatermania.com,http://www.theatermania.com, July 8, 2002.
"Vereen, Ben 1946–." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3428300173.html
"Vereen, Ben 1946–." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. 2005. Retrieved May 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3428300173.html
Vereen, Ben 1946–
Ben Vereen 1946–
Actor, singer, dancer
Ben Vereen is a versatile entertainer who can sing, dance, perform comedy routines, and act in serious dramas. He is also an impassioned spokesman for a drug-free lifestyle, having learned firsthand the high cost of substance abuse. Vereen has struggled with cocaine addiction, the loss of a teenaged daughter, and even a life-threatening automobile accident. Through it all, the star of such popular shows as Pippin, Roots, and Zoobilee Zoo has charmed audiences of all ages and tastes. Star-Ledger reviewer Charles Einstein observed that, unlike so many of today’s performers, Vereen offers a wealth of talents to his work, both live and on film. “The name Vereen...starts with V,” wrote Einstein, “and V is for victory, and for vigor, and most of all for variety.”
Vereen was still in his twenties when he found Broadway stardom in Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Pippin, and he was barely in his thirties when he took a major role in the vastly popular miniseries Roots in 1977. His career seemed charmed as he was lavished with awards and offered plum movie and television parts. His high profile lifestyle did not shield him from tragic reality, however. A recreational drug user for years, he became seriously addicted to cocaine after his daughter was killed in a 1987 automobile accident. Only after entering a drug rehabilitation program was Vereen able to see his way clear to stardom again. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Vereen lamented “the amount of time I lost—the time I lost with my family, and, of course, job opportunities.”
Vereen made up for those lost opportunities by founding Celebrities for a Drug-Free America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating young people about the dangers of drugs. Vereen has hosted variety benefit shows and has traveled across the nation to speak to high school students and corporate executives about healthy alternatives to a drugaddicted lifestyle. Vereen’s activities were curtailed for some months in the summer of 1992 as he underwent operations and physical therapy after an automobile accident near his home in Malibu, California. By September of 1992 the vivacious performer was predicting a complete recovery from severe head and bodily injuries and a speedy return to work. “The prognosis is very good,” he maintained in USA Today. “I was really blessed....I’ve been given the opportunity to come all the way back.”
Born Benjamin Augustus Vereen, October 10, 1946, in Miami, FL; son of James (a paint factory worker) and Pauline (a theater matron) Vereen; married second wife, Nancy Brunner (a dancer); children: (first marriage) Benjamin; (second marriage) Malakia, Naja (deceased), Kabara, Karon. Education: Graduated from High School for the Performing Arts, New York, NY; attended Pentecostal Theological Seminary, New York.
Actor, singer, dancer, 1965—. Principal theater appearances include The Prodigal Son; Sweet Charity, 1966; The Golden Boy, 1968; Hair, 1968-70; Jesust Chris Superstar, 1971; Pippin, 1972; Grind, 1985; and I’m Not Rappaport, 1989. Principal motion picture appearances include Sweet Charity, 1969; Funny Lady, 1975; All That Jazz, 1979; and Buy and Cell, 1988. Major television work includes Ben Vereen... Comin’at Ya, 1975; Roots (miniseries), 1977; Ben Vereen: His Roots, 1978; Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, 1980; Webster, 1984-85; Eills Island (miniseries), 1984; Silk Stalkings, 1991— the films Louis Armstrong—Chica-go Style and The Jesse Owens Story; and the syndicated Zoobilee Zoo. Founded Celebrities for a Drug-Free America.
Selected awards: Variety-New York Drama Critics’ Poll winner for Jesus Christ Superstar; Tony Award and Drama Desk Award, both 1973, and CLIO Award, 1975, all for Pippin; George M. Cohan Award, 1976; Television Critics Circle Award, 1977, for Roots; eight Emmy Award nominations for television special Ben Vereen: His Roots, 1978; NAACP image Awards, 1978 and 1979.
Addresses: Agent —Lee Solomon, William Morris Agency, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.
1946, one of nine children of James and Pauline Vereen. When he was still very young, his family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up alternately dreaming of becoming a dancer and a preacher. Vereen’s mother had left a job as a migrant worker to serve as wardrobe mistress for a group of vaudeville performers. She encouraged young Ben to dance, sing, and look to the stage for a career. Her influence was challenged by Vereen’s godmother, a devout Christian and a minister’s wife. Vereen remembered in the Detroit Free Press that sometimes he would go with his godmother and her husband to a church service, only to find that they were the only ones in the building. “I’d think we could go [home],” he said, “but my godmother would start quoting scripture, ’Where two or three are gathered in My name...’ and we’d have church like it was a full house. So that’s how I was raised... to give it all you got.”
The highly charged atmosphere of the Pentecostal church service helped Vereen to sharpen his sense of the dramatic—and his voice. He sang solos as a child, and as a teen he performed with a group known as the Sensational Twilights of Brooklyn. He also received dancing lessons as a youngster at local talent schools in Brooklyn.
His junior high school principal encouraged Vereen to audition for the prestigious High School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan. Vereen had never heard of the school, but he was willing to try his luck. “I was a real hick,” he admitted in Ebony magazine. “All the other guys [at the audition] had on tights and ballet shoes and there I stood in bermuda shorts and sneakers. They really didn’t know what to do with me, but I got in.” Vereen did well at the high school, finding a niche in modern dance and excelling in voice. After he graduated, he tried to find work in the New York theater but was unsuccessful, save for a brief appearance in a gospel musical called The Prodigal Son.
By 1965 Vereen was out of work and pessimistic about his chances for a successful stage career. He returned to his other love, religion, and enrolled at Manhattan’s Pentecostal Theological Seminary. He stayed at the seminary six months, becoming more and more cynical about the training he was receiving. With the help of a former drama teacher, he finally found steady theatrical work in a summer stock company and opportunities to dance with the Ron Davis Dancers and the Arthur Mitchell Dance Company.
In the fall of 1966 Vereen attended a “cattle call” for a new staging of the musical Sweet Charity. He stood on stage, shoulder-to-shoulder with all the many other hopefuls to be looked over by the producers and director of the show. Most of those auditioning were quickly eliminated, but director Bob Fosse—a legendary Broadway choreographer who had signed to work on Sweet Charity —recognized Vereen’s talent. Fosse began to work with the young entertainer, helping Vereen improve his stage technique.
Vereen acknowledged in the Atlantic City Star-Ledger that Fosse showed him the way “to dance forever.” He taught Vereen to curb his unbridled vigor, to pace himself into stylistic interpretations. “What he taught me,” Vereen explained, “was that you don’t have to throw yourself around.” A warm rapport developed between Fosse and Vereen, and later they collaborated on Vereen’s Tony Award-winning part in Pippin, as well as a stirring dance routine for the film All That Jazz.
Another mentor who proved important to Vereen was the late entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. Vereen met Davis during the filming of Sweet Charity in 1968, and the two men became friends. That same year Vereen earned a part in the musical Golden Boy, starring Davis. Vereen eventually moved up through the cast, achieving a very important role. He asserted in the Detroit Free Press that Davis gave him the encouragement he needed to make strides in the profession: “He was my mentor. He was my dad when I needed a dad, my best buddy when I needed a buddy.... You’ll never see the likes of him ever again, so let’s be thankful that we had him.”
After working with Davis, Vereen moved straight to Broadway for a role in the rock musical Hair. Once again he jumped from part to part, finally stepping into the lead. Hair was a controversial production about psychedelic drugs and the peace movement, but it provided a showcase for Vereen’s talents. After traveling with the cast of the show for some time, the performer was offered another controversial role—that of Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar. Vereen’s singular voice and dramatic flair allowed him to present Judas as a sympathetic character rather than a textbook villain. The entertainer expressed in Newsday that the rock opera became a “spiritual thing” for him. “I feel I’m getting closer and closer to what Jesus was really talking about,” he said during the Broadway run of the show.
In 1972 Bob Fosse tapped Vereen for a part in an offbeat musical called Pippin. While rehearsing the show—a story based loosely on the life of King Charlemagne and his son Pepin—Fosse and Vereen added more and more emphasis to Vereen’s character. When Pippin opened on Broadway in October of 1972, Vereen carried the show, singing and dancing through a surreal stage landscape. The following year Vereen won both a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for his work in the show, and the NBC television network offered him a summer variety show called Ben Vereen... Comin’at Ya.
Ben Vereen’s most memorable role to date was his portrayal of “Chicken George” in the 1977 television miniseries Roots. As one of the pivotal characters in that drama, Vereen appeared in several episodes, aging from a teenager to an old man. Pippin had brought Vereen Broadway stardom, but Roots made him a superstar. Decades after it was first aired, Roots continued to be one of the most-watched shows of all time, and millions of Americans saw Vereen’s “Chicken George.” He won a Television Critics Circle Award for his performance in the series, and a follow-up ABC television network special, Ben Vereen: His Roots, earned 8 Emmy Award nominations in 1978.
Numerous offers of work followed on the heels of Vereen’s success in Roots. He starred in the television series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe in 1980 and appeared regularly on the popular situation comedy Webster in 1984 and 1985. He took a principal role in the television miniseries Ellis Island in 1984 and hosted a syndicated children’s show, Zoobilee Zoo. He also took the lead in two television movies about important historical figures: Louis Armstrong—Chicago Style and The Jesse Owens Story.
In addition to an already dizzying schedule, Vereen developed a live stage act that he performed in nightclubs all over the world. The hectic pace fueled his desire for illegal drugs, especially cocaine, and he spent vast amounts of money on his habit. Nevertheless, he was able to keep working and to provide a luxurious home in Englewood, New Jersey, for his second wife and five children.
Vereen’s activities came to an abrupt halt in the early months of 1987. In December of 1986 his teenaged daughter, Naja, was killed in an accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. Consumed with sorrow and regret for not spending more time with his family, the performer began to further abuse drugs and became seriously addicted. “It got dangerous for me in June of ’87,” he admitted in an Associated Press wire story. “After I lost my daughter... I lost it completely and I got really bad. I couldn’t recognize myself.” Vereen characterized himself in the San Francisco Chronicle as one of “the living dead” during the months after the tragedy. His other children finally confronted him and begged him to seek help.
Vereen entered rehabilitation and was able to quit using drugs. After his recovery, he became one of Hollywood’s most visible crusaders against drugs. His work as founder of Celebrities for a Drug-Free America has earned more than $500,000 for drug education campaigns. Just as important, the star himself is not shy about the responsibility he and his generation must take for popularizing recreational drug use. At a speech given at a New Jersey high school, Vereen was quoted in the Star-Ledger as saying that he began taking drugs in the late 1960s, because his peers in the theater were doing it too. “You are the victims of our stupidity,” he told his teenaged audience. “We said it was cool to smoke marijuana, to drop LSD, to snort cocaine. I want to apologize.”
On June 9, 1992 Vereen again experienced tragedy. During the late afternoon hours of that day, he fell asleep at the wheel of his car and crashed into a tree on a highway near Los Angeles. He was not seriously hurt in the accident, and he passed sobriety tests administered by the police. Very early the next morning, however, he was walking on a stretch of unlit road near his Malibu home and was struck by a neighbor driving home late from work. Vereen was thrown 100 feet by the impact of the crash and suffered serious head and internal injuries requiring 4 hours of surgery. He was in critical condition for several days.
Throughout the rest of the summer, Vereen underwent physical therapy at a hospital on the East Coast, and by September of 1992 he was able to report that he had recovered almost completely. His CBS television series, Silk Stalkings, resumed filming, and he was slated to portray an FBI agent in the film The Taking of Gary Feldman. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart, Vereen vehemently denied rumors that the accidents were part of a bizarre suicide attempt, insisting, “I’m better than I’ve ever been. I’m thankful to be alive. I’m thankful especially for all the prayers.... They gave me courage.”
Associated Press wire report, August 22, 1989.
Detroit Free Press, September 14, 1990.
Ebony, May 1973.
Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1992.
Newsday, September 28, 1971.
New York Times, November 5, 1972.
Oakland Press (Pontiac, MI), August 30, 1992.
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 8, 1989.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 13, 1989.
Star-Ledger (Atlantic City, NJ), December 10, 1989; December 29, 1991.
USA Today, September 1, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a taped interview with Mary Hart for Entertainment Tonight, ABC-TV, November 10, 1992.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Johnson, Anne. "Vereen, Ben 1946–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1993. Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870600070.html
Johnson, Anne. "Vereen, Ben 1946–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1993. Retrieved May 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870600070.html