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Hines, Gregory

Hines, Gregory

February 14, 1946
August 9, 2003


Jazz tap dancer, singer, actor, musician, and creator of improvised tap choreography, Gregory Oliver Hines was born in New York City, the son of Maurice Hines Sr. and Alma Hines. He began dancing at the age of three, turned professional at age five, and for fifteen years performed with his older brother Maurice as The Hines Kids, making nightclub appearances across the country. While the Broadway teacher and choreographer Henry LeTang created the team's first tap dance routines, the brothers learned to dance by watching such great tap masters as Charles "Honi" Coles, Howard "Sandman" Sims, the Nicholas Brothers, and Teddy Hale, wherever and whenever they performed in the same theaters. In 1964 Maurice Sr. joined his sons' act as a drummer, changing the group's name to Hines, Hines, and Dad, and they toured internationally, frequently appearing on The Tonight Show. After years of on-the-road travel, the younger Hines became restless and left the group in his early twenties, "retiring" to Venice, California, where he formed the jazz-rock band Severence. He released an album of original songs in 1973.

When he moved back to New York City in the late 1970s, Hines immediately landed a role in The Last Minstrel Show. The show closed in Philadelphia but launched him back into performing; just a month later came Eubie (1978), a certified Broadway hit that earned him the first of four Tony nominations. Comin' Uptown (1980) led to another nomination, and Sophisticated Ladies (1981) a third. In 1992 Hines received the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his riveting portrayal of the jazz man Jelly Roll Morton in George C. Wolfe's production of Jelly's Last Jam, sharing a Tony nomination for choreography for that show with Hope Clark and Ted Levy.

Hines made his initial transition from dancer-singer to film actor in Mel Brooks' hilarious The History of the World, Part I (1981), playing the role of a Roman slave who in one scene sand-dances in the desert. He followed that in quick succession playing the role of a coroner in Wolfen, an allegorical mystery directed by Michael Wadleigh. In 1984 he starred in Francis Ford Coppola's film The Cotton Club (1984), which reunited him with his brother, Maurice. The fierce virtuosity of Hines's tap dancing is seen in the White Nights (1985), in which he played an American defector to the Soviet Union opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov. In 1988 Hines starred in a film that combined his penchant for both dance and drama, Tap, the first dance musical to merge tap dancing with contemporary rock and funk musical styles; it featured a host of tap legends, including Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs, Harold Nicholas, and Hines's costar and show business mentor, Sammy Davis Jr.

Hines's extensive and varied film resume includes teaming with Billy Crystal in director Peter Hyam's hit comedy Running Scared, and with Willem Dafoe in the Southeast Asia military thriller Off Limits. He starred in William Friedkin's dark comedy Deal of the Century with Sigourney Weaver and Chevy Chase; Penny Marshall's military comedy Renaissance Man, costarring with Danny DeVito; The Preacher's Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, once again directed by Marshall; Waiting to Exhale, with Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston for director Forest Whittaker; and Good Luck, with costar Vincent D'Onofrio. In 1994 Hines made his directorial debut in the independent feature Bleeding Hearts, a contemporary romantic drama exploring the precarious relationship between a thirty-year-old white male radical and a black female high school student.

Hines's work in television was equally diverse. In 1989 he created and hosted Tap Dance in America, a Public Broadcasting Service television special that featured veteran tap dancers, established tap dance companies, and the next generation of tap dancers. The film was nominated for an Emmy Award, as was his performance on Motown Returns to the Apollo. Hines made his television series debut in 1998, playing Ben Stevenson, a loving single father hesitantly reentering the dating world on the series The Gregory Hines Show. Throughout an amazingly varied career, Hines continued to be a tireless advocate for tap dance in America and in 1988 lobbied successfully for the creation of National Tap Dance Day, now celebrated in forty cities in the United States and in eight other nations.

Like a jazz musician who ornaments a melody with improvisational riffs, Hines improvised within the frame of the dance. His tap "improvography" demanded the percussive phrasing of a composer, the rhythms of a drummer, and the lines of a dancer. While being the inheritor of the tradition of black rhythm tap, he was also a proponent of the new. "He purposely obliterated the tempos," wrote Sally Sommer, "throwing down a cascade of taps like pebbles tossed across the floor. In that moment, he aligned tap with the latest free-form experiments in jazz and new music and postmodern dance."

Hines died in Los Angeles at the age of fifty-seven.

See also Davis, Sammy, Jr.; Glover, Savion; Musical Theater; Tap Dance

Bibliography

Bandler, Michael J. "Tapping into Stardom." American Way (December 10, 1985): 2126.

Dunning, Jennifer. "Gregory Hines, Versatile Dancer and Actor, Dies at 57." New York Times (August 11, 2003).

Graustark, Barbara. "Tapped For Stardom." American Film (December 1984): 2834.

Sommer, Sally. "Tap Happy: Hines On Tap." Dance Magazine (December, 1988): 4650.

Sommer, Sally. "Gregory Hines: From Time Step to Timeless." New York Times (August 14, 2003).

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Updated by author 2005

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