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Ben Vereen Biography


Home > Actors > V > Vereen, Ben > Biography


Birth Name: Ben Vereen
Born: 10/10/1946
Birth Place: Miami, Florida, USA


Vereen was born in North Carolina on Oct. 10, 1946, but grew up in Brooklyn NY's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. His devout Pentecostal family was headed by a cleaning woman mother and a factory worker father who also served as a church deacon, but despite a brief brush with seminary, Vereen was attracted to performing from the time he first became transfixed watching Sammy Davis Jr. on television. His mother kindly saved a bit of money for Vereen to take lessons at a local dance studio, which prepared him for his stage debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music around age 10. His talent eventually earned Vereen admission to New York's famed High School of Performing Arts, where he had the opportunity to study under acclaimed choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Following his graduation, Vereen landed a gig as his idol Sammy Davis Jr.'s understudy in "Golden Boy" and did some regional theater, but he was disappointed to have to take a mailroom job to make ends meet - a mailroom job where no one appreciated his enthusiastic singing all day.

The following year, however, Vereen was on stage in Las Vegas, NV performing in Bob Fosse's "Sweet Charity." He went on to tour nationally with the show and with "Golden Boy" before returning to New York, where he was cast as Claude in the Broadway production of "Hair," which he also followed on national tour. During that time period, while applying for a passport, Vereen discovered that he was adopted, and that the only mother he had ever known had adopted him as a baby. The stunned rising star decided to postpone searching for his biological family out of respect for the mother who raised him, and while he was not forthcoming in the press about the results of his eventual investigation into his past, some 20 years later, he was finally introduced to several siblings he had never known existed. Meanwhile, his career remained in an upswing with Vereen's feature film debut in "Sweet Charity" (1969) and his first real notice on Broadway - a Tony Award nomination and Theater World Award for playing Judas Iscariot in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical "Jesus Christ Superstar." He took home both a Tony and Drama Desk award the following year for creating the role of legendary song-and-dance emcee The Leading Player in "Pippin." A Broadway star was born seemingly overnight, and Vereen was visible around town with Liza Minnelli, Fosse, and the elite of that era's Great White Way.

As musical theater enjoyed a peak of mainstream popularity during the 1970s, Vereen made for an appealing Broadway ambassador with his short-lived television variety series "Ben Vereen...Comin' At Ya" (NBC, 1975), and guest appearances on other variety specials. He offered a Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of legendary stage performer Bert Robbins in "Funny Lady" (1975), the sequel to Barbra Streisand's acclaimed portrayal of early Broadway performer Fanny Brice. The musical comedy star went on to showcase more dramatic versatility with his leading role as the iconic composer and trumpeter in "Louis Armstrong: Chicago Style" (ABC, 1976). Vereen secured his stellar reputation in Alex Haley's Emmy-winning miniseries "Roots," which chronicled the author's heritage from Africa to the arrival of his predecessors via slave ship and their ensuing experiences in America. Vereen left a lasting impression - and earned an Emmy nomination - as Chicken George, the enterprising and charismatic grandson of Kunte Kinte who wins his freedom, but not that of his wife and children. The miniseries was among the most talked-about television productions of the year, and Vereen leveraged his resulting high profile with the variety special "Ben Vereen, His Roots" (ABC, 1978).

Re-teaming with Bob Fosse, Vereen hit movie theaters the following year in Fosse's semi-autobiographical, Oscar-nominated feature "All That Jazz" (1979). ABC attempted to turn Vereen into a primetime star by teaming him with Jeff Goldblum in "Tenspeed and Brownshoe" (ABC, 1980) in which Vereen played a former con artist who joins forces with a staid accountant in a detective agency venture. The show was canceled after 13 episodes and Vereen fared better in a Showtime adaptation of "Pippin" (Showtime, 1981). The same year, Vereen found himself at the center of controversy for a blackface performance at Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration that was deemed insulting to many African-Americans. The misstep did not damage Vereen's reputation, however, and he went on to star in a run of made-for-TV movies, including the Emmy-winning biopic of 1930s Olympic athlete "The Jesse Owens Story" (syndicated, 1984) and the historic epic miniseries "Ellis Island" (CBS, 1984), which earned the actor a Golden Globe nomination. Meanwhile, Vereen appeared regularly in primetime with his recurring role as Uncle Philip, a diabetic relative of diminutive charmer Emmanuel Lewis on the sitcom "Webster" (ABC, 1983-87).

The series helped build Vereen's visibility in family-friendly TV entertainment; in short order he starred alongside fellow New York dancer extraordinaire Gregory Hines in a "Faerie Tale Theatre" (Showtime, 1982-87) version of "Puss N' Boots," reunited with Emmanuel Lewis to play the young actor's father in "Lost in London" (CBS, 1985), and was cast as the mayor of syndicated kids show "Zoobilee Zoo." Following a brief return to Broadway in "Grind," Vereen was tapped to host the syndicated talent show "You Write the Songs" (1986-87) and reprised his character Tenspeed Turner on another short-lived series, "J.J. Starbuck" (NBC, 1988). However Vereen's steady career showed signs of wavering, beginning with the death of his daughter Naja in a car accident in 1987. In the wake of the heartbreak, Vereen developed a drug addiction that took a toll on the consummate professional's ability to work. When Vereen emerged clean and sober from a drug rehabilitation program, he rebounded quickly with more kid-oriented TV specials and a two-season recurring role as the grumpy boss of quarreling detectives on the low-budget detective drama "Silk Stalkings" (CBS, USA, 1991-99).

Vereen's career suffered another setback in June of 1991 when he was walking on L.A.'s Pacific Coast Highway late at night and was struck by a car driven by record producer and composer David Foster. The jetlagged actor had crashed his own car into a tree just hours before and unbeknownst to him suffered a stroke. Vereen was severely injured, and early reports said he might not survive. Within a year, after months of an arduous five-day per week physical training schedule, Vereen was wowing audiences again on Broadway in "Jelly's Last Jam," a role he went on to play for over a year. Meanwhile, he earned another Emmy nomination for his supporting role in the sci-fi TV movie "Intruders" (CBS, 1992).

In 1995, Vereen co-starred in a musical version of "A Christmas Carol" at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and following a number of guest spots on popular primetime series like "Touched by an Angel" (CBS, 1994-2003) and "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" (NBC, 1990-96), he returned to cinemas in a supporting role in the disappointing drama "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" (1998), based on the life of 1950s doo-wop singer Frankie Lyman. Vereen enjoyed a resurgence on stage with a U.S. and Canadian tour of "Chicago," going on to join the cast of the Tony Award-winning "Fosse" in 2001, a Broadway revue spanning the career of the legendary choreographer.

Vereen continued making regular guest appearances on television while appearing on Broadway in a revival of "I'm Not Rapaport" and "Wicked," playing the role of the Wizard of Oz in the hit musical. As an elder statesman of the stage and an in-demand vocal and dance coach to a new generation of African-American performers including Usher and Andre Benjamin, Vereen was a must-cast in the unusual Southern-set film musical "Idlewild" (2006), in which he played a mortician whose son (Andre Benjamin) is an aspiring musician and hell-raiser. Vereen added a NAACP Image Award nomination to his large collection of accolades for his supporting turn as a homeless man in the Lifetime movie "An Accidental Friendship" (2008), and the following year had another great reception for the national tour of his one-man cabaret show "Ben Vereen Sings Sammy," a tribute to the performer who inspired his career. Vereen was increasingly recruited to offer his perspective in a number of documentaries about Broadway and American dance history, and in 2008 appeared as a judge on the competitive reality show "Your Mama Don't Dance" (Lifetime, 2008).

By Susan Clarke