Ben Vereen

Active - 1969 - 2016  |   Born - Oct 10, 1946 in Laurinburg, North Carolina, United States  |   Genres - Children's/Family, Drama, Fantasy, Theater, Musical

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Effervescent African-American entertainer Ben Vereen attended New York's High School of the Performing Arts and Emerson College. Vereen was 18 when he made his New York stage bow in Prodigal Son; shortly thereafter, he was cast in the touring company of Sweet Charity, eventually making his 1969 screen debut in the film version of that Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical. He joined the cast of Hair in 1969, at various junctures playing both Claude and Berger. The following year, he won the Theatre World Award for his portrayal of Judas in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. After a season with the National Shakespeare Company, Vereen was cast as "The Leading Player" in the Broadway musical Pippin, a performance that earned him a Tony Award. While he seemed destined to appear in naught but film musicfests like Funny Lady (1975) and All That Jazz (1979), Vereen proved his dramatic mettle with his unforgettable portrayal of Chicken George in the landmark miniseries Roots. While he didn't win the Emmy for this role (as many expected), his 1978 TV special Ben Vereen...His Roots copped the gold statuette. Vereen has also been honored with the American Guild of Variety Artists' George M. Cohan award, and with the NAACP's Image Award. In 1980, he co-starred with Jeff Goldblum in the Steven Cannell-produced TV series Tenspeed and Brownshoe. Though the series failed, Vereen reserved a warm place in his heart for his wheeler-dealer "Tenspeed Turner" character, reprising the role on the 1987 TV weekly J. J. Starbuck. His additional TV credits include the 1975 summer series Ben Vereen...Comin' at Ya, the recurring role of Uncle Phillip on Webster (1986), and the hosting chores for the syndicated talent contest You Write the Songs (1986) At the height of his fame, Vereen ebulliently attributed his success to "Jesus." His faith was sorely tested in the late 1980s; enduring the death of his son, Vereen began contemplating suicide, at one point deliberately standing in the middle of a busy Los Angeles street, allowing himself to be struck down by a passing car. Happily, Vereen recovered both emotionally and professionally; his recent credits include the Broadway musical Jelly's Last Jam and the recurring role of Captain Hutchinson in the TV cop series Silk Stalkings (1991- ).

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  • Discovered he was adopted in the late 1960s when he applied for a passport.
  • Nominated for a Tony for his first two Broadway musicals: as Best Featured Actor in 1972 for Jesus Christ Superstar, and as Best Actor in 1973 for Pippin (which he won).
  • Costarred with Jeff Goldblum in the 1980 detective series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, playing a parolee-turned-PI. In 1988, reprised the character as a regular in the series J.J. Starbuck, starring Dale Roberston as a Texas billionaire who solves crimes.
  • Almost killed in a 1992 Pacific Coast Highway accident, which occurred when he was walking back to his Malibu home (after earlier crashing his car). Hit by a small truck, he suffered head and internal injuries and a broken leg; spent four hours in surgery and six weeks hospitalized.
  • Godfather to R&B singer Usher; helped him prepare for his 2006 Broadway debut as Billy Flynn in Chicago.