A man for all venues.



Ben Vereen

Born: October 10, 1946, Benjamin Augustus Vereen, Place of Birth: Miami, Florida, USA
Spouse/Dating: Nancy Brunner (dancer and actor); former wife Andrea Townsley, divorced
Children: Son: Benjamin; Daughter: Malaika; Daughter: Naja; killed at age 16 in an auto accident; Daughter: Kabara; Daughter: Karon
Family: Father, James (paint factory employee); Mother, Pauline (theater wardrobe attendant and foster mother to many children)
Nickname: "Bunny" (his mother dubbed him)
Education: The School of Performing Arts, New York City; Pentecostal Theological Seminary (attended for six months); Honorary Doctorates from Boston's Emerson College, Brooklyn's St. Francis College, and Chicago's Columbia College
Supports: The American Heart Association, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Association, Celebrities for A Drug Free America, Optimum Health Institute, The Children's Pompe Foundation, Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels, The Kids to Kids Prevention Program, The Kids to Kids Prevention Program.
Residence: New Jersey


Awards Include:
>1992: Nominated - Emmy Award for "Intruders: They Are Among Us."
>1990: Victory Award (Humanitarian Award)
>1987: Winner –Emmy Award for "Ben Vereen: His Roots"
>1985: Nominated - Golden Globe, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV for "Ellis Island"
>1983: Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award
>1979: NAACP Image Award
>1978: NAACP Image Award
>1978: Israel's Humanitarian Award
>1977: Winner: Television Critics Circle Award for "Roots"
>1977: Nominated – Emmy Award for "Roots"
>1976: Nominated - Golden Globe, Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture for "Funny Lady"
>1973: Winner – Tony Award, Best Actor In A Musical for "Pippin"
>1973: Winner - Drama Desk Award, Best Actor In A Musical for "Pippin"
>1972: Nominated – Tony Award, Best Actor In A Supporting or Featured Role In A Musical for "Jesus Christ Superstar"
>1972: Theater World Award: Jesus Christ Superstar


Film/Stage Credits Include:
>2001: Feast of All Saints (TV) (Rudolphe Lermontant )
>2001: The Painting (Whistlin' Willie Weston)
>1999: I'll Take You There (Mr. Gwin)
>1998: Why Do Fools Fall In Love (Richard Barrett)
>1993: Once Upon a Forest (voice of Phineas)
>1993: The Nanny (TV) (Himself)
>1992: Intruders (TV) (Gene Randall )
>1991: "Silk Stalkings" (TV) (Captain Ben Hutchinson)
>1990: The Kid Who Loved Christmas (TV)
>1990: Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme (TV) (Itsy Bitsy Spider)
>1990: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (TV) (Lou)
>1989: Buy & Cell (Shaka)
>1989: Booker (TV) (Carl McQueen)
>1988: Jenny's Song (TV) (Joe)
>1987: Star Trek: The Next Generation" (TV) (Commander Edward M. LaForge, M.D.)
>1987: J.J. Starbuck (TV) (E.L. "Tenspeed" Turner)
>1986: You Write the Songs (TV) (Host)
>1986: Zoobilee Zoo (TV) (Mayor Ben)
>1985: The Zoo Gang (The Winch)
>1985: Lost in London (TV) (Paul Williams)
>1985: A.D. (TV) (Ethiopian)
>1984: Ellis Island (TV) (Roscoe Haines)
>1984: The Jesse Owens Story (TV) (Herb Douglas )
>1983: Webster (TV) (Uncle Phillip Long)
>1982: Sabine
>1981: Pippin (TV) (The Leading Player)
>1980: Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (TV) (E.L. 'Tenspeed' Turner)
>1980: Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (TV) (E.L. 'Tenspeed' Turner)
>1979: All That Jazz (O'Connor Flood)
>1977: Roots (TV) (Chicken George)
>1977: The Love Boat
>1976: The Muppet Show (Himself)
>1976: Louis Armstrong - Chicago Style (TV) (Louis Armstrong)
>1975: The Zoo Gang (TV)
>1975: Ben Vereen...Comin' at Ya (TV) (Host)
>1975: Funny Lady (Bert Robbins)
>1970: Gas-s-s-s (Carlos)
>1969: Sweet Charity


Profile:

   Serious actor on Broadway, television and the big screen, Ben Vereen has done it all and done it all with a style and grace like none other.
   James and Pauline Vereen were both married before with grown children, but they wanted to start a family of their own. They soon had a child they named Ben. He would be their only child. When Ben was still young, the family left Miami and moved to Brooklyn where they lived in the poverty stricken Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford Stiverson. With all the foster children his mother took in, it was nothing to have 10 or 12 children in the house at one time. At age seven, Ben's Godmother decided the young boy needed spiritual guidance and began taking him to Pentecostal church services, where sometimes they were the only ones in the congregation, but rather than leave, the family would hold there own service;

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Ben Vereen (cont.)

singing and praying and quoting scripture just as if the pews were full of fellow church goers. About his church visits, Ben says "That's how I was raised. To never give up."
   His Mother nicknamed her son "Bunny" and doted over him. Often buying him new clothes and toys that the family couldn't really afford, and in their new neighborhood Ben would play on the streets, emulating his favorite TV show heroes. He especially loved playing the "Rifleman".
   But when Ben was in grade school, his parents began drinking heavily, and when they would argue, he would try to stay out of the way and even stay out all night to avoid the dysfunctional conflicts at home.
   When he was eight, a salesman for the Startime Dance Studio knocked on the Vereen's apartment door and Ben's mother watched as the salesman bent young Ben's leg up to his head, behind his back and stretched him into contortions of all kinds. The salesman confidently announced that Ben would be a natural at dance, but Ben recalls that at the time "I wanted to smack this guy." But his mother was impressed and signed Ben up for the lessons. Ben's response was a dejected "Oh, man." And the next thing he knew, his mother had bought him a pair of tap shoes.
   At first Ben objected to going to class, but he soon showed a natural talent for dancing and singing and when adults asked if he wanted to be the next Sammy Davis Jr., he liked the idea and began taking his lessons more seriously.
   By age 10, Ben was performing in variety shows and at local hospitals for patients. At 14, a teacher told him about the High School of the Performing Arts where students are taught to be dancers, singers, musicians and actors. In 1960, at age 14, he auditioned and was accepted and his mother was thrilled, though his father's disapproval hurt him. His father thought jumping around in tights was "unmanly".
   Being poor and black could have been a handicap to someone else, but not to Ben. His talent and hard work at the school got him noticed and kept him there, and in his spare time he began singing, even forming a gospel group called the "The Sensational Twilights" who performed at local churches around Manhatten and Brooklyn.
   At 18, Ben met Andrea Townsley. Andrea was just 13 and the daughter of a Bishop. The two fell in love and in 1964, just as Ben was ready to graduate from high school, Andrea told him she was pregnant. While Andrea's parents were supportive, Ben's parents were not, believing that marriage for Ben at such an early age would ruin his chances for a show business career and was just not a good idea. Despite their objections, Ben married Andrea and Benjamin Vereen, Jr. arrived in July of 1965, his parents still children themselves at just 19 and 14 years old.
   "We did not have a lot of money. We were struggling," says Andrea. "It was a very hard time for us."
   Ben tried to make family and a show business career work, but it didn't. He couldn't work to support his family and get a career going at the same time. In 1965 he made the decision to leave his wife and child and go for the career he so desperately wanted. But without help from Ben, Andrea and Ben Jr. were forced to go on welfare. Ben would later send money to Andrea for support, but finances would always be tough for her.
   "I should have listened to my parents," Ben recalls. "But I wanted to do the right thing. But sometimes wanting to do the right thing and doing the right thing are two different things." Always trying to please everybody else, it was no secret that Ben was struggling to find himself during these difficult times.
   In 1966 Ben read about an open audition call for an out of town production of the play "Sweet Charity." He competed against hundreds of other dancers for a part in the chorus. He recalls the director, the legendary Bob Fosse, stood in front of everyone with a serious look on his face.
   "And he pointed," Ben says, "and said 'You…you…you…Thank you. But you stay." That was how Ben learned he had the part.
   At 21, Ben had a regular paycheck as a performer in the Las Vegas production of "Sweet Charity". He had moved up from the chorus to the part of "Daddy Brubrek". But when Bob Fosse made a movie of the hit musical the next year, he cast Sammy Davis Jr. in Ben's part and Ben was relegated to a minor role in the chorus.
   But Ben was able to meet Sammy Davis Jr. and in 1968, Davis invited Ben to join his touring company of "The Golden Boy".
   As his professional life improved, Ben began dating a beautiful dancer from the show named Nancy Brunner. The affair was serious for the two but difficult at the same time because it was an interracial relationship. They were often greeted with scorn by whites and blacks alike when they went out together. It was a time when people just "didn't do that". Even Nancy's family disapproved.
   In 1969, as "The Golden Boy" ended its run in London, England, Ben and Nancy scraped up enough money for plane tickets to Los Angeles, where auditions were being held for a new musical to be called "Hair".
   Director Tom O'Horgan recalls Ben's audition by saying, "This young guy came in who was this incredible singer, dancer, mover with wonderful power!" Ben was cast in the play.
   It was a time of experimentation and drug use in America's counter culture, which "Hair" was all about, but Ben tried keeping his own drug use to a minimum.
   Ben smiles when asked about those days. "It was "Hair"! You know. It was a time when we were dropping acid and looking for a higher consciousness and contemplating our naval buttons and things like that!"
   As "Hair" grew into its success as a play, Ben and Nancy were trying to save money by living in a converted garage. They were awaiting the birth of their first baby who arrived two months early in 1970. They named her Malaika. She was so tiny Ben was afraid to hold her. With the birth of his daughter, Ben resolved not to make the same mistake twice and vowed to never abandon his new family.
   In the fall of 1970, Ben moved with the company of "Hair" to Berkley, California, where he auditioned for Charles Gordon's "No Place To Be Somebody," but even though he got the part of "Johnny" the pimp, Ben was dressed down by Gordon for not being "Black enough" in an era of American society that demanded that blacks "act"

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Ben Vereen (cont.)

black. The 1970's were an eye opening experience for Ben, who essentially believed the world should be and was a colorless society. But it clearly wasn't.
   Ben was playing in "No Place To Be Somebody" when his second daughter, Naja, was born.
   His next career move was to New York City, where he was offered the role of Judas in the Broadway production of "Jesus Christ Superstar". It was also to be the first time his father would see him perform. After the play's opening Ben asked his father what he thought of the performance. His father replied, "Boy, you better put some clothes on. Your going to catch a cold out there."
   "Jesus Christ Superstar" was a hit and Ben was nominated for his first Tony Award. Now the Broadway powers that were began to court the young rising superstar.
   The next offer came in 1972 from none other than Bob Fosse. It was for the role of the Leading Player in "Pippin". The play would vault Ben to the top of the Broadway list of great performers and he would finally win the 1973 Tony Award for his performance.
   The Tony Award opened other doors for Ben. In 1975 NBC had him host his own summer replacement variety show. He was also looking over other TV and movie offers. With the arrival of his third daughter Kabara, Ben and Nancy decided to finally get married and Ben finally got a divorce from his first wife, Andrea.
   After his work in the Barbara Streisand movie "Funny Lady," Ben put together a touring show on the life of black comedian Burt Williams, and went on the road. Burt Williams was the highest paid performer in the Zigfield Follies and was compared to Charlie Chaplin in his comedic ability. But in front of white audiences, Williams always performed in blackface, which Ben also did in his act - in both tribute and to be authentic to the difficulties of the life of a black performer of that time. But many Americans, both black and white misunderstood where Ben was coming from, and the stage performance actually began to hurt his career. In 1976 Ben heard about a TV mini-series that was going into production called "Roots" and he tried to get a part but because of his poor showing of late with his road show, no one would even talk to him.
   Fortunately, one of the show's executive producers had seen Ben's show and understood what Ben was trying to say. He had Ben hired for the part of Chicken George in the mini-series, and for his performance, Ben was nominated for an Emmy and also went on to win the Television Critics Circle Award. That same year, Ben's fourth daughter, Karon was born. He followed "Roots" with his own network special, "Ben Vereen: His Roots," which won seven Emmy Awards.
   In 1979 Bob Fosse hired Ben for his movie "All That Jazz" and in1981 he performed his Burt Williams routine at the inaugural gala for President Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, while the live audience got to see and understand the performance and fully appreciate the tribute, the TV audience only saw Ben shuffle around in blackface for a few moments and it caused an uproar. Ben even received death threats for what some blacks believed to be a disgrace to the race on his part. But Ben refused to back down and stood by his conviction that his tribute was both honest and honorable.
   Trying to restore his image, Ben joined the cast of the short lived TV series "Ten Speed and Brown Shoe" with Jeff Goldblum. He also tried to get joint custody of his son, but lost the case. In 1982, Ben moved his family to New Jersey in an attempt to get out of the tabloid spotlight and be closer to his parents, but sadly, his father died later that year. His father's final acceptance of Ben's career was a highlight in Ben's life.
"He was walking around the block talking about "That's Chicken George! That's my boy!'" Ben recalls with a smile. "They were calling him Daddy Chicken, Daddy Chicken George."
   Ben's mother, who had paid for his first dance lessons with her cleaning money, had been suffering from Alzheimer's for some time and, sadly, died just six months after Ben lost his father.
   A bright spot in this low point in Ben's life was his second oldest daughter Naja. She was a performer like her father, had danced with the Dance Theater of Harlem and at just 16 years of age was already getting interest from Hollywood casting agents. But in December of 1987, a tractor trailer truck with an unstable load flipped over onto the family car, throwing Ben's wife Nancy from the car and injuring her, but killing Naja. The loss of his child threw Ben into a depression that got even worse with the drugs he began taking over the next three years to overcome the pain of the loss. Ben's life went horribly bad. After deteriorating to the point that friends and family feared for his life, his daughter Malaika finally got through to her dad. He checked in to a drug rehab clinic and determined to get his life back together.
   In 1991, Ben hosted the Celebrities for A Drug Free America gala which raised more than $300,000 for drug rehabilitation centers, educational programs, and inner city community-based projects.
   In 1992, Ben was rebabtized in the Pentecostal church and with renewed faith, went back to Los Angeles to get his career started again. But on the way to a meeting on June 8, Ben dozed off and crashed his car into a tree. After the accident, Ben went to stay at his manager's house nearby. But in the early morning hours Ben awoke and inexplicably wandered outside dressed only in a pair of shorts.
   He was wandering aimlessly down a deserted stretch of the Pacific Coast highway when he was hit by a Chevy Suburban that was going 50 mile per hour. The terrified driver had no time to avoid the accident. Ben was thrown over 100 feet and was later rushed to the UCLA Medical Center where he was on life support and the operating table for four hours. He was nearly given up for dead, and doctors determined it would take three years for Ben just to walk normally again, but after a determined and grueling recovery and rehab, the actor was back on stage in less than 10 months in a triumphant return to Broadway in 1993 as 'The Chimney Man' in "Jelly's Last Jam".
   Today, Ben Vereen seems to finally be at peace with himself and where he is in life. He is also at peace with his belief in himself as a black man in a struggle for colorless society. His many strengths and beliefs have been severely tested, but he has proven himself triumphant over all.