Ben Vereen's legendary career transcends time, tribulations and media. An international entertainment icon, Ben's first love will always be performing live on stage, despite the awards he's received for his work in films, on TV, or you name it and he's been a force in it. Ben is a cultural tour de force and continues to thrive, entertain and prove that whatever age he may be is the new 30. Even the hip-hop generation knows him as the spiritual godfather and performance adviser to the-always-at-the-top-of-the-charts, R&B star Usher, who credits Ben's multifaceted advice and wisdom for his rise to stardom.
Born in Miami, Ben moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant as an infant and even as a youngster exhibited his innate talent performing at local variety shows. At 14, he enrolled in the prestigious High School of Performing Arts in New York, studied under Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins and after school strolled down Broadway imagining his name up in lights on a theater marquee. After graduation, Ben soon scored a role in Bob Fosse's Vegas production of Sweet Charity and went on tour with it. He first appeared on Broadway a year later playing Hud in Hair before being cast in the screen adaption of Sweet Charity where he impressed Sammy Davis Jr. enough to make Sammy make Ben his understudy in the London production of Golden Boy.
Three years later in 1971 Ben returned to Manhattan with a vengeance as the Tony Award Winning Best Featured Musical Actor for his portrayal of Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar. The following year Ben saw his name actually up in lights, when he starred in and won the Tony Best Musical Actor Award as Leading Player in Pippin. Watching the young Ben sing Magic to Do in Pippin was truly theatrical magic.
"The theater was my first training ground. It taught me discipline, dedication and appreciation of hard work. The stage sharpened my creative instrument and encouraged me to go deeper and try new things." The other things he's tried on Broadway in the ensuing years include Wicked, Fosse, I'm Not Rappaport, Grind, Jelly's Last Jam and A Christmas Carol.
Subsequently Ben focused on films and TV, received an Emmy nomination for playing Chicken George in Alex Haley's Roots, co-starred in a series, Tenspeed and Brownshoes, appeared in sitcoms like Webster and The Nanny and performed in dramas like Silk Stalkings and StarTrek: The Next Generation and countless others.
In 1987 tragedy began to pursue him. His 16-year-old daughter Naja was killed in an accident on the New Jersey Turnpike, which devastated and depressed him. A few years later, as a result of an accident in which his car was hit by a tree, he damaged an artery to his brain. Not realizing how badly injured he was, he started walking home to Malibu, had a stroke, stumbled out onto the highway and was hit by a truck badly enough to be pronounced dead at the scene but was revived. Extensive, arduous physical therapy eventually restored him to his former self. He considered the accident to be the intervention that saved his life, interrupting his path of self-destruction leading him to sobriety and spiritual balance. These days his message is about showing up for life, and he speaks about that whenever possible to children, convicts and any place else he's invited to speak.
For over 40 years, Ben has also showcased his versatility internationally via one-man shows and was the first simultaneous winner of the Entertainer of the Year, Rising Star, and Song and Dance Star awards from the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA).
So what delights can you expect on from Ben's new show at 54 Below, the hot new frequently-completely-p.m., and on Friday & Saturday nights July 13 and 14, also at 11 p.m.? Just watching him talk, smile and sing is enchanting!
Will he also be dancing also? "I'll be moving. I used to dance, but now I only move," he replies laughing. "Unfortunately I have only one hour, and I have enough material for three. Come out, have a wonderful time and celebrate life with me."
I can't think of anything more worthwhile doing!