Few performers wear their stage gifts as warmly—and few flash smiles identifying them as instantly—as Ben Vereen.
“Hello, my king,” says the 66-year-old entertainer—yes, “king” and “queen” are his chosen forms of address, even for we monarchs he doesn’t know.
Vereen’s résumé is full: Broadway legend (Pippin, Jesus Christ Superstar); TV star (Chicken George in Roots, Will Smith’s dad in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Jeff Goldblum’s detective partner in Tenspeed and Brown Shoe); and song and dance man extraordinaire.
Vereen’s challenges have been many: discovering, at age 25, he was adopted; coping with the death of his 16-year-old daughter, Naja, in 1987, when a truck overturned on her car on the New Jersey Turnpike; nearly dying himself in 1992, while, when walking along a Malibu, Calif., highway, he was struck by a car driven by record producer David Foster, putting him through months of difficult rehab; learning he had diabetes in 2007.
Yet that high-wattage grin remains, especially when conducting lectures on inspirational topics and African-American history.
With a Las Vegas connection dating to 1966, when he appeared in Sweet Charity here, directed by Bob Fosse, Vereen returns for his inaugural appearance at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 10 in Steppin’ Out With Ben Vereen.
Here, the perpetually upbeat performer—and godfather to R&B singer Usher—expounds on life on and off stage:
What will we see at The Smith Center?
A precursor to a longer show called Steppin’ Out Live, which is a retrospective of my career and people I’ve worked with like Bob Fosse, Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine. It’s also a tribute to my audiences, thanking them for allowing me this wonderful journey. It’s a celebration of our lives—not my life, but our lives.
You’ve been hailed as a “complete showman.” Is that versatility still valued?
Show’s over. It’s gone. What I did and Sammy and Gregory Hines and Frank Sinatra, all those cats from that age of the showman, that period has gone away. Music has changed, people’s expression has changed, technology has changed. But there’s going to be a new face on it now. I work with young people, and I try to instill in them the discipline it takes to do this work. It’s not just a Tweet or a Facebook [post]. It is an actual culture.
Are there performers in whom you see that potential?
Justin Timberlake. He’s acting, but he has to do theater now. Usher did Chicago on Broadway. Sean Combs did A Raisin in the Sun, tasting what it’s like on the boards. It’s important for them as artists and us as a culture. They’re attracting young people to the theater. If we don’t support it, it will fade away. Then we’re giving away part of our culture.
Why was Sammy Davis Jr. such an influence on you?
He wrote a book called Yes I Can, and I got that from Sam. Sam did not look at a color line, just a people line. We’re all part of God’s bouquet, and we should all love each other like a bouquet of flowers. And I got my discipline in work from him, how much he loved his audience and would give his being to performing.
With everything you’ve gone through on a personal level, did you ever feel you couldn’t go on?
When your physical body says you can’t, your inner spirit says you can. The accident was nothing compared to losing a child. I would go through the accident 10 times a day if I could have my child back. Jelly’s Last Jam was the first show after I was back [10 months after accident]. I told someone I’m a neon sign for possibilities.
Why do you revisit your difficult times by giving lectures?
We used to sing in church: “If I can help somebody as I travel on my way, then my living will not be in vain.”
We’re in a cynical, post 9/11 world. Is it harder to inspire optimism in young people?
God created us, and God is an artist, and we’re all walking, talking art pieces. We need to get people to respect that art inside themselves. Then they’ll lift themselves up, and there will be no room for cynicism. We haven’t got time for it.
If you could boil it down to one piece of advice, what would it be?
Get to the mountaintop. But get there without hurting anyone.