Ben Vereen biography
SynopsisBorn October 10, 1946, Ben Vereen grew up in Brooklyn and attended New York's High School of the Performing Arts. On Broadway, he found success in the musicals of Bob Fosse, including Sweet Charity and Pippin, for which Vereen won a Tony Award in 1972. Vereen also appeared in the epic 1977 TV mini series Roots. After personal troubles derailed his career, he made a comeback in the late 1990s.
Early LifeActor, singer, dancer. Born October 10, 1946, in Miami, Florida. While still an infant, Vereen and his family relocated to the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Bedford-Styvesant in Brooklyn, New York. During his pre-teen years, he exhibited an innate talent for drama and dance and often performed in local variety shows. At the age of 14, Vereen enrolled at the High School of Performing Arts, where he studied under world-renown choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins. Upon his graduation, he struggled to find suitable stage work and was often forced to take odd jobs to supplement his income.
Career HighlightsIn 1967, the 21-year-old Vereen auditioned for and won a part in Bob Fosse's production of Sweet Charity. The following year, he was cast opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in the film adaptation. After developing a rapport with Davis, Vereen was cast as his understudy in the upcoming production of Golden Boy.
In 1971, after steady work on Broadway, Vereen earned critical recognition for his dazzling performance as Judas Iscariot in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. The following year, Fosse cast him as the effervescent Leading Player in Pippin, for which he won the prestigious Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. In 1975, Vereen starred with Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady (the sequel to Funny Girl) and hosted the TV variety series Comin at Ya!.
In 1977, Vereen was introduced to a more mainstream audience with his crafty portrayal of Chicken George in Alex Haley's landmark TV miniseries Roots. Following a well-deserved Emmy nomination for his work in Roots, he was cast opposite Jeff Goldblum in the short-lived detective series Tenspeed and Brownshoe (1980). During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vereen worked steadily on television with projects ranging from the sitcom Webster to the drama Silk Stalkings.
Personal IssuesDespite his professional accomplishments, Vereen found himself in the midst of controversy in 1981, when he performed in blackface at the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, an act that outraged many African-Americans. In 1987, his 16-year-old daughter, Naja, was killed in an automobile accident. Devastated by personal misfortune, Vereen developed a crippling addiction to cocaine. After curtailing his career, he fell into a deep depression that culminated in his voluntary admittance into a drug rehabilitation program.
Shortly after his release, Vereen was the victim of a life-threatening automobile accident when he was struck by a car while walking along a Malibu highway. His critical injuries (including a broken leg) required him to undergo arduous physical rehabilitation in the ensuing months.
ComebackIn 1993, Vereen staged an unlikely comeback when he returned to Broadway in Jelly's Last Jam (1993). He returned to feature films with a role in Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998), which starred Halle Berry. In 2001, he appeared in the drama The Painting and the TV miniseries Feast of All Saints.
Vereen had one son with his first wife, Andrea Townsley. He is currently married to Nancy Bruner, with whom he had four daughters.