He’s the master of stage and screen. The gifted and versatile Tony Award winning Ben Vereen has been entertaining and enriching our lives with his masterful performances for decades. He’s a bright light for numerous philanthropies, and lends his time and his name to a wealth of charitable causes. Currently teaching an acting master class via Zoom, this consummate performer reflects on his career, his mentors and the importance of giving back.
Travelgirl: It’s an honor to welcome the remarkable Ben Vereen aboard. You’re a true legend and incredibly accomplished in all areas of show business. Your journey started with your mother, who encouraged and inspired you when you were quite young
Ben Vereen: My mother Pauline had a vision. She wanted something more for her son than she had for herself. She worked in the fields, she worked as a maid, as a cook, and as a seamstress. My mother saw me singing and dancing around the house. One day a man came along and asked my mother if she wanted to send her son to school to learn to sing and dance. My mother jumped on the opportunity for me and this forged my future. We never know how the universe is going to direct us. We choose our paths intellectually, but spiritually there is something else going on. You really don’t know where life will lead you. I never envisaged I would be on stage entertaining thousands of people around the world. I also never imagined I would mentor so many people. It’s an honor to do so.
TG: Your first solo performance was at a very young age. Fast forward to age 18 when you made your off-Broadway New York debut in Prodigal Son. The stage has always been important to you. You were quoted as saying, “The theater is my training ground. It teaches discipline, dedication, and appreciation of hard work. These values have become the foundation of my life.” Who helped you along the way?
BV: My godmother, Mary Eddy, took me to church when I was six. She taught me my first song and actually got me to sing at church. She was married to the Reverend Eddie Eddy. They are what I would call vagabond ministers. They would take their congregation to places that were abandoned and to churches where pastors were on vacation. We traveled around and Mary Eddie had me singing in church and testifying, and that’s where the bug bit me.
TG: I was fortunate to be in the audience when you performed the lead role in Pippin and I saw you in Jelly’s Last Jam. You made Pippin your own and you won both Broadway’s Tony Award and the Drama Desk award for Best Actor in a Musical for Pippin.
BV:Jelly’s Last Jam was an amazing feat and so was Pippin. They were both incredible opportunities for me, which I truly loved.
TG: Will you talk about Broadway and your first audition?
BV:I was out of work and I went into New York City. I was standing next to a newsstand and picked up a Backstage paper and saw there was an audition for Sweet Charity at the Palace Theatre and I decided to go. It was like the opening of All That Jazz; every male dancer in the city was there and at the time I had no idea who Bob Fosse was. Fosse came walking down the aisle with so much style. He demonstrated a dance and I remember he was smoking a cigarette and the ashes never fell. He did a whole dance combination with that lit cigarette and the ashes never fell. I was more impressed by the fact that the ashes never fell than I was with his combination!!!
TG: Ben, you performed in Sweet Charity in Las Vegas, which opened back in December 1966.
BV: I did; I went to Las Vegas and worked with Juliet Prowse, Paula Kelly, and a wonderful cast in Sweet Charity in Las Vegas. We opened in a little coffee shop called Caesar’s Palace. In those days Las Vegas was a dot in the desert. We arrived in Las Vegas by plane and I had never seen anything like this city before. The hotels were incredible — The Sands Hotel, the Flamingo, the Dunes Hotel, MGM Grand, and more. Fats Domino was performing and I was wowed. In those days Frank Sinatra hung out at a place called Nero’s and I would go up there and watch, and that’s where I first met Frank and Sammy Davis Jr. Las Vegas was really Las Vegas in those days and they were really sweet days. It’s still an amazing city, but in those days, you had to put on a jacket to attend a show. Everything back then was style and class!!! I’m glad we had those days, aren’t you?
TG: You are the consummate performer and blessed with incredible talents: a singer, a dancer, an actor, and a storyteller. Which most defines you?
BV: Employment! I love everything I do. Sammy [Davis Jr.] used to have a saying. He would say, “Open your refrigerator door and the lights come on, and I’ll give you 15 minutes of my act.” I got that. Sammy was a mentor to me. I learned so much from him. I remember meeting him in Las Vegas where I went to see him perform. He had a valet named Murphy and I remember going backstage and telling Murphy that I wanted to accompany Sinatra and the guys wherever they went. I remember saying I would do anything. I would even sweep the floors! Murphy told me Sammy had paid his dues and I would have to pay mine. He said Sammy Davis Jr. had paved the way for people like me. He told me to go out and make my own way.
Murphy gave me some great advice that day. That was it. I went out and I did my own thing. I ended up being in the movie Sweet Charity. See how fate works? I was performing in the Circle in the Square Theatre in San Francisco when I got a phone call from Bob Fosse telling me he wanted me to go on the road in Sweet Charity with Chita Rivera. I went on the road with Chita and got a telegram to come with Chita and join Sammy Davis Jr. and the cast of Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine. Sammy then took me to London to be in Golden Boy. During the time I was with Sammy both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. I went with Sammy to every organization in Chicago to help keep the peace, to stop the rioting.
TG: I applaud your humanitarian efforts. You’ve lent your name and your talent to a wealth of charitable endeavors. You’ve worked tirelessly for the American Red Cross, and ongoing diabetes awareness campaigns called “S.T.A.N.D.” in partnership with Sanofi-Aventis pharmaceuticals. You’ve received numerous awards including the very prestigious Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award, Israel’s Cultural and Humanitarian Award, three NAACP Image Awards, a Victory Award, and numerous others for your incredible efforts.
BV: Someone gave to me and helped me. It’s my duty, it’s our duty, for those of us who are in the spotlight, to give back to society and that’s what I do. Someone once saw a small kid running around the streets of Brooklyn and said to that kid, “Come this way”. That kid was me. A lovely woman named Rachael Yocom, who was a principal in the dance department at the Performing Arts School in New York, saw me audition. I didn’t pass the audition. Talented performers including Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins were there auditioning alongside me. You name it, they were there auditioning alongside me. Rachael Yocom saw something in me; she helped me go to the Performing Arts School when I was a mere 14. People were good to me and helped me along the way. It’s my duty to give back. When everyone succeeds, we all do better.
TG: You amaze me. You act, sing, dance and find the time for your children, and you support so many worthwhile philanthropic endeavors. How are you able to balance your busy career, philanthropic endeavors, and your family?
BV:It’s not easy. I’ve had to make many sacrifices and I’ve done the best I could. I have a daughter Karon, who recently had an opening at a gallery in New York. I had the opportunity and pleasure of being there and watching her. She found a piece that I had done in 1970, a recording from the Bobby Seale (Black Panther co-founder) trial transcript, and it inspired Karon to do a piece on him and it’s on display here in New York. It’s really something and I was thrilled to be there with her.
TG: Please talk about your role as Lincoln Perry, the vaudeville performer who made his fortune in silent films playing Stepin Fetchit. Your body language and the charisma you brought to that role is awe-inspiring – it’s a tour de force.
BV: OMG. I’m a strong believer in our culture, the African American culture. One day long ago I was at a bar with a friend of mine and I met this gentleman who told me he had come to my show and had really enjoyed it. He told me there was a time in America when a Black man wasn’t allowed on the American stage. He said an African American performer had to perform in blackface. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
I went home and the next day when I got to the theatre this same gentleman had left a book for me called Nobody. It was the story of Bert Williams and it touched me so. Around the same time, I was asked to play Stepin Fetchit. I remember I was performing Bert Williams in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria, and after the show, there was a knock at the door. It was Lincoln Perry standing there. He said, “My name is Lincoln Perry but you can call me Stepin Fetchit.” Lincoln Perry spent a week with me; I was fortunate to get to know him. He told me I had to play him and tell what life was like for him, to vindicate his life. I agreed to do it. I wanted to do it, but shortly thereafter he had the stroke and the piece was on hold.
After a time, I received a call about an upcoming benefit for Lincoln Perry, which would take place in Chicago at McCormick Place. I flew up to be there and on stage out comes Lincoln Perry in a wheelchair and behind him was Muhammed Ali. It was an inspirational evening and I didn’t think about it for years.
One day, years later, the playwright Will Power called me and asked me to play Stepin Fetchit in his play Fetch Clay, Make Man. I was a bit nervous, but I realized I had to do this. I had promised Stepin Fetchit I would do it and I knew this play was a very powerful piece. It’s the true story of how Lincoln Perry taught Muhammed Ali the punch that knocked out Sonny Liston. Lincoln Perry was friends with a boxer named Jack Johnson and Johnson was the first Black world champion boxer. He was a legend in his time. Jack Johnson knocked out everybody; he had what he called the “phantom punch.” Jack Johnson used to hang out with Lincoln Perry. Muhammed Ali assumed Johnson must have said something to Lincoln about that famous “phantom punch.” Ali was right; Lincoln Perry learned the secret of the phantom punch from Jack Johnson and Ali wanted to learn it. Lincoln Perry agreed to teach it to Ali, and Ali went out and won the Sonny Liston fight.
Initially, I didn’t believe the story myself but it’s true. When we were in rehearsals for the play, we were watching tapes and there was a tape of Muhammed Ali and Stepin Fetchit talking in a hotel. Stepin turns to Muhammed Ali and said, “That punch really works, doesn’t it?” and Ali replied, “Yes, it works every time.” Lincoln Perry learned the secret of the phantom punch from Jack Johnson and he taught it to Muhammed Ali.
TG: What’s on Ben Vereen’s travel bucket list?
BV: There are many places I want to go. My passion is to go to Israel and sing with their symphony orchestra. I was in a dressing room once with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and as I came out of the room with these legends, I saw my road manager at the time, Bernie Young. Bernie walked over to me and said “Ben, you better sit down.” He told me the ambassador of Israel had just phoned to tell me the State of Israel was giving me, Ben Vereen, Israel’s Cultural and Humanitarian Award. I was very honored. I’ve got to get to Israel— it’s such a spiritual place and you know I performed in Jesus Christ Superstar! I want to see the world. I plan to climb Macchu Picchu one day. There are so many places left that I want to see.
TG: You’ve mentored a multitude of actors including the very talented Usher. Do you have any sage advice for those young hopefuls out there who desire to walk one day in the legendary footsteps of the inimitable Ben Vereen?
BV: Be authentic to yourself and you will be authentic to your audiences. And please, be kind. Also, tell your readers to be vaccinated. This is about putting people back to work— it’s about getting families together. It’s about going back to restaurants and being close together again. This is America. Let’s get it going again!!!