Renowned performer honored with lifetime achievement award
Ben Vereen comes from a generation of entertainers that are not only multi-talented, but are constantly hustling for work across various mediums. The great ones create a legacy that spans decades and generations. Vereen falls into that category. Not unlike his late friend and mentor Sammy Davis, Jr., Vereen is someone who has made his mark on stage, screen and on television. He’s won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for his breakout role in 1972’s Pippin, been thrice-nominated for Emmys in 1977 (Roots and The Bell Telephone Jubilee) and 1992 (Intruders) and appeared in a number of films (Funny Lady, Sweet Charity, All That Jazz) and television projects (Webster, The Love Boat, The Nanny, How I Met Your Mother). Most recently, he’s put in memorable turns on Bull and Magnum P.I. and played against type as an abusive parent in the Fox musical drama Star. So it’s no surprise that Vereen would be the guest of honor at the recent Gold Coast International Film Festival, where he received the Gold Coast Art Center Lifetime Achievement Award. The low-key and soft-spoken septuagenarian performer was humbled on being recognized in this manner.
“Receiving this award or any award is about recognition by the people of what I’ve been doing and what we do as a people for one another,” he said. “Receiving this award here on Long Island is kind of special to me because it’s close to my old stomping grounds in Brooklyn. I used to walk through those streets all the time. So it’s nice to be receiving an award here. I just wish my parents were here to see this.”
Having grown up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Vereen attended the High School of Performing Arts (aka the Fame school). It was as an undergraduate, that he got a taste of live theater that served as the spark for the rest of his career.
“In junior high school, my principal pulled me out to see The King and I. I had never seen a Broadway show. I didn’t know what The King and I was,” Vereen recalled. “It played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was an all-African-American cast backed by a 100-piece orchestra. It was spectacular and it was the beginning of me being gainfully employed.”
Spirituality is a big part of what has informed the performer’s views on life and the arts. Between discovering he was adopted when he was 25 when he applied for a passport to join Sammy Davis Jr. on a tour of “Golden Boy” that was headed overseas to London, to recovering from a pair of vehicular accidents in 1992, he’s turned to his faith in guiding him through his journey. And the importance of the arts has proved to be a strong foundation for him to work from.
“In the beginning, God created. It didn’t say that in the beginning, God manufactured. That means that our Creator created us out of love and to be an expression of creation,” he said. “Now that comes in many forms. It doesn’t mean just singing and dancing. Those are just aspects of the performance of life. And in doing so, what we do is reflect back to people their desires and wants. We become an open channel to that great Creator to express this. Sometimes it comes through pain and sometimes it comes through joy. But the stories must be told. And the arts are a great way to tell that story.”
Part of telling that story has involved Vereen maintaining a hectic schedule that included various one-man shows that he’s performed throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. Among them are Brooklyn to Broadway and Ben Sings a Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. His most current project is a Broadway show called Reflections written by Joe Calarco (Shakespeare’s R&J), directed by Josh Bergasse (On the Town), with music by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked). Still a work in progress, the creative team is still trying to determine what format it will be formalized into.
“It’s a retrospective on my life and we’ve been working on it for the past few years because it’s still evolving,” Vereen said. “We can’t make up our minds if it’s going to be a one-man show or not because there’s so much material, that it could be a mini-series. I don’t want it to be a piece about, ‘I did this and I did that.’ It’s because I did nothing without the help of my family and my fans. I’m trying to create a piece that is an expression of us and me within it. It’s all this art form of life that I’ve been privileged with. People said ‘Yes.’ If they had said, ‘no,’ I wouldn’t have been doing any of this.”
Vereen’s gratitude can be partially traced to the example set by Davis Jr., his late friend and mentor. He noticeably lights up when asked about the Rat Packer.
“Sammy was sweet and like my father. Sammy was the ultimate performer as you know. He did everything and was more than that. He was a great human being,” Vereen recalled. “His generosity was beyond—I’d never seen anything like it. He died broke, because he gave everything away. He loved his public and he gave every piece of himself. That’s what I learned and what I’m still trying to do.”
Stay tuned for Ben Vereen’s favorite projects that he worked on.