Legendary song and dance man Ben Vereen is blessed, booked and busy.
The award-winning showbiz vet has run the full gamut of the entertainment spectrum with a career spanning five decades. He has originated roles in the legendary Broadway musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin, recorded for Motown Records and portrayed memorable parts in popular TV series such as Webster, The Love Boat and the landmark miniseries, Roots. (Never forget Chicken George!)
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-raised Renaissance man is riding high this season with a string of new gigs, including holiday cabaret dates in New York City and Connecticut and juicy roles on primetime dramas such as the Magnum P.I. reboot and Lee Daniels’ sudsy Atlanta music-industry themed Star.
For the popular Fox series, Vereen portrays Calvin, the estranged patriarch of a family bustling with sketchy characters played to the hilt by Queen Latifah, Brandy and Patti LaBelle. “[He] is a complex man, who is also married to Patti LaBelle. It is quite a journey,” he teased.
Like an “old pro,” he’s a bit tight-lipped about the role to ensure he’s not giving away any plot points. But recent storylines over the past few weeks hint that his character may have been abusive to his children. Viewers can only guess how dodgy it will get coming from Daniels—the dark and beautiful mind behind controversial films such as Precious and Monster’s Ball, and, of course, Star’s glossy and flossy lead-in, Empire.
On this season of Star alone, we’ve experienced the rape ordeal of a senior citizen, a deranged single black female wreaking havoc, a celebrity sex tape scandal, fluid sexuality, open marriages and two grown women coming to blows in a nightclub. It’s like Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta and R&B Divas on steroids—but with acknowledged scriptwriting at play. And judging from Brandy and LaBelle’s characters’ crooked ways, we can only expect more of where that comes from.
“If I tell, you’re not gonna watch it,” the three-time Emmy Award nominee chuckled during a recent interview with The Root. “Yeah, I can’t give it away to you,” he pondered and then re-affirmed: “You guys have to watch.”
Vereen—who also has been nominated twice for Tony Awards, winning one for Best Actor in a Musical for Pippin—is the last of a dying breed of truly all-around entertainment icons, the ones who brought black magic to the masses way before it became a hashtag. We’re talking about the kind of entertainers who sang, danced and acted their asses off. Many of the versatile performers who laid the groundwork for him—like Lena Horne and his mentor, Sammy Davis, Jr.—have gone on to glory. And he’s continuing to experience the loss of many of his peers who came up with him during the 1960s and 1970s—most recently, Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
“All praises, all praises, all praises,” he chanted about the “Respect” diva. “We are missing her so much already. She was such a tremendous talent. Her spirit is with us, her legacy too. I love Aretha. I introduced her to her [ex-husband] Glynn Turman,” he revealed. “I’m the matchmaker.”
These types of rarely known nuggets prove that there is literally six degrees of separation between Vereen and many of the biggest stars in the business.
Another bold-faced name he has a deep connection to is Usher, the platinum-selling R&B icon publicly recognized as his godson. The “Let It Burn” crooner has been the subject of a headline-grabbing legal drama in which he allegedly exposed partners to sexually transmitted infections.
“I just tell him to remain lifted up and to stay in prayer,” Vereen responded when asked what kind of advice he’s offered Usher in these trying times. “That’s the advice I give him and that’s the advice I give everybody. This is bigger than what we’re looking at. We gotta look beyond this.”
Another sensitive subject he’s less pleased to discuss is his recent brush with the #MeToo movement. In January, Vereen issued a public apology after news outlets reported allegations of sexual misconduct by four actresses during a regional production of Hair that he directed in 2015.
“I was exonerated,” he said. “I got a letter from the [Venice Theatre company] and here’s the thing; They wrote back, said none of this ever went down. It was just a ... it was ... You’ll read about it in the book. That’s all I could say about it.”
The Root reached out to the Venice Theatre whose reps referred us to their legal counsel, which issued the following statement: “The Venice Theatre will not comment on personnel matters involving current or former individuals affiliated with the theater.”
Earlier this year, Venice Theatre’s executive and artistic director Murray Chase revealed to the Herald-Tribune plans to develop new standards and requirements to be used for all future shows to create a safe environment and clearly spell out what will be expected of volunteer and paid artists in auditions, rehearsals and performances.
“You know, it’s embarrassing that we’re in this place where we are,” Vereen said. “I just hope ... I look for the day that we can all come together and say, ‘These are the new rules, people and this is what we’re gonna live by’ because we cannot be divided.”
Offstage, the self-proclaimed “spiritual enforcer” who’s also known as the “minister of fun,” is working on a memoir, he said, which will detail his entire career—including his harrowing journey tracing his true parentage.
During his early 20s when trying to obtain his birth certificate for an overseas job, Vereen discovered that his birth parents were not the people who raised him. “I still to this day well up,” he confided. “Like, I get teary, because ... it was like my world was snatched out from under me. You know? Who you are, who you think you are, and then all of a sudden you find out that you’re not that ... who you are. Who am I?”
Vereen and his manager of 42 years, Pamela Cooper, are also in the process of ironing out the kinks of a musical based on his life, entitled Reflections.
In the meantime, he’s continuing to work his magic on audiences.
“As long as they show up, I’m going to show up,” he beamed. “I woke up this morning. That’s a true miracle. And I’m excited about life itself, and I have the opportunity of doing something that I love, which is entertaining people. I’m always looking forward to doing it.”
Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen will be at the Cutting Room in New York City on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Vereen is also set to perform a special holiday show on Dec. 2 at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut. He’ll appear in Star starting Nov. 28. The show airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.