Ben Vereen has truly had a fabled story. Born Benjamin Augustus Middleton on October 10, 1946, in Miami, Ben and his family relocated to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He was adopted by James Vereen, a paint-factory worker and his wife, Pauline, who worked as a maid. He would graduate from Manhattan’s High School of the Performing Arts. He was 18 years old when he made his New York stage debut Off-Off Broadway in The Prodigal Son. By the following year, he was in Las Vegas, performing in Bob Fosse’s production of Sweet Charity, a show with which he toured in from 1967–68. He returned to NYC to play Claude in Hair in the Broadway production, before joining the national touring company. Vereen would not discover he was adopted until he applied for a passport to join Sammy Davis Jr. on a tour of Golden Boy to London when he was 25.
The male “muse” of Fosse make some important movie musicals from 1969-79 including Sweet Charity, Funny Lady, and All That Jazz. He has also starred in numerous television programs, including the role of Chicken George in Alex Haley’s groundbreaking TV miniseries Roots, for which he received an Emmy Nomination in 1977. He would win two TONY Awards for Best Actor in Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin; and appear in nine Broadway shows, including Jelly’s Last Jam, Chicago, Fosse, Wicked, and the infamous “unsung” musical Grind.
In a horrible turn of events, his 16-year-old daughter, Naja, was killed in an auto accident on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1987. In 1992, disaster struck again when Vereen was the victim of a life-threatening automobile accident when he was struck by a car driven by massive record producer David Foster while walking along a Malibu highway. His critical injuries (including a broken leg) required him to undergo arduous physical rehabilitation for several months.
The godfather of R&B superstar Usher, he is also known as an advocate, and for giving back. The Community Mental Health Council awarded Ben with their 2004 Lifeline Celebration Achievement Award. For his humanitarian contributions, he has received a number of awards including Israel’s Cultural and Humanitarian Awards, three NAACP Image Awards, an Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award and a Victory Award. He has received honorary doctorates from the University of Arizona, Emerson College, St. Francis College, and Columbia College in Chicago. In 2001, Medgar Evers College created the Ben Vereen Scholarship for the Performing Arts, and in 2004, he received an Achievement in Excellence Award from his alma mater, the High School of the Performing Arts.
Ben Vereen continues to both inspire us with his story, and make us smile. We wish him the VERY best on his special day.
Click below to celebrate the career of Ben Vereen:
Ben Vereen performes “To Dance” in an amazing nightclub performance in the 1970’s, choreographed by Michael Peters.
Ben Vereen sings “Magic to Do” in Pippin (1973).
Ben Vereen sings “Simple Joys” in Pippin (1973).
Ben Vereen in Grind at the 1985 TONY Awards.
Ben and Chita heading up the company of Chicago that played Toronto and Las Vegas (1999).
Ben Vereen and Brad Anderson perform” Mr Bojangles ” (Dancin’) from Fosse (2001).
In a casting swap occasioned by Ben Vereen’s desire to be close to an ailing family member, the Broadway and Chicago companies of Wicked swapped wizards for a week in 2005. From Aug. 30 to Sept. 4, Vereen played the role at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, while the Chicago actor, Gene Weygandt, spent that week in Vereen’s place at the Gershwin Theatre in New York.
Vareen performes “Wonderful” (with a souped up ending).