Seven Questions with Tony Winner Ben Vereen
November 15th, 2016
by Josh Ferri
Tony Award winner Ben Vereen will always have a place in Broadway history, appearing in the OBC of Hair and originating the roles of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and The Leading Player in Pippin (1973 Tony Award).
His vast TV and film career includes Chicken George in Roots, Louis Armstrong in Louis Armstrong—Chicago Style, and most recently Dr. Scott in The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Fox.
Now Ben Vereen returns to Feinstein's/54 Below with his hit one-man-show Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen, which he's toured extensively around the country before bringing it to NYC. The evening combines a tribute to Broadway, Frank Sinatra, and a very special tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. The set list goes from "Defying Gravity" to “Mr. Bojangles".
BroadwayBox caught up with the legend to talk about his relationship Sammy Davis Jr., his new TV project, and his dream role.
1. This show is Steppin Out with Ben Vereen. If I were stepping out with Ben Vereen what would constitute a good night out?
A good night out is a good time. Go where people are having a good time and then get involved in that—music, dance, the theatre. I go see shows. There is so much going on in the city.
2. Where do you keep your Tony Award?
I keep my Tony Award in a very sacred place in my home. I pray to it every day [Laughs].
3. Let’s talk about Rocky Horror and your killer legs.
That was so much fun. People are calling me about doing a lingerie commercial.
What surprised you about that experience?
Doing it. I had never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show and they called me and I said, ‘Wow.’ I had never seen it because I was working during the time and all these years. Finally, when Lou Adler called me I was amazed and honored. Kenny Ortega didn’t want me to watch [the original] until the final shoot and then I did and I was amazed. You can’t touch the original. What we are doing is paying tribute and honor to it. I hope they received it.
4. You’re back on TV with Amazon’s new series Sneaky Pete. What attracted you to that?
Isn’t that amazing? For me, it's an older Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, the show I did with [Jeff] Goldblum. I played a con man and now he’s older. He’s taught this kid how to con, and [Giovanni Ribisi] calls him in to pull off this big con on Bryan Cranston. It’s a fun show. I love keeping busy.
5. Tell me one of your favorite Sammy Davis Jr. memories.
I’ll tell you a personal story. After we finished doing Golden Boy, I came back to the United States and I got the show Hair. It came to the time I was off from the show, and I went down to Paramour Studios, where he was shooting Mod Squad. I was standing there and he said. ‘Ben, come here. What are you doing?’ And of course most actors lie. I said, ‘I’m doing this big show.’ And he said, ‘You’re out of work aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said, ‘I want you to come to Vegas. I’m going to give you a job in a show I’m doing called The Rise and Fall of Billy Baker. I can’t promise you a role but I want you to work.’ Well the producer didn’t want me on the show, so [Sammy] paid me out of his own pocket to be in that movie. I love this man. That’s what he was. He left with nothing because he gave everything away.
6. What’s it like to see the work you’ve done revisited like the Roots remake or the Pippin revival? Do you watch them?
Yeah, I didn’t watch Roots but I watched Pippin and I thought Diane [Paulus] took it to another space. It wasn’t bout Pippin but the circle of life and how it goes on in our mind. I enjoyed it. The fact that I’m the foundation, and if they ever need help I’m always there for them. I just recently had the opportunity to redirect Hair in Venice, Florida, and I asked the question, ‘What have we done since then?’ And nothing’s been done; we have a big job ahead of us.
7. What role is still on your Broadway bucket list?
Yeah there’s some Shakespeare I want to do, and I still want to do Death of a Salesman. And the main goal I want is called ‘employment’. [Laughs] I love what I do, and I thank the audiences for letting me do it. This show is called my gratitude show because I’m so thankful.
Don't miss the one and only Ben Vereen in 'Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen' at Feinstein's/54 Below November 21-26.