By David Hinckley
Looking back on a half century of performances that have taken him from Broadway to national television to dance stages and the silver screen, Ben Vereen adds just one qualifier.
A few days after turning 73, he wants people to know that his Tony-winning turn in “Pippin” and his Emmy-nominated role in “Roots” and several hundred other shows aren’t his whole list.
They’re just what he’s done so far.
“My grandmother, who was a missionary and taught me to sing when I was 6, always said you should never rust out of life,” says Vereen. “You need to give and give and give. You never want to lose the passion.”
Vereen’s calendar now includes his traveling one-man show, as well as groundwork that may lead to more television and stage productions. He politely declines to detail them – “superstition, you know . . . you don’t want to expect too much and be disappointed” – but he clearly has no intention of slowing down.
He will pause, however, on Nov. 4, when he will receive the Gold Coast Arts Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award at an opening night reception for the Gold Coast International Film Festival at the Krasnoff Theater in Brookville’s Tilles Center.
Regina Gil, founder and executive director of the Gold Coast Arts Center, says the evening will also include a conversation with Vereen moderated by Frank DiLella, host of “On Stage” on NY1.
“This award is precious to me,” says Vereen. “I’m still blown away when people ask me for an autograph.”
They’ve been doing that for quite a while now, though Vereen allows there was a time when it seemed like a distant dream.
After graduating from New York’s High School of Performing Arts, he did the young actor’s scuffle for a couple of years before he landed a role in the Broadway hit “Hair.”
From there he glided into Bob Fosse’s “Pippin,” which won him a Tony and gave him songs and dances his audiences still want in his shows today. Then in 1977 he switched media and played Chicken George in the TV megahit “Roots,” landing an Emmy nomination.
He’s been busy ever since, returning to Broadway for shows like “Jelly’s Last Jam” while popping up in TV series like “NCIS” and “Hot In Cleveland.” In the last year, Vereen’s appearances have included “Magnum PI,” “Bull” and five episodes of Lee Daniel’s “Star.”
His live show incorporates a classic mix of song, dance, comedy and conversation, placing Vereen squarely in the tradition of all-around entertainers like the late Sammy Davis Jr.
“I loved Sammy,” says Vereen. “He was my idol and a mentor.”
He adds with a laugh, however, that he didn’t become a multiple performing threat just to emulate the greats of the past.
“I trained as a dancer,” he says. “A modern dancer, under people like Martha Graham. I was in Arthur Mitchell’s dance company. But I realized early on that if I just danced, I’d never get enough work. So I’d better learn to do it all.”
He did – largely, he says, by simply working at it. “God gives you the opportunities,” he says. “But you gotta make them happen. You gotta show up.”
Sometimes you also need a break or two, of course, and Vereen says his biggest break came early, when he was 14 and applied to Performing Arts.
“I was auditioning in front of Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins and George Ballanchine,” he says, “though at the time I didn’t even know who they all were.
“I didn’t feel like I did a great audition. But Dr. Rachael Yocom, who was head of the school, thought I had potential and allowed me in. She changed my life.”
Some three decades later, the late Gregory Hines provided another kind of inspiration.
In early 1992 Vereen was hit by a car in California and seriously injured, suffering among other things a badly broken leg.
“The doctor said I wouldn’t walk again,” he says. “Then I heard from Gregory, who was doing ‘Jelly’s Last Jam,’ and he told me that I had the role of The Chimney Man, replacing Keith David, if I could be there by the beginning of April.
“April 3 I was on the stage. Gregory inspired me, because he believed in me.
“It’s all about getting through adversity.”
No one spends 50 years in show biz without adversity, and Vereen hasn’t been immune. “You learn to deal with it,” he says. “You can’t let it stop you.”
But if there’s occasionally a price for show biz success, it also has rewards.
“I just think of the people I’ve been able to meet and work with,” he says. “I’ve met Sophia Loren and Lena Horne. I’ve hung out with Frank Sinatra. Sometimes they tell me I’m a legend. But I’m still a fan of these people myself. I can still go ga-ga.”
What can’t get lost in this rarified world, he cautions, “is the fact that you can never think you know it all. You have to keep learning.”
If he had to list his own lifetime achievements, Vereen says, “The first thing would be my children and grandchildren. Then there’s the work I’ve done. And I’m proud that I’ve fought for the arts.”
That ongoing fight includes testifying before Congress when the Trump administration proposed eliminating all federal funding for organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts.
“It boggles my mind that anyone would think of doing that,” he says. “Art is such an important part of life. Our lives are art. The clothes we choose to wear, that’s art. Creativity is all around us. It’s embedded in everything we do.
“David Wood, one of the Martha Graham teachers, said the most important thing we can do is to tell the story. Art tells the story.”
(The Gold Coast event Nov. 4 begins at 6 p.m. For information and tickets, call 516-829-2570 or visit www.goldcoastarts.com.)