When last seen at the stirring climax of the epic, eight-night saga of Roots a year ago, Ben Vereen, as Chicken George, was triumphantly leading his slave family over the hills to freedom. For Vereen himself, his career breakthrough promised to be almost as dramatic, forever freeing him from the restrictions of a singer-dancer hyphenate.
Or did it? Hard after Roots, ABC came around with a proposal for Vereen to go from Chicken George’s Promised Land to its new Carter Country. “That embarrassed me,” the otherwise gentle-mannered Vereen snorts, bristling at the idea of Kunte Kinte’s grandson winding up in a redneck-baiting sitcom. “It was an insult to my talent and my intelligence.” Vereen has so far spurned tempting (and lucrative) offers to star in next year’s Roots sequel. “It’s commercialism,” he says, while not totally ruling out a deal. “Sequels have a sad tendency not to work. Roots should endure just as the classic it is.”
Instead, the protean Vereen is, at 31, veering all over the map. On March 2 he displays his virtuoso dancing and singing in a warmly ingratiating ABC variety special, Ben Vereen—His Roots. He has simultaneously signed a six-figure-per-week deal (“I couldn’t believe six digits,” he exclaims) to headline at Las Vegas’ Riviera Hotel. His third solo record album is coming out this spring. A Broadway play is in the wings, and he’s pondering a role in the movie version of Frankcina Glass’ novel, Marvin & Tige.
If Vereen sometimes feels like six talents in search of an offer, he has at least achieved continuity at home. After their marriage Ben and his second wife, Nancy Brunner, 32, a former ballet dancer and chorine, moved from their New York haunts to the Hollywood hills. Nancy is studying Afro-American history at UCLA and helping Ben research his studies of black showbiz pioneers like Bert Williams and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. (He incorporates tributes to them in his live shows.)
Born one of nine children in Florida but raised in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, Vereen “wasn’t a trunk baby but a Bible baby.” His father, a paint factory laborer, was a Baptist deacon, and his uncle was a Pentecostal minister. His mother worked as a matron in a movie theater. Shy at first, Ben started dancing in junior high school “because it was a way to get a girl.” After graduation from the High School of Performing Arts, he studied at Manhattan’s Pentecostal Theological Seminary. “The ministry was the only alternative to the ghetto,” he believed. “That and crime.” Six months later, though, Vereen’s clerical calling seemed over. So, not long after that, was his brief first marriage.
“I decided to shift my pulpit to the entertainment business,” says Vereen, who did summer stock and toured with Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity. Broadway roles followed in Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1973 Vereen won a Tony as the Mephistophelian “Leading Player” in Fosse’s Pippin. Along the way, Ben had met Nancy and begun his second family of four daughters. (He helped deliver the youngest by the La-maze and Leboyer methods.)
For all his dancing athleticism, the 5’9″, 145-pound Vereen is only now getting into sports, playing basketball and whacking tennis balls with his pal Bill Cosby. He’s building a private court to go with other status accoutrements, like a horse he named Rhapsody and a gray Mercedes. “I would like more time,” he says, “to pursue all the things I’ve gotten into.” That includes an old dream of learning French, for Vereen believes his own roots trace to a French plantation in Louisiana (“Lots of white slaveowners were illiterate themselves, so there were no records”). “I intend,” he states with a Gallic grin, “to be the black Charles Aznavour.”