Geoffrey Holder, Dancer, Choreographer, Actor, Artist, Has Died

The distinctive artist had "a voice as deep as Othello and as smooth as Caribbean rum"

Photo: Mychal Watts/Wireimage

Geoffrey Holder, a larger-than-life presence in the worlds of movies, stage, TV, art, publishing, music, dance – even advertising – died of pneumonia Sunday, The New York Times reports. He was 84 and a resident at the Lillian Booth Actors Home of The Actors Fund in Englewood, New Jersey.

Holder’s imposing 6’6″ frame could barely contain his many talents, and a 1975 PEOPLE profile that ran at the time he won two Tonys for his directing and costuming Broadway’s groundbreaking The Wiz described him as having “a voice as deep as Othello and as smooth as Caribbean rum.”

TV watchers will remember him as the pitchman for the soft drink 7-Up, which he called “the un-cola,” while movie buffs will remember him as tribal chief Willie Shakespeare in the original Doctor Dolittle, the ominous Baron Samedi in the 007 caper Live and Let Die and the mystical Punjab in the 1982 musical Annie.

Holder got his first whiff of creativity while growing up the son of a salesman “with brains” in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Holder’s parents encouraged him and his older equally multifaceted brother Boscoe (who became a London-based artist) to develop all their talents – as painters, singers, musicians.

Holder first came to New York in 1953 with his own folk dance company and the following year danced on Broadway in the Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical House of Flowers. There he met dancer Carmen de Lavallade and proposed four days later – though she did not accept until she visited his apartment and, as Holder told PEOPLE with his hearty laugh, “discovered that all the paintings on the walls looked like her.”

Their son Léo was born in 1957.

As PEOPLE also reported, Holder’s lush impressionist paintings hung in the Barbados Museum and Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, as well as in the homes of such luminaries as showbiz legend Lena Horne and conservative political pundit William F. Buckley.

For two years Holder was a principal dancer of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and he remained active in the world of dance, choreographing works for the Dance Theater of Harlem and Alvin Ailey.

On the subject of his TV commercials, Holder remained firm, even philosophical: “I’m no snob. The commercial is an art form unto itself. After all, you are seducing people.”

Friends adored him not only for his generous spirit but for his cooking. He even wrote a book on the subject, Geoffrey Holder’s Caribbean Cookbook, which included tantalizing recipes for orange rice, king turtle stew, coconut chicken sigurd and salt-fish pie.

Like the man himself, totally distinctive.

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