researcher working on diabetes

Ben Vereen interview by Chet Cooper

Ben Vereen is a dynamo. He’s been singing, dancing and acting his way through a dazzling career, earning a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway musical Pippin and rave reviews for his roles in the television mini-series Roots and the program Ellis Island. A veteran performer, he has acted in over 60 movies and major theater productions and has appeared on many hit TV shows such as The Nanny, Touched by an Angel, The Jamie Foxx Show and the prison drama Oz. His elastic movements, ready broad smile and exuberant energy have made him a favorite with audiences nationwide. But these days, Vereen is on a mission. While the versatile entertainer is delighted to talk about dance or music, his real desire is to awaken people to the gift of life.

This new calling hasn’t always been the path for Vereen, who is best known for his role as Chicken George in the award-winning 1970s mini-series Roots. As his career took off in the 1970s and 1980s, he developed an addiction to alcohol and cocaine, a problem that became worse during his grief after the death of his 16-year-old daughter Naja in a 1987 car accident. Five years later, his career and life took a dramatic turn when he himself was involved in a serious car accident that led to a devastating stroke and a shocking realization. “After all the years I spent helping other people with benefits and telethons and raising money for wheelchairs, all of a sudden I was using a wheelchair and I realized, Wow! This could happen to anybody.”

Vereen ultimately considered the accident to be the intervention that saved his life, interrupting his path of self-destruction. He sobered up and regained his spiritual balance. These days, his message is about showing up for life, and he speaks about it whenever possible. Whether he’s talking with children at a school, counseling prison inmates or attending a sparkling gala event, the message is the same.

But Vereen is still happiest when he’s on stage. After extensive rehabilitation, he was able to regain his mobility and returned to Broadway in 1993 as the Chimney Man in Jelly’s Last Jam. More recently, he has teamed up with Tony Award-winning director Stephen Schwartz to appear as the Wizard in the Broadway production of Wicked, a powerful musical billed as the untold story of the witches of Oz, examining the childhood friendship between the two girls who ultimately become Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Recently ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper spoke with Vereen about his Broadway role, his recovery from drug addiction and the accident that changed his life.

Chet Cooper: You’ve overcome quite a list of adversities.

Ben Vereen: We all have lessons we have to learn and they hit us at various times in life. But when we get the lessons, we can either lie there and pity ourselves in that place of pain or we can move on to the next lesson. Life is lived on very thin ice, and it all depends upon you. You never know when the ice is going to break and they’ll have to reach down there to pull you back.

CC: So you’re thankful if you learn how to swim early.

BV: (laughs) Yes. It’s always good to give praise and thanks. It’s hard sometimes because we deal with our human problems, but we must also remember we are really spiritual beings experiencing a human incarnation. Giving praise is not a religious thing, it’s a spiritual thing. There are many trails to the top of the mountain but there is only one mountaintop. Let’s get up to the mountaintop together so we can all sing and dance.

CC: That’s a very nice thought. Some of the spiritual understanding you’re talking about is the core of recovery from addiction, and I know you had an issue with addiction at one time. Can you talk a little about how that happened?

BV: Well, I was a 1960s man. It was cool to get high, and our country was going through a very heavy time of addiction. You formed a crowd and you went further and further. We had young men and young women coming home from a war that nobody wanted and they were spit upon; you’ve got to understand where we were in this country at that time. We survived that, it was another lesson for us, and hopefully we learned as a country. So going through that period and then falling into the addictions—yes, I went through that and yes, I came out of that.

CC: I understand you’ve created a foundation that’s helping people with drug addictions.

BV: It’s called Celebrities for a Drug-Free America. After going out and telling the world I had this addiction, I realized there are a lot of organizations out there having problems getting celebrities to come forward. I asked a group of friends to lend their names to this organization and make themselves available to help among the communities. We raised about $350,000 in Orange County, California, toward fighting drug addiction.

I also helped create a group in Chicago called Good Vibes. I was there studying with the Rev. Dr. Johnny Coleman and the Rev. Dr. Helen Carey, and a young lady who ran a dance studio called me. She said young dancers were coming to her concerned about what was going on in their schools and with their peers, and they wanted to do something about it. So they started a dance troupe, and I got involved with them. They asked me for a name and I said, “Why don’t you call yourselves Good Vibes, and the band will bring those good vibes to your neighborhood?” As a matter of fact, they’re still going on, I think in Milwaukee now.

Then I worked with some youth in rehabs and prisons, and with the Caring Foundation in West Palm Beach. I don’t know if we’ll ever end this drug thing because we’re in it too deep, but maybe as one person saves another we’ll eventually pull out of it.

CC: You mentioned the word rehab, talking about drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. But since your car crash you’ve also experienced a different form of rehab.

BV: Yes, the physical rehabilitation from the accident—actually three accidents in one day.

CC: Three accidents?

BV: I hit a tree with my car. Or rather, the tree hit my car and I hit my head on the roof of the car. (laughs) The impact damaged an artery to my brain, but I didn’t know I was injured. It was early in the morning and I started walking home, heading along Pacific Coast Highway—I was living in Malibu at the time.

As I was walking I had a stroke, and I guess I veered into the highway, where a truck hit me. I was pronounced dead at the scene. When I woke up in the hospital I was in the intensive care unit and didn’t know what had happened. As a matter of fact, the things I’m telling you are what people told me, because I don’t even remember getting into my car that day.

CC: So you’re saying this is hearsay?

BV: (laughs) Yes, this is hearsay. I’m just reporting what friends were telling me. The power of prayer that went up for me was incredible; they say people just fell to their knees in the lobby of the hospital. The outpouring of love was amazing. When I woke up in the hospital, they told me, “You’ve broken your femur and you can’t do your show,” and I was saying, “No, I’ve got to do my show”—I was in Las Vegas and playing the Riviera Hotel. I’d broken my leg, I’d had a stroke on my right side, I needed a tracheotomy to help me breathe, they’d taken my spleen, I had some apparatus in my head, I’d had a brain operation—but I figured they’d have me ready in two days to do my show, that’s what I was thinking to myself. I couldn’t even talk.

The doctors, the nurses, the aides, the occupational and physical therapists, and the angels all came to my side. At one point I felt I probably wouldn’t walk again. They knew I’d walk again, but they said it would take about three years and I should consider another career. Even with that discouraging news, I had to be encouraged inside. I had learned lessons about the power of positive thinking and positive affirmations from great teachers like Johnny Coleman, Helen Carey, Michael Beckwith and Barbara King. I’d been going around with my own struggles with life, testing it and toying with it. Now I was in the position to say to myself, Okay, I have to believe in the power that I’ve been telling everybody else about—I’m showing up and I’ll do the work. Maybe I’d never be able to walk again, maybe I’d never be able to talk again, but like a young man I met when I was in Kessler, rehabilitating…

CC: Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey?

BV: Yes, they had some fabulous therapists there. I met a wonderful kid named Michael who had been playing rugby and got tackled, injuring his spinal cord. I looked at this kid and he had a smile on his face. At first I thought, What’s there to smile about? The rest of his life is gone. Or at least that’s all I could see. I was struggling, trying to get myself back, fighting, and he was sitting in that chair every day and smiling. I walked by him and said, “Are you okay, man?” He said, “Benjamin, I’ve got life. Whatever life has chosen for me, I’ve got it. I’m alive and I’m going to be all right.” He went back to school, and I understand he’s a lawyer now, got married and is raising a family. Life goes on. Only the blocks we put in our way stand in the way of greatness—I’m preaching to myself here as I say this—and we’ve got to remove our own limitations.

CC: I was in Boston several years ago at a conference for occupational therapists and heard you give a talk about your recovery.

BV: Yes, I did that talk as thanks for what occupational therapists do, because they’re so overlooked. Before my accident, I didn’t know what occupational therapy meant. When they said occupational therapy, I thought they meant they were going to find me a new job!

When you wake up in the hospital, you say, “I’ve got to get back, I’ve got to physically get strong, I’ve got to be able to move a truck, I’ve got to be able to run again.” Well, it’s those little, fine motor skills that make those big muscles work, and occupational therapists deal with that. They teach you how to feed yourself, how to dress yourself, how to use your hands and your fingers, how to work with the little things that make the big things happen. I was honored to be at that conference and say, “Thank you,” to give them praise, to give them equal billing with physical therapists because they work hand in hand.

CC: Changing topics, how long will you be appearing on Broadway in Wicked?

BV: I’ll be here for seven months. The theaters are doing wonderful things now for performers. The Gershwin Theatre makes a physical therapist available to the cast, I believe for every show, but especially when they have a physical show such as this one. It’s so important for the health of the cast and the prevention of injuries. I have physical therapy here and then I also go on the outside.

This body is your temple; it’s your vehicle through life. We treat our automobiles better than we treat our human bodies...Continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the John Ratzenberger issue include Letter from the Editor — Breast Cancer; Screening; Letter from Congressman RamstadTelehealth Technology; HeadlinesAFB, IBM and Technology Innovators; HumorEverybody is Somebody; Etiquette of GriefHelpful Tips on How to Respond; Mary Jo CodeyNew Jersey First Lady Speaks Out on Postpartum Depression; Paralympic Military ProgramCalifornia Clinic; Braille InstituteSeeing Life Through the Camera; RecipesDesserts to Feel Good About; Univ. Design/VisitabilityBuilding Neighborhoods; EmploymentNo Hands? No Problem; Events and Conferences... subscribe

More excerpts from the John Ratzenberger issue:

John Ratzenberger — Comic Roots, Cheers, and His Call to Action

Ben Vereen — A Wicked Interview with the Broadway Star

Diabetes — What Everyone Should Know

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome What You Didnít Know

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