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
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
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
Other articles in the John
Ratzenberger issue include Letter
from the Editor — Breast Cancer;
Screening; Letter from Congressman Ramstad
— Telehealth Technology; Headlines
— AFB, IBM and Technology Innovators; Humor
— Everybody is Somebody; Etiquette of Grief
— Helpful Tips on How to Respond; Mary Jo
— New Jersey First Lady Speaks Out on
Postpartum Depression; Paralympic Military Program
— California Clinic; Braille Institute
— Seeing Life Through the Camera; Recipes
— Desserts to Feel Good About; Univ. Design/Visitability
— Building Neighborhoods; Employment
— No Hands? No Problem; Events and Conferences...