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Ben Vereen has had a decades-long career as an actor, singer and dancer. An early high note came when he played Chicken George in “Roots,” one of the most-watched TV miniseries ever in the United States. He has starred in numerous Broadway musicals, winning a Tony award in 1973 for his role in “Pippin.” Vereen’s world came to a halt when, in one day, he had a car accident, a stroke and then was hit by a truck. After intensive rehab, he came back with force — and new appreciation for life. While in D.C. to receive an award for his raising awareness about diabetes, a condition he was diagnosed with five years ago, he talks with Diane about his life and career.
- Ben Vereen Tony Award-winning actor, singer and dancer.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Many remember his role as Chicken George in the TV mini-series "Roots." Others have seen him on Broadway where he appeared in "Hair," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Pippin." I'm talking about Ben Vereen, singer, dancer and Tony Award-winning actor.
MS. DIANE REHMTwenty years ago, he was in an accident that shattered his body and for a time, his career. Today, he says he celebrates the anniversary of that accident because it gave him a second chance. Ben Vereen joins me in the studio to talk about his life onstage, TV and film and how he overcame some devastating setbacks.
MS. DIANE REHMYou're invited to be part of the program. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, it's so good to have you here.
MR. BEN VEREENIt's wonderful to be here, Diane. This is amazing.
REHMWell, first and foremost, congratulations on this award from the American Diabetes Association.
VEREENIsn't that amazing? You know, with all my awards, you know, I'm flattered and I'm flabbergasted. You know, when I first received an award for working on Broadway, my Tony, my first nomination, I didn't know who Tony was.
VEREENAnd nor did I care. I was happy to be employed and with this diabetes award, I thanked the American Diabetes Association for giving me the award. But, you know, at the same time, I didn't go into this movement for an award. I entered for the award at the end when we have a healing component so nobody else has diabetes on our planet.
REHMTell me how you first found out you had diabetes?
VEREENWell, here's the thing. We're taught how to make a living instead of how to live and if we were taught how to live, we'd know what the signals and signs were to look for in life. And I had no idea that dry mouth and being thirsty all the time or that, you know, urinating all the time, that feeling lethargic and not wanting to exercise or go to the gym, sitting around, having a craving for sugar that I couldn't explain and passing out and feeling light-headed, that these were red flags.
VEREENAnd so when I passed out just before Christmas in Los Angeles, my daughter took me to the hospital and they kept me overnight to give me a blood test and that sort of thing. They said, we'll do a dry fast on you and as soon as the dry fast was over, of course, I ate, you know, call a Chinese restaurant. Let me have some of those ribs and everything. And they came and they said, Mr. Vereen, you have Type 2 diabetes.
VEREENAnd I, of course, like most people, like everyone when you're told that you have something devastating like that, you panic. And I said, well, how am I going to live? I knew about diabetes because I played a character who lived with diabetes.
VEREENI'd seen people. I'd heard about it, you know, through my life, but I wasn't a participant. I was an observer in this arena and now I was -- now here I am on the playing field.
REHMExactly. And then what did you do to get your diabetes under control?
VEREENWell, once they told me, I accepted it and said, well, how am I going to deal with this? And I knew it had to do with sugar you see and so I said, well, okay, I've got to -- I'll stop eating sugar. I'll just stop eating sugar.
VEREENAnd I go through the grocery store and I'm reading everything has sugar in it.
VEREENSo I go to my doctor and say, how am I going to live with this? And he said, simple, he says. He put me on insulin and he said, now just change your eating habits and exercise. I said, is that it? He said, yeah. He said, just change your eating habits.
VEREENSo I chose -- for me, I chose to become vegan and of course, I exercise. I dance, you know, so I found myself doing more of that and got it under control. And then I called a company called Sanofi US and I told them, I said, I want to talk about the positive things about diabetes, that you're not suffering, that you're living, that you're not -- you don't have a challenge. You have an opportunity, if you do the right thing.
VEREENAnd they were kind enough to put me with a foundation called Taking Control of Your Diabetes, Dr. Edelman's foundation, and we formed a thing called STAND, Start Taking Action Now for Diabetes. We have a website, standfordiabetes.org, where we tell people -- give people information about diabetes and what to ask your doctors.
VEREENYou know, we try to take the fear factor away. Yes, the horrors do happen. Yes, if you don't take care of your diabetes, yes, you will have, yes, amputee happens, yes, liver problems happens, yes, heart failure happens, yes, death does happen. But here's the good news. If you do the proper thing, if you do the right things, you'll have a good life.
REHMBen Vereen, he has just received an award from the American Diabetes Association at a forum here in Washington, D.C. Do join us, 800-433-8850. I must say you look so well and diabetes is clearly not the first medical challenge you've faced. What happened, tell us, on June 9, 1992?
VEREENOkay. First of all, I look so good because I'm living with diabetes.
REHMYes, I understand that.
VEREENIn 1992, as a lot of people know, I had three accidents in one day. I was driving my car and I also tell people a tree ran out and hit my car and I hit my head on the roof of the car, damaging an artery to the brain and I didn't know this. And I was walking home later that morning and had a stroke and was hit by a truck.
VEREENAnd the guy driving the SUV was a friend of mine I'd met years ago.
VEREENYou know him, his name is David Foster. And I often tell David, you know, because to this day, he doesn't understand why I didn't sue him because he saved my life. You see ,on the highway where I was hit, there was no lights and he could have gone on and I wouldn't be here today.
VEREENBut he stayed there and watched over me and called the paramedics and I woke up in the hospital and I didn't know what had happened. All I knew was I was lying in hospital and had a broken leg and a stroke. They had taken my spleen. I had a trach. I had all sorts of apparatuses going around.
VEREENI'm going, what? I'm thinking in my head what happened because that's the wonderful thing about the human body, you know. It sort of like pulls you out, you know, to deal with, you know, what it has to do. And to this day, I can't remember the actual impact, but when I woke up in the hospital and I'm looking at myself and as far as I -- the doctor said it would be three years before I'd ever walk again.
VEREENAnd they said as far as a career, they said, you should think about another occupation. And so, you know, I was like devastated because here I am, you know, I'm thinking I'm -- see, the actor and a performer and the entertainer that I am, I'm lying in this devastating situation and I'm thinking to myself, they've got to fix this because I've got a show on Saturday.
REHMExactly, I can just imagine.
VEREENOkay, this has passed. This will pass, I know. You guys will fix me and I'll be up onstage on Saturday. And they came in, the occupational therapist came in, the physical therapist came in and they went to work. But most of all, I credit my audiences for their prayers because that's what the energy to change, the prayers that went up, the call-out for my healing.
VEREENAnd I was lying in this bed in the belly of prayers and it was amazing. And to all of those, your listeners out there who knew about this, who prayed for me, I want to thank you.
REHMOf course, there was also another car accident...
REHM...that affected you so tremendously...
VEREENYes, when I lost my daughter. And that's something that, you know, I would have gone -- I would go through to this day, that accident every day if I could have it back. But I have her in my heart and she lives with me always and that's something that I'll never forget. And to tell you the truth, you know, I don't want to forget. But I have her here in my heart and she's with me always.
REHMOf course, Ben, you turned your life around after that stroke. What changes did you make?
VEREENWell, I don't go walking on the highway anymore. That's for sure, you know. That's an interesting thing about, you know, going through something like that. And I had two knee replacements and I went back to work, you know, and because of the prayers and, of course, all the hard work and the physical therapists and the occupational therapists and the wonderful inspiration of people, friends like Gregory Hines who told me to come this way in "Jelly's Last Jam" and gave me the opportunity to reach for something, you know, greater than myself, beyond myself.
VEREENI was back to work ten months after the accident, you know, so I tell you that story because to encourage your listeners out there who may be going through adversity or know someone who is going through adversity. There's something inside of you that's greater than you and if you can get in touch with that something, no matter what you call it, God, Allah, Buddha, Jesus, Elam, Yahweh.
VEREENGet (word?) if anything works and it will work if you open yourself to it and surrender. And because of those prayers, I surrendered because I was in no position to do anything for myself but surrender to it, but I had to show up. It's the one thing you have to show up. You can't just lay there and say, well, I know that God is going to heal me and just lay back.
VEREENNo. God needs you to be god so you gotta show up so that God can do the wonderful work. God, Allah, whoever you call that divinity that works for you in your life.
REHMBut you did not just have to change your eating habits as you did with diabetes, you also had to change your living habits.
VEREENWell, you know, because of, you know, physical therapy, which you know, I still do today. You know, I had to change the way I approach my dancing. I had to re-learn to sing because my voice was -- I went to a guy named Dr. Riley (sp?) because Dr. Gould (sp?) was my doctor at the time. He turned me on to a guy named Dr. Riley who, you know, heard my -- and, you know, I went to him and I went, ahh. I couldn't sing.
VEREENAnd I looked at him and he said, well, he said, I'm thinking. It is interesting. When I was lying in the hospital in Kessler, in New Jersey, recovering at the time -- and they were wonderful, amazing people and I was really working hard before I went down to "Jelly's" last year or (word?) to get back. And I was just working and praying and I'd meditate and I'd get up and I'd work, work, work and I felt like I wasn't going anywhere.
VEREENAnd I got a phone call from my good friend Chita Rivera and she had been in an accident some time ago. And I said to her, I said, Chita, you know, I was in tears. I said, Chita, will I ever dance again? And she said, yeah, you'll dance again, but you'll dance differently and viva la difference. And I went, wow. And she went, and the next thing I know, boom, I'm in "Jelly's" last year. You see how the universe works?
REHMAnd it does work if you work and clearly you...
VEREENExactly right, exactly.
REHM...made it work for you.
VEREENYou've got to show up. You can't expect it to work if you don't show up and do the work.
REHMBen Vereen, actor, singer, dancer, he was last on this program with Judd Hirsch in 2002 to talk about their roles in the play "I'm Not Rappaport." We're talking about his life, his career. We'll take your calls after a short break, stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. Ben Vereen is with me. You know his career as actor, singer, dancer. He's in Washington because yesterday the American Diabetes Association presented him with its annual major award. Here's an email from Katy in Chapel Hill who says, "Thank you, Ben, for your work on and offstage. I fell in love with you when I was 12 years old and went with my class to see our local high school production of "Pippin." I bought a tape recording of the Broadway production you were in and loved the warmth, humor and zest for life of your singing voice."
REHMOh, that wonderful voice of yours.
VEREENListen to that kid.
REHMListen to that kid. How old were you then?
VEREENOh god, I was like 22, 27, in there.
REHMHow'd you get that role?
VEREENIt was interesting. I had worked with Bob Fosse and Sweet Charity and I was doing a show called "Jesus Christ Superstar" directed by Tom O'Horgan. And I'd heard that he was about to do this show by Stephen Schwartz called "Pippin" written by Roger Hirson. And so I just -- I didn't want the show. I wanted to show Bob how I'd grown as an entertainer 'cause I'd done my first concert and I was -- you know, I wanted him to see how I'd come along in those years we hadn't seen each other.
VEREENAnd I was nominated that year for my first Tony, was "Jesus Christ Superstar" and I got a call from Bob -- I couldn't get into the audition -- Bob finally called and said come to the audition. So I went down to the audition, I sang for him and I did the monolog and he said, well the reading isn't too good and he said, but okay, he said, you know, we'll get in touch with you. And I got the call that he wanted me to do the show and they sent me the script, his new role. They had no role (unintelligible) on page.
VEREENAnd I went to my agent at the time, I said, there's no role. He said, this show, he says, is about a -- this show there's 80 percent chance it won't make it. So I said, well if Bob's going to do it I'm going to do the show. And I went into the show and boom, the rest is history.
REHMWow. Isn't that incredible?
REHMSo it goes back to your point, you just show up...
VEREENYou got to show up
VEREEN...and do the work and there it was.
VEREENThat's right, just show up.
REHMYou had such a good time. Tell us about your experience with Arthur Mitchell, the founder of the Dance Theater...
VEREENYeah, you know, when I was in high school -- High School of Performing Arts in the upper division of 46th Street, Arthur Mitchell's picture was on the wall as, you know, a young African American dancer, you know, with the American Ballet. And it was like an icon to me. And so when I got out of school and -- in those days, you know, I was just in high school -- and there was a rumor that there was like cats like Lester Wilson running his choreographer -- wonderful choreographer, and he said that, you know, Art was doing this company called the -- you know, the first African American Ballet Company.
VEREENAnd he asked me if I'd like to be in it and I said, yeah. And there I was sitting in front of Carmen Dilobilon (sp?) , you know, was a wonderful dancer. We do dances -- pieces by (unintelligible) and by Jerome Robbins. And it was a wonderful opportunity. Paula Kelly was in the company. It was the first African American company and we were going Dakar, Africa to represent America, you know, the dance. And the government I guess cancelled and so the company disbursed and we never got there. But it was a magnificent company.
REHMBut you know...
VEREENDonald Maceo's (sp?) choreography. Oh god, it was great.
REHMAnd the whole issue of a young black man dancing, how did those around you react to that?
VEREENWell, in my neighborhood, it was a (word?) In my neighborhood, you didn't talk about it, you know, because (unintelligible) I come from Brooklyn and my neighborhood, you know, we were around gangs. You know, I was a gangbanger, you know, they call them today, so I'd run the streets. And all of a sudden, here I am pulled out, you know. You know, so that why I believe in divine destiny. You know, I was pulled out and I was placed into the arts. And now I got to go back home where it was not the arts of the performing arts. It was another art form.
VEREENAnd the kids in my block didn't understand, you know, me walking on the dance bag. So I'd hide my dance bag before I go to school. And when I began to make it, you know, and they get to see me on television -- my father refused to come to any of my dance concerts. And I thought, he didn't see me really -- well, he came to see me in "Jesus Christ Superstar" and I did this one scene where I had, you know, I was playing -- Tom had me as a butterfly, and he metamorphed into a butterfly. And I went up to this, you know, in this cave down I had on just briefs.
VEREENAnd I came -- he came backstage, I said, well dad, what did you think? I was so proud my dad was there and he looked at me and said, boy you better put on some clothes you gonna be out there on that stage. But he never came and saw me in a show until he saw me on TV as Chicken George, then he became very proud. He said, that's my boy right there, that Chicken George, that's my boy.
REHMHow about your mom?
VEREENMom was always there. Mom -- you know, my parents were domestic workers, you know, and they were from the South. And she just wanted to, you know, me to get something better for me. Every parent wants for their child to be better. You have something better for them. And where we came from, you know, this guy came on the block and said, you know, this kid -- you know, why don't you put this kid in dance school. She didn't know what it was. She said, put him in dance school. Same thing with singing. She said, put him in church. Let him start singing. So she was always there. Always -- my mom was always there.
REHMI want to have our listeners hear this scene from "Roots."
REHMWhoa. Do you remember that?
VEREENOh, yes, Leslie, my darling...
REHMThat's Leslie Uggams...
VEREEN...Uggams, yes, powerful scene.
REHM...delivering that line.
VEREENYeah, yes, yes, yes. There's another show that my agent told me they didn't want me for. He said, you’re a song and dance man. They're looking for actors. I fired him later.
REHMThey were looking for actors.
REHMAnd so you didn't think you were going to get it?
VEREENNo. Matter of fact, I didn't go for the audition. Matter of fact I was -- I used to do a character called Bert Williams. It was a parody on African Americans who had -- well, who wanted to be on the American stage but they were told they had to wear black face. And so I did a Parody on that and I was doing it in Savannah, Ga.
VEREENAnd a guy was in the audience that day named Stan Margulies who was watching my show. And he came -- he was the executive producer of "Roots" along with David Wolper. And he came backstage and he said, I want you to be my Chicken George and that's how I got into "Roots." I didn't audition.
REHMAnd how did you feel about that role?
VEREENI wanted to be a part of "Roots." I didn't care. I didn't know who Chicken George was because I hadn't read the book because the book wasn't out. I just wanted to be a part of it because of the fact that in American in those days there wasn't much -- when I was growing up there wasn't anything on African-Americans in American (unintelligible) . It was you were a slave and Lincoln freed you and that wasn't the truth of it. I wanted to know something about my history.
VEREENAnd here's this man, all praises Alex Haley, who had gone back and found, you know, his family and brought it to the screen and brought it to the book, brought it to the consciousness of the world. And everyone wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be a part of that. So I was excited.
REHMHow far do you think we've come?
VEREENWe've come as a nation?
VEREENWe have the first African American president. I think we've come a long way, but here's the deal. You know, because he's African American doesn't mean that, you know, he's going to change everything. We the people are the changers. If we want change, we've got to change. You know, he is a symbol of change.
REHMSammy Davis, Jr. was one of your early role models.
REHMTell me about him.
VEREENWell, you know, Sammy was on -- you know, when I talk about my show -- I do a show now -- I'm getting ready to write a bigger show called "The Last of the Showmen" where I pay tribute to all the wonderful people that my audiences have allowed me to meet and work with. And it's a tribute to my audiences. And I talk about Sam, you know, and how he was the icon before icon was even a word. You know, on TV, you know, he was the only one along with Nat King Cole when I was growing up, you know, who was -- you know, you turn on the TV and there he was. And he did everything.
VEREENAnd then I grew up and I had the opportunity to work with this man. I remember in Brooklyn they had a parade for Floyd Patterson. And there was Sammy David, Jr. on the float with Floyd Patterson. And I was a kid and wow. And then I had the opportunity to work with this man, to meet him and shake his hand and be in his company? It was unbelievable. And for him to call me friend? Oh, I've had a blessed life.
REHMAnd Frank Sinatra as well.
VEREENAnd Frank and all the guys, you know, the Rat Pack, you know, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, all those guys. You know, I used to run around with them all, you know. And I've had a blessed life. And I'll write it all in my book.
REHMAnd you've got to write it in your book, of course, but this is clearly how you feel.
VEREENLive and laugh at it all. You know, at the end of the day, all you've got is the love that you brought.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." When would that performance have been? Do you recall?
VEREENOh, that was -- when was that? That was...
REHMIt was with the Bob Fosse Review.
VEREEN...it was Bob -- yes, it was. It was 2000.
VEREENYes, it was.
REHMIf you were to sing that song now, how different might it sound?
VEREENOh well, I'm a little older now. It has more resonance, I think. And, you know, the more you live, the more you begin to realize things, that life is a bowl of -- that was Bob's theory. That was his theme, life's just a bowl of cherries. You know, don't -- he say to me, he said, Ben, don't get upset about things. This too will pass. What's important is you.
REHMDon't concentrate on the changes...
VEREEN...on the negative.
REHM...just live it.
VEREENLive it. You know, we have a tendency to focus on that which is destructive to us. In our minds, you know, we think the enemies out there as in Iraq, as in Iran, you know, the guy down the street. No, the enemy's within. And what we've got to do is quiet ourselves within and come to peace with that and look at the positive of our life, the good stuff, and say that I'm going to nurture.
REHMAll right. We're going to nurture some callers here and open the phones. Let's go first to Victoria in Okmulg -- pronounce the name of your town for me, Victoria.
VICTORIAThe name of the town is Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
REHMOkay. Go right ahead.
VICTORIAHello, Mr. Ben Vereen and I'm almost too ecstatic to talk. And thank you, Diane. I've always enjoyed the show. Ben, I'll get to my question real quick. The role that you have played in theater and on stage, where -- what -- what do you see the -- where do you see the African American male evolving in the leading roles on theater and in TV. Because I recently had my cable turned off and the lady simply asked me, she said, why are you having your cable turned off, ma'am? I said, you know what? I'm sorry. I want to see more people of a variety on cable and on television. And I can no longer continue to pay for this. And that's my perspective.
VEREENThat's very good. You know, see, it's consciousness like that that's going to change, but don't turn off the cable, right, in protest. Let the people know what you want. I agree, you know, that we need to have more diverse. We're called America, you know, the United States of America, not the divided states of America. So we want the United States. We all -- that means we have an equal playing ground and we need to let the network know that we want more representation of who we are as a nation to the world. And as long as we accept the separation the separation will remain. So bravo. Bravo to you.
VEREENBut now don't only cut it off. Write somebody. Let them know. Get the community together and say, this is what we want. We're not condemning you. We want to enhance you to enhance us.
REHMShe also wanted to know what role has taught you the most about being black in America?
VEREENIt was -- it's obvious, Chicken George, "Roots." You know, that's the foundation from which we come. And it taught me, you know, about the fact of, you know -- first of all, let's go back to the source. We all come from a divine divinity called God, Allah, Buddha. That is the seed of our roots, the foundation on which we're all built upon. But origin-wise, you know, I am an African American, you know.
VEREENAnd so therefore, I bring that legacy to the table and it enhances the American coalition, the American colors, the fiber of the United. That's the role that taught me a lot about my African American heritage in which I'm honored and bravo to Alex Haley for opening that door for me.
REHMI should say. Ben Vereen, actor, singer, dancer. He's here in Washington because he was presented with an award from the American Diabetes Association for which he proudly stands and says, you have to learn to take care of yourself. Stay with us.
REHMAnd here's a posting for Ben Vereen on Facebook. It's from Steve, who says, "One of my most memorable moments was in the '80s when Mr. Vereen came to my high school in St. Louis for a surprise assembly during the seventh hour. He was performing at the Fox Theater. He came and spoke about show business." And he says, "Thank you for your wonderful career so far." Which is going on, you're leaving here, going to Biloxi, Miss. What are you going to do?
VEREENWe're working with the symphony in Biloxi. And I do this show, it's called "Stepping Out Live," which is from my CD. And it pays tribute to the people that -- what has allowed me the opportunity to work with. And it's a precursor to a bigger show, which we're preparing for Broadway, called "The Last of the Showmen." And it's not about me as much, ergo as I'm talking about my career, but it's really about us as a people and what you've allowed me to live, allowed me this career.
VEREENAnd so it's about us, the time that we've lived in, of sorts. It could be just not only about show business, it's about our history, as well, and where we are today and we're going to.
REHMAnd we have an email. Someone asking, "Can you please ask Mr. Vereen to speak about working with Bob Fosse on stage and movies?"
VEREENAmazing. He was amazing. He is an amazing. I say is because his spirit is still with me. Bob was the one who really -- the first one I worked with out of high school was "Sweet Charity," and he was a disciplinarian. I talk about in my show how he would come on stage and he would be smoking a cigarette and the ashes wouldn't fall when he'd do the combination. He was an amazingly smooth gentleman. And he taught me so much about style. When I came to him, a review -- I had just finished a work with Tom O'Horgan, "Jesus Christ Superstar."
VEREENAnd a review in The New York Times said Jeff Fenholt plays Jesus Christ in "Jesus Christ Superstar," gets lost in the scenery. Vereen tears up the scenery looking for him. And Bob took that--he said, I want to give you focus. And he gave me focus.
REHMHere Rona, who is a retired occupational therapy educator, says, "Thank you so much for acknowledging the contribution of occupational therapists in your rehab. I heard you deliver the keynote address at the national conference of the American Occupational Therapy Association and showed the video of your speech to my students for years."
REHMAnd here is Angelie from Orlando, Fla., an occupational therapist herself. Good morning.
ANGELIEHi, good morning, Diane. I love your show.
ANGELIEAnd Mr. Vereen, I'm a fellow Zooble from Zoobilee Zoo.
VEREENHello there, Zooble. How are you?
ANGELIEMr. Vereen, I met you last year at St. Augustine's, Florida Occupational Therapy Association and Conference and what I wanted you to tell the callers is what advice do you give people currently going through rehab that kind of got you through your rehab process after your stroke.
VEREENWell, first of all, I want to thank Karen Cameron for, you know, she was my first occupational therapist, along with others, many others. She's just one Texas, her and another girl, another lady who worked with me, but, you know, I didn't know about the wonderful work that you do, the five motor skills. When they said occupational therapy I thought it meant they'd show me how to get a new job, get a new occupation.
VEREENI didn't know that you worked in fine motor skills. And we have an over tendency as a people, the first thing that you think of when you're in that sort of situation, well, I gotta get to the gym. I gotta get to physical therapy. I gotta get, you know, we don't think about the facts. In order to do the bigger work, you gotta define small work in order to activate those cells and activate those muscles inside to do the bigger work. So I'm thankful to you.
VEREENAnd to those people who are going through that or who have come or are in that place where I've been, and I call them my family now, is you have to understand that you're in the university of the inch worm. And when I say that, if you look at an inch worm and you look at a football field and you turn and you talk to your friend for awhile, it looks like you'll never get across that football field, but inch by inch you'll make it there. And once you get there you'll celebrate, but it's inch by inch. And you occupational therapists and you physical therapist, you guide the human toy back to where it's going to be.
VEREENBut we've got to, in our minds, we've got to show up and be accepting and surrender to the fact that our new life is now beginning because you're there. So thank you.
REHMAngelie, thanks for calling. To Pittsburgh, Pa. Good morning, Amy.
AMYGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
AMYI’m calling because throughout what I've seen of Mr. Vereen's career you've always been positive, you've always been smiling. And I wanted to know if after your accident or after your diagnosis you went through the period of anger and denial and how you sort of worked through that for other people who may get that diagnosis of a chronic disease and they're sort of confronting those emotions, how you worked your way through them.
VEREENYou know you have a choice. You can either lay down or you can get up. The choice is yours. I chose to get up. I chose not to just lay there and wallow in it. And a lot of people do. They get a diagnosis and they go, okay, I accept this, you know. But what you gotta understand that that's human, that's man's frailty. Man sees only the human, but there's something greater going on and if we can tune into that and realize, okay, that's your diagnoses, but I know there's something greater going on here.
VEREENIf I can tune into that, that will get me through, you know. There's a song that Mahalia Jackson used to sing. It's called, "How I Got Over." My soul looks back and wonders how I got over. It's once you do the work. You do the work.
REHMI want to ask you about something that did hit you kind of hard. And that's while you were getting ready to travel abroad with Sammy Davis, Jr., you learned you had been adopted. How did that affect you and why do you think that hit you so hard?
VEREENWell, you know, first of all, you grow up thinking you're one person and then you find out you're not that person. You think you have a family and that your family's your family and that, you know, you're solid in that family. And then you find out that your whole life's a lie and somebody lied to you, you know, like we all get. You know, we all get that, so somebody's lying to me. You know, we talk about that today, about what's going on in the world with the economy and everything.
VEREENI said, wow, you know, and when I could walk, I wrote down to Florida and they said that that wasn't, you know, Benjamin Vereen wasn’t there. And I said, well, you gotta be kidding me. And I called my mother and I said, Mom, what is this? Will you call these people, just straighten them out? And I told her what they had said and she said, her voice was, I was hoping you'd never know. And my knees went out. My body just went, what? And she said, I was hoping you'd never know and hung up.
VEREENAnd I'm like--'cause she was hurt. She was devastated 'cause all of her life she was thinking I would never find out. You know, look, we were, you know, we lived in the ghetto of, you know, Brooklyn and, you know, we were living our life. And I was never was supposed to leave Brooklyn, you know. And I was always going to be around, but her dream was that I would get out. And when I got out I found out these things and it devastated her. And I came back from London--I did get to London. And I came back and I looked in her eyes, I said, you're the only eyes I've ever seen, you're my mother and I love you.
VEREENSo, you know, you go through things like that and then you say, okay, all right. Why? Why? You know, I lost my daughter. I got angry with God. Why? How dare you take my child without asking my--take me. You go through that, but there's something that's, you know, we used to sing a song at church. There's something within me, that holdeth the rain. There's something within me, I cannot explain. All I can say is there's something within. And that something within has led me and guided me through my entire life.
VEREENNo matter what my conscious, my human mind was saying, that thing within me, that spiritual thing within me was guiding me and pushing me on. And I'd wake up and I'd get up. Wake up, get up, you know. Some people wake up and lay down. I woke up and I get up.
REHMDid she tell you the story?
VEREENYes, she did. And I went and I found out. I waited until my mother made her transition and she died. And then I went looking for my family. And I recently found them about five years ago. And found out though -- this is interesting and this is gonna be in my book, as well -- that my mother, my biological mother, who is no longer with us, lived only an hour away from me my entire life. And my first marriage was to my -- I found out my grandfather was one of the originators of the Holiness Church in the South.
VEREENAnd I married -- my first wife was to a Holiness Bishop in the North. And we used to go up to Connecticut where she lived and my sister lives there, Gloria Walker. Hi Baby, how you doing? And we used to go up there every, you know, every year we'd go up there when I first married. And when we got my -- found my family, we had a family reunion, my first wife's aunt came to the reunion. And she looked at me and she said, you're Essie's son?
VEREENAnd I said, yes. She said Essie was my best friend. We were that -- we could have been in a room as close as you and I, Diane, and never knew we were, 'cause I was raised as Vereen, you know, and she was Middleton. And so we never really connected. And she kept that secret into her grave. And when I finally met my sister, she said she didn't know that I existed. The family knew she had lost a child, but they did not know it was -- they thought it was a female. And when I met my aunt, Aunt Estla (sp?) and she said, you know, she said we knew she had lost it, but she kept that secret with her until she made her transition.
VEREENAnd my sister said, you know, she said used to watch you. She said when you were on TV we had to be quiet in the house.
REHMSo she knew.
VEREENYou know, she knew something.
VEREENBut she didn't know it was me. See, that's her saying, that's that …
VEREEN… spiritual thing. That's that stuff that's so deep, you know, that we build churches and synagogues and mosques to, you know, that's some of that things that's beyond words. It's the love.
REHMJust an incredible story. Let's go to Columbia, Md. Good morning, Ed.
EDGood morning. Ben Vereen mentioned that he portrayed Burt Williams. I think that was the same program that described the end of the minstrel tradition in show business and its transfer into straight-forward musical comedy. I've not been able to locate that program since and I wonder if you could help me with that.
VEREENI don't know about that particular piece. You know, I did Burt Williams as a wake up. And of course I got slammed for it because of the fact that it was sort of the period when, you know, African-Americans didn't want to realize that that was part of our history. And I did it as a protest, you know, and as an awareness wake up at the inaugural and got slammed for it because it was cut in half. They didn't see the resolve, the fact of why do we have to wear --we have black face and we as a nation, if we don't all wake up, we will all be in black face. And but I don't know about that period. I did Burt Williams because it was interesting to me.
VEREENAnd that I, as an African-American, had to wear black face to be on the American Stage of the Arts in this country of freedom. And, you know, 'cause there was a time when you got on the stage as an African-American, you know, you were not -- if you didn't put on black face, they would tar you and feather you, they would lynch you. And that was the plight of the black performer and the African-American performer in this country. You know, there's a story about a woman named Black Patti who, you know, who married this gentleman who loved her so much. He was a Jewish gentleman. He loved her so much he took her to Europe and tried to lighten her skin.
VEREENAnd he brought her back. She was still a black woman and so he built a whole show around her and traveled throughout the South for her to perform, a whole circus just for her to sing opera. You know, these stories of Aldridge, you know, Ira Aldridge who was a slave. And he had to go over to Europe because he recited Shakespeare. He learned it by ear and he was magnificent. See, so much history in the performer and this is all part of our history.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Kevin, in Akron, Ohio. Good morning, to you.
KEVINHey, good morning. Great to talk to you. Just a quick question, Mr. Vereen. If you would not mind sharing, why did you not accept the role of Chicken George for "Roots Two?"
VEREENOh, that's interesting. You know, sometimes I think about that. And I was in a state of mind during that time when, you know, I felt that we had finished it, we had announced it. My want is now I can say proudly that it is in the schools as a part of curriculum to study. And I guess I didn't do it because I wanted "One" to become so important that it became the American curriculum to study "Roots" at that time. And so that's why I didn't do "Two." I felt we had done it. And on hindsight, would I have done it differently? Yes. I should have done it.
VEREENAnd I think that I would, you know, I think about it. I went down to Henning, Tenn. and I was with the family and I was sitting there thinking about, man, you know, I should have. I shoulda, shoulda, shoulda. Shoulda, woulda, coulda, but I didn't. And my reason for not doing it was because I wanted it to have the importance that it has today. And, yes, now, today we are studying it in schools. So I apologize for not being a part of part two, but I am proud to say that part one is now part of the curriculum of the American fiber.
REHMTo Charlotte, N.C. Hi, Brian.
BRIANHello, hi, Diane. Hello, Ben. I hope you're doing well. And congratulations on your award and your recovery, as well. I'll try to brief. I just had a few quick points. I'm 36 and first time I ever remember seeing you, I remember -- did you not play Webster's uncle on the show, "Webster?"
VEREENYes, I did. And I was a person living with diabetes.
BRIANYeah, okay. I remember that. And I remember, fast forward a few years later, I was a freshman in high school and I was out with chicken pox and my mom was going to the public library to get some movies for me. And I requested her to get the "Roots" miniseries for me. And I remember her saying something like, do you wanna watch that? And I was like, yeah. So I sat there and I watched the entire series in one day and was just -- have been a fan of it ever since. And so I just wanted to thank you for being part of that and that's been a great part of my life, as well. And I try to always encourage people to watch that if they've never watched it before.
BRIANAnd also, going back to Sammy Davis, Jr., I don't remember exactly the reference, but there was a "Hee Haw" episode where Sammy Davis, Jr. was in the cornfield with George Lindsey and he's making a reference to having an entertainer come on the show that was good looking and talented and Sammy Davis is just brimming with pride and then he said and has lots of money. And Sammy said something to the effect of, oh, you must be talking about Ben Vereen. And I wanted to know if you remembered that particular episode.
VEREENThat's sweet. No, I don't, but thank you.
REHMYou don't remember that? All right.
VEREENYeah, that was my man, Sam, Sammy.
REHMHe was quite an entertainer.
VEREENHe was an amazing icon.
REHMHe truly was.
VEREENAnd a great, great friend, you know, he loved his audience. I guess I got that from Sam. He loved his audience so much. He'd give his all to his audience. I used to sit in the wings and I'd watch this man. And he just is relentless. He'd relentlessly give, give, give.
REHMAnd here's a final email from Bill in Annapolis, Md., who says, "I first saw Ben Vereen in "Pippin," and fell in love with musical theater. One of his co-stars, Irene Ryan, sang a wonderful song, which included the following lyrics,"…
VEREEN(singing) Oh, (unintelligible) , yes.
REHM…"Here is a secret, I never told. Maybe you will understand why I believe that if I refused to grow old I can stay young 'til I die." And Bill says, "It sounds as if Mr. Vereen is living by that axiom." That's beautiful.
VEREENYes, I love it. Thank you, Jim.
REHMI'm so glad to have had you here. Thank you.
VEREENNo, thank you, Diane.
VEREENThank you. And to your audience, bless you.
REHMAnd may you go onto wonderful success.
REHMI will be off tomorrow, going to WRVO in Syracuse. I'll be back with you on Thursday. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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