Ben Vereen talks diabetes, godson Usher and how producer David Foster nearly killed him.
What you know about Ben Vereen may depend on when you met him.
If you caught him on the Broadway stage in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, you know him as the insanely talented song and dance man behind signature roles in Pippin, Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. If you turned on the TV in the late ‘70s, he was Chicken George, the cockfighting expert and son of a slave on the classic miniseries Roots.
Television audiences in the ‘90s knew him as Will Smith’s dad on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and today’s TV fans know him as Wayne Brady’s dad on How I Met Your Mother.
But as Vereen prepares to bring a one-man show to The Club at Treasure Island Saturday covering his life and all his influences – from Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr to legendary choreographer Bob Fosse – he’s also preparing to fill another role: Diabetes advocate.
“I’m trying to make people aware of the good aspects of how it becomes a blessing if they do the right things…how it’s not a death sentence, but a call to action,” said Vereen, who first discovered he was a diabetic in 2007, and now works with the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-aventis as a spokesman for their Start Taking Action Now for Diabetes (STAND) program.
He’ll return to the Tampa Bay area Oct. 1 to speak at the Taking Control of Your Diabetes expo in the Tampa Convention Center. First question he’ll likely tackle: How does a lifelong dancer and performer wind up diagnosed with diabetes in his ‘60s?
“Most people in my family have diabetes,” Vereen said. “I’m not a scientist, but I know when you get it, you do something about it. It’s like saying, ‘God give a job,” and then laying back down in bed. You gotta get up and do something.”
Doing something isn’t a problem for Vereen, 64, who has a stage show, book and documentary film in development on his life (the Treasure Island show is a bit of a shakedown cruise). Vereen took a little time out from preparing for a Houston revival of Superstar to talk about being godfather to Usher and nearly getting killed by superstar record producer David Foster.
Times: Why do an autobiographical show now?
Vereen: “I think reality TV has spawned this, what you’re seeing now. Because people want to know about you. They want to know about your struggle and for me it’s almost therapeutic when I get into it. There’s two shows being written. There’s Part 1 and Part 2, and it’s not only about me, but it’s what we went through, during that time and how it affected my decisions.”
In 1992, you were struck and nearly killed by a car while walking on the Pacific Coast Highway. And the car was driven by record producer David Foster.
“I met him a few years before and I said we should get together (laughs). After the accident I said, you know, a phone call would have been nice. (laughter)
Did he even know who you were when he hit you?
He had no idea. Matter of fact, he went into a tailspin when he found out it was me and locked himself in his studio until I called him to speak to him. I had a tracheotomy and when I could get a sound out of my voice, I said ‘The first person I’m gonna call is David.’ I wanted to thank him because what David does get to this day, is he saved my life. He could have drove off and nobody would have ever known. But he stopped, he got out and he called 911 and stayed there and watched over me till the paramedics came.”
Seems that performers from your era had to do it all – sing, dance, act and more. Do you think today’s stars have it easier?
“We didn’t have, you know, iChat and YouTube. You know, we didn’t have those things, so we had ourselves to create, create, create, create. You know, kids today can go in and they could make a CD in their closet and go on the street and sell it. We didn’t have those things in our day. We had to work (laughs). We had to work, and I hope that I’ve instilled that ethic in, you know, Wayne Brady, in Usher, you know, and performers I’ve touched.”
Usher is your godson, right?
“Yup. When my godson first started out, my daughter took all of my DVDs to him and, you know, VHS’s in those days … and he would watch my work, and he got it. He watched me, and that was refreshing for my heart to see it.… the artists, when I was coming up, was about the art, the performance, about the show. But the tenor, the temperature of today seems to be more about the business, and so people have to watch the business closely in order to get to what they love – the show."
Do you think your autobiographical project will provide the same example?
“With everything that I’ve been through, people who are living with diabetes, they can look up there and say if he can do it, I can do it. If he can do it this good, I can do it this good. He hasn’t let it slow him down, I’m not gonna let my diabetes slow me down. I’m not gonna let my accident, my paralysis slow me down. There’s a power greater than myself that has carried me through if I but believe.”