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 Treasure Island on 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 … how it's not a death sentence, but a call to action," said Vereen, first diagnosed as a diabetic in 2007, now working with the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-aventis as a spokesman for its 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.
"Most people in my family have diabetes," Vereen said. "When you get it, you do something about it. (If you don't), it's like saying, 'God, give me 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. Here, he took time from preparing for a revival of Superstar in Houston to talk about being godfather to R&B star Usher and nearly getting killed by superstar record producer David Foster.
Why do an autobiographical show now?
I think reality TV has spawned this; 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.
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. After the accident I said, "You know, a phone call would have been better." (Laughter)
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. So we had ourselves to create, create, create. Kids today can 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). 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, VHSs in those days … and he would watch my work, and he got it. … The artists, when I was coming up, were 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.