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*Ben Vereen was born on this date in 1946. He is a Black actor, dancer, and singer.
Vereen was born Benjamin Augustus Middleton in Laurinburg, North Carolina. While still an infant, Vereen and his family relocated to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York City. He was adopted by James Vereen, a paint factory worker, and his wife, Pauline, who worked as a maid and theatre wardrobe mistress. He was raised Pentecostal.
During his pre-teen years, he exhibited a talent for drama and dance and often performed in local variety shows. At 14, Vereen enrolled at the High School of Performing Arts, where he studied under world-renowned choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins. Upon graduation, he struggled to find suitable stage work and was often forced to take odd jobs to supplement his income.
When Vereen was 18, he made his New York stage bow off-off-Broadway in The Prodigal Son at the Greenwich Mews Theater. By the following year, he was in Las Vegas, performing in Bob Fosse's production of Sweet Charity, a show with which he toured in 1967–68. Before joining the national touring company, he returned to New York City to play Claude in Hair in the Broadway production. The following year, he was cast opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in the film adaptation of Sweet Charity. After developing a rapport with Davis, Vereen was cast as his understudy in the upcoming production of Golden Boy, which toured England and ended the run at the Palladium Theatre in London's West End. Vereen was nominated for a Tony Award for Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972 and won a Tony for his appearance in Pippin in 1973. Vereen appeared in the Broadway musical Wicked as the Wizard of Oz in 2005. Vereen has also performed in one-man shows and actively lectures on black history and inspirational topics.
Vereen has starred in numerous television programs and is well known for the role of 'Chicken' George Moore in Alex Haley's landmark TV miniseries Roots, for which he received an Emmy nomination in 1977. Vereen's four-week summer variety series, Ben Vereen ... Comin' At Ya, aired in August 1975. In 1978, on a Boston Pops TV special, Vereen performed a tribute to Bert Williams, complete with period makeup and attire, and reprising Williams' high-kick dance steps to Vaudeville standards such as "Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee." In 1981, Vereen performed at Ronald Reagan's first inauguration.
The performance generated controversy as Vereen performed the first part of the show in blackface. Before the finale, ABC cut the live performance, generating confusion and anger from viewers at home. According to video artist Edgar Arceneaux, TV viewers didn’t see the second part of the performance. Vereen mimicked being refused service because of his color while trying to buy the Republican elite a congratulatory drink. As Arceneaux explains, Vereen's performance was meant to critique Republican civil rights policies, but the TV audience didn't see it.
Vereen is the godfather of R&B superstar Usher and the first cousin, once removed, of New York Giants running back Shane Vereen. In the early 1980s, Vereen moved with his family to Saddle River, New Jersey. His 16-year-old daughter, Naja, was killed in an auto accident in 1987 on the New Jersey Turnpike when a truck overturned on her car. In 1992, Vereen suffered three accidents in one day when his car hit a tree, causing him to hit his head on the roof of his car. He suffered a stroke while walking on a Malibu highway, apparently veering into the road where he was struck by a car driven by record producer David Foster. His critical injuries (including a broken leg) required him to undergo arduous physical rehabilitation. Vereen has appeared as a public speaker and humanitarian, speaking on black history, overcoming adversity, and the importance of continuing education.
According to The Fayetteville Observer of April 29, 2006, Vereen learned while applying for a passport in the late 1960s that he was adopted. His birth certificate revealed that his birth name was Benjamin Augustus Middleton, that he was the son of Essie Middleton, and that he was born in Laurinburg, North Carolina. In April 2006, Vereen visited Scotland County with a genealogist on a search for family members and learned that his mother's name was Essie May Pearson. The Laurinburg Exchange reported: "Vereen, an adoptee who learned that he was born in Laurinburg, a celebrated trip to Scotland County in 2006 to reconnect with family. While on the trip, he learned his mother had died 24 years before, but several relatives still lived there."
According to her acquaintances, Essie had gone on a trip when Vereen was a child and had left her baby in someone's care. When she returned, the child was gone. On April 28, 2006, in an interview with the 'Laurinburg Exchange,' Vereen said that his visit "has just been so overwhelming ... I've finally found my family". In May 2006, he met his mother's daughter (his sister), Gloria Walker, of Derby, Connecticut. He also has a brother, James Middleton, who lives in Tucson, Arizona.
In 2007, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and has a website where he shares his personal story and advice from medical experts. In August 2011, Vereen was named Co-Artistic Director of Tampa's Broadway Theatre Project. In September 2012, Vereen filed for divorce from his wife, Nancy Bruner Vereen, of 36 years, citing irreconcilable differences—sexual harassment allegations. Variety said, "While directing the 2015 musical production at the Venice Theatre in Florida, Vereen allegedly invited female cast members back to his apartment and goaded them into sex acts. He’s also accused of inappropriate talk and conduct during rehearsals that involved cast members stripping naked, ostensibly as preparation for a show that has, since its original 1967 production, been associated with a famous, full-cast nude scene." Vereen has since apologized for his misconduct.
Vereen was inducted as an honorary Phi Beta Sigma fraternity member on April 9, 2019. His 55-year-old son, Ben Vereen Jr., passed away in 2020.