Interview: Ben Vereen on 'Top Five,' movies, hippies, 'Jesus Christ Superstar'
The Broadway legend discusses his role in Chris Rock's latest movie, and says anytime filmmakers want him to just "call."
Ben Vereen is a living legend — a Broadway god who won Tonys for “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Pippin.” His filmography, though, isn’t as filled out, with roles here and there. What does it take to get Vereen to do a movie? “Call me,” he tells us, then laughs, as he does often.
Lately Vereen is deep into movies. He has a brief role in Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” playing his character’s pushy, ball-busting father who, unlike his movie star son, never left the New York City projects. He also plays a homeless man in the forthcoming “Time Out of Mind,” with Richard Gere. Of his “Top Five” character, Vereen describes him as “totally decrepit. He’s angry, he’s in pain. He’s an alcoholic — so I can relate,” he says, laughing at his own history. “Been there, done that!”
Vereen himself escaped from Bedford-Stuyvesant. “It’s interesting when you go back, because there are people like that who never leave Brooklyn, who live in the projects all their life. They’re angry with you because you left. You come back and they say, ‘You ain’t nothin,’” he says, laughing again.
Much has been said about the free and open way Rock directed “Top Five” — allowing his many guest stars the freedom to improvise, rarely calling cut while the actors, many of them comics, went off. With Vereen he stuck to the script. “He would actually mouth my words while I was saying them,” he recalls. “I’m going, ‘What are you doing? Stop that!’” (He didn’t really mind; the two want to do a play together, which would bring Rock back to the stage after his Broadway turn in “The Motherf—er with the Hat.”)
Conversation veers towards his other big film roles, as well as little ones. One of his first films was 1971’s “Gas-s-s-s,” a post-apocalyptic comedy by Roger Corman about hippies in the desert. He was doing “Hair” in Los Angeles at the time, as he had on Broadway. “I was black hippie in those days — sort of an oxymoron,” he says. He remembers going to see it in San Francisco when it was released. “There were two people in the movie house — and I was the second person.”
One thing Vereen is working on is mounting “Hair” in Florida next November, saying that it’s incredible relevant to today’s climate, drugs and dress be damned. “What people don’t understand is what was going on then is going on now. It’s just a different flavor,” he explains. “Young people say we’re not in Vietnam. Well, no, but you’re got Iraq, you’ve got Iran, you’ve got ISIS. This is your Vietnam!” (He’s no fan of the 1979 movie, directed by Milos Forman, by the way. “It was horrible,” he says. “[Forman] had no idea what hippies were about, what the movement was about. No idea.”)
Vereen is himself keeping a version of the hippie vibe alive today. At the junket he wears a baseball hat sporting the words “Spiritual Enforcer.”. He says it’s the name of a movement he’s starting that preaches an ideal of unity and love — very ’60s, minus the drugs and wear. Spirituality is a concept that tends to be defined vaguely, though Vereen thinks that, in a way, is a good thing, as it makes it easier for people to get along under the same roof.
“It’s not about the church,” Vereen says about his movement. “It’s about the essence that created that organization, that encouraged people to come together. Then people divided into groups and thought, ‘My god’s better your god, my god commands me to do this.’ My god’s not about anything like that. He ain’t about war, he ain’t about separation. It’s about unity.
Speaking of religion, one of Vereen’s major Broadway roles was Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which he did from 1971 to 1973. He said it was odd for someone from a strict Baptist family to play the man who ratted out Christ. “I had to justify why he would betray Jesus,” Vereen explains. “I came up with the notion that he didn’t betray him. He figured if he put Jesus in the hands of the enemy the Jews would rise up and overtake the administration and put Jesus in his rightful place as ruler. They didn’t do that, so he killed himself. Then years later they find The Book of Judas and we find out he and Jesus were buddies. A lot of Christians will say ‘Blasphemy!’ But they were buddies.”
Vereen wasn’t in the 1973 movie of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” replaced by his friend Carl Anderson. “There were some reasons,” he says, laughing, by way of non-explanation. He then says the producers never wanted him for the role anyway, but director Tom O’Horgan insisted on him. “When they had the chance to get rid of me, they did,” he says. “That’s OK: I got ‘Pippin!’”
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