Ben Vereen is no stranger to triumph and tragedy and doesn’t mind sharing his story to help empower others facing similar challenges. The 65-year-old legendary entertainer brought his trademark smile and his message of hope and survival to Alabama’s Gulf Coast on Monday as the special guest speaker at the Drug Education Council’s 16th annual luncheon in Mobile. Before his speech the Tony Award-winning star of stage, screen and television spoke with Examiner about his career highs like starring in the ground-breaking television miniseries “Roots” as Chicken George and how he was able to overcome the lows in which he battled substance abuse after the death of his young daughter.
BME: You’ve been in the business for over four decades. When you look back at your accomplishments; starring in the history making miniseries “Roots”, winning a Tony Award for the musical “Pippin” , an Image Award nod for the movie “Accidental Friendship” and starring along side some of the biggest names in the business; Sammy Davis, Jr., Barbara Streisand, Gregory Hines, what comes to mind?
BV: Marvelous, wonderful career. I am so blessed and living now in this head of sobriety I really appreciate the journey I’ve had more so. My want is that I had awakened sooner. I was awake but I was in what we call a dry drunk phase…but being awake, aware and alive, I’ve really been blessed and I’ve been touched by such wonders and all those people I have worked with and am going to work with.
BME: It’s been the 35 years since the premiere of “Roots”.
BV: Yes, isn’t that amazing?
BME: Reflect on being a part of one of the most-watched programs on television.
BV: Isn’t it amazing that we’re still talking about it? You know at the time that we did the show we had no idea that, you and I would be talking about it today because that wasn’t the purpose in doing the show. The purpose of doing “Roots” for me at least was to put some document on paper about the African-American Holocaust…all we had was word of mouth. But Alex Haley, praise be to him, went back to Africa and said look at this and now the world is looking at their heritage. We all come from a place. African-American history didn’t start with Motown; we had a great history of Kings and of Victors, Doctors, Astrologers, people who built pyramids, wooooow! You know so Alex Haley opened up that avenue for us to say they we are a collective part of the whole that the creator created to express itself on this planet.
BME: You starred in a memorable episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in which you played opposite Will Smith as his Father. You both gave wonderful performances. Looking back, did you think Will Smith would go on to become this big movie star?
BV: Yes, because Will Smith has working ethics. He is a dedicated actor and he pushes himself. So I had no doubt that he would go on to greatness. The only thing that could hold him back is himself and he’s not allowing that to happen.
BME: How was Ben Vereen able to survive substance abuse when so many others in the entertainment industry succumb to it?
BV: I had angels and I heard the call. A lot of us fall and our ears are clogged up and we don’t hear the angel, inner and outer, reaching out for you. We don’t hear the hands that are saying we are here for you, like the organization having this luncheon today, who are saying we are here for you; you don’t have to go down that road. You don’t have to die.
BME: You’ve conquered the stage, big screen and television, what left for you to conquer?
BV: To conquer? Oh my, you know I don’t want to conquer anything. I want to embrace it. I’m tired of conquering. There’s nothing to conquer. It’s only to love and embrace now.