(written from a Production point of view)
Ben Vereen (born 10 October 1946; age 73) is the actor, dancer, and singer who played Commander Edward M. La Forge, MD, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation seventh season episode "Interface". His character was the father of Geordi La Forge, played by LeVar Burton, and the husband of Silva La Forge, played by Madge Sinclair. Interestingly, in the acclaimed, ground-breaking 1977 mini-series Roots, Vereen portrayed "Chicken" George Moore, the grandson of Kunte Kinte, originally played by Burton, and Bell, who was played by Sinclair.
Vereen is a veteran of film, television, and the Broadway stage. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as Judas Iscariot in the original Broadway production of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar and won a Tony Award for playing the Leading Player in Pippin. He has also been nominated for three Emmy Awards, two Golden Globes, and a CableACE Award for some of his film and television roles.
Early life and career
Vereen was born Benjamin Augustus Middleton in Dade County, Florida, USA, and was adopted as a baby, facts he did not learn until the 1960s when he was applying for a passport. (The Fayetteville Observer, Apr. 29, 2006) He began singing and dancing when he was a child, ultimately graduating from the High School of Performing Arts in New York.
He made his New York stage in the off-off-Broadway production of The Prodigal Son in 1965, when he was 18 years old. He then joined the cast of a production of Sweet Charity, which toured from 1966 through 1967. He made his film debut in the 1969 screen adaptation of Sweet Charity, playing one of the "Frug dancers." Fellow Star Trek alum Ricardo Montalban had a supporting role in this film.
Vereen's Broadway debut came when he played the role of Claude in the original production of the musical Hair. Vereen also understudied for the role of Hud for Hair. In late 1970, Vereen shot his second film, the Roger Corman science fiction satire Gas! -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It.
In 1971, Vereen was cast as Judas Iscariot in the original Broadway production of the hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar. He received a Tony Award nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance as Judas, and also won a Theatre World Award. In 1972, Vereen left Jesus Christ Superstar to portray the Leading Player in Pippin, in which veteran Star Trek guest actor John Rubinstein played the title role. For his performance in Pippin, Vereen won the 1973 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and the 1973 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance.
Vereen's first major film role was that of Bert Robbins in the 1975 musical Funny Lady, which also featured Lilyan Chauvin. For his performance in this film, Vereen received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture – Male, despite the fact he had already appeared in two films before this one.
Vereen's next film was the Academy Award-winning 1979 musical All That Jazz, directed by Bob Fosse, who previously directed Vereen in the film Sweet Charity and in the play Pippin. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock actress Cathie Shirriff had a role in this film as a nurse.
In the 1987 comedy Buy & Cell, Vereen worked opposite fellow Trek actors Malcolm McDowell and Tony Plana. In 1993, Vereen voiced the role of the preacher bird Phineas in the animated film Once Upon a Forest, which also featured the voice of Paul Eiding. Vereen later had supporting roles in such films as Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998), I'll Take You There (1999, with John Pyper-Ferguson), The Painting (2001, with Bumper Robinson), and Idlewild (2006).
Vereen's further film credits include the romance And Then Came Love (2007, starring Vanessa Williams), the comedy Tapioca (2009), the war drama 21 and a Wake-Up (2009, with Ed Begley, Jr.), and the musical Mama I Want to Sing (2011). More recently, he lent his voice to the animated family film Khumba (2012, with Greg Ellis).
1975 – 1985
In 1975, Vereen was the host of his own variety series on NBC called Ben Vereen... Comin' at Ya. The show served as a summer replacement on the network, and only four episodes were produced. The following year, Vereen starred in his own TV special, Ben Vereen: Showcase for a Man of Many Talents.
Vereen portrayed musician Louis Armstrong in the 1976 TV movie Louis Armstrong – Chicago Style. Star Trek: The Original Series guest actress Janet MacLachlan played Armstrong's wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong.
In 1977, Vereen was nominated for an Emmy Award for his portrayal of "Chicken" George in the mini-series Roots. He was also nominated for his performance in the NBC TV special The Bell Telephone Jubilee. Joel Grey participated in this event, as well.
Vereen was a regular opposite on the short-lived detective/comedy series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe opposite Jeff Goldblum. Produced through Paramount Television, this series ran for 14 episodes from January through June 1980. Vereen then reprised his stage role as the Leading Player in the TV special Pippin: His Life and Times, which earned Vereen a nomination from the CableACE Awards.
Vereen appeared with his TNG and Roots co-star LeVar Burton in a 1983 episode of the children's educational series Reading Rainbow, which is hosted by Burton. They then co-starred together in the 1984 TV movie The Jesse Owens Story. TNG guest actor Ronny Cox, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock actor James B. Sikking, and TOS guest actor Vic Tayback also had roles in this movie, which was executive produced by Harve Bennett and photographed by Charles Correll.
Vereen received his second Golden Globe nomination for his role in the 1984 mini-series Ellis Island, which also starred Alice Krige. In 1984 and 1985, Vereen had a recurring role as Uncle Phillip Long on the comedy series Webster. Among the actors Vereen worked with on this series were Eugene Roche (who was a regular during the show's second and third season) and Robert DoQui. Webster itself produced one crossover episode in which the main character Webster beams aboard the starship Enterprise and meets Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn).
In the 1985 mini-series A.D., Vereen co-starred with such performers as Richard Kiley and Anthony Zerbe. Vereen also played the role of Puss in the Faerie Tale Theatre production of Puss in Boots, working with director Robert Iscove and fellow performers Brock Peters and Alfre Woodard.
1986 - present
In 1986, Vereen appeared as Mayor Ben the leopard on the children's series Zoobilee Zoo. He then became a regular on the short-lived 1987 NBC adventure series J.J. Starbuck.
From 1991 through 1993, Vereen had a recurring role as Capt. Ben Hitchinson on the series Silk Stalkings. He received his third Emmy nomination for his performance in the 1992 TV movie Intruders, which also starred Star Trek: Deep Space Nine guest performers Daphne Ashbrook, Steven Berkoff, and Rosalind Chao.
In addition to his appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Vereen had guest spots on several other television shows during the 1990s. Among the shows on which he has guest-starred are Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (starring Teri Hatcher, Tracy Scoggins, and K Callan), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (starring James Avery), Touched by an Angel (with Heidi Swedberg), Second Noah (with Daniel Hugh Kelly), and Promised Land.
More recently, Vereen has made guest appearances on the HBO prison drama Oz, the ABC medical drama Grey's Anatomy, and the NBC crime drama Law & Order: Criminal Intent. He won a Prism Award for Performance in a Drama Series Episode for his appearance on Grey's Anatomy. Further television guest roles include episodes of House of Payne (2010) and How I Met Your Mother (2010).
Later Broadway work
Vereen returned to Broadway for the first time in over a decade when he played the role of Leroy in Grind in 1985. He then played the Chimney Man in Jelly's Last Jam in 1993.
Vereen and fellow TNG guest star Bebe Neuwirth were among those who performed in the Tony Award-winning musical revue Fosse. In 2002, Vereen played Midge in a revival of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport. Most recently, Vereen had two stints playing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the Tony Award-winning musical Wicked. This role was originated by aforementioned Star Trek: Voyager guest star Joel Grey.