Ben Vereen, already a well known musical theater performer, won the hearts of millions last February when he played the crafty and fun-loving Chicken George in the TV production of "Roots."
Before "Roots," Vereen, a super-charged song and dance man and actor, received his widest acclaim - and a Tony award - for his work in "Pippin."
How has life for him changed since "Roots?"
"I get lots of offers, lots of scripts," he answered. "But I have no plans to do anything except a TV special for ABC this fall."
Vereen, 5-feet-10, 158 pounds, is going right along doin his nightclub act, which is what he's going this week through Sunday at Shady Grove Music Fair.
The performer said he had researched his own roots - personal and artistic - before the TV show. "I can only go back as far as my grandmother," said Vereen, whose mother's family originated in North Carolina "I've written court houses, hospitals. I was on the verge of becoming a detective!"
He also has dug into faded news clippings and muffled old phonograph records to learn about Bert WIlliams, the great Afro-American vaudevillian, a contemporary of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. The young man says he keeps alive the memory of Williams, who died in 1922, by retaining a tribute to the pioneer entertainer in his (Veereen's) routine.
Vereen, 30, whose credits include a featured role with Barbra Streisand in "Funny Lady," the title part in the TV movie, "Louis Armstrong - Chicago-Style," and a whole string of musicals such as "West Side Story," "Sweet Charity" and "Golden Boy," was bitten by the show business bug early.
"My mother was instrumental in my going into the arts," he recalls of his growing up in Brooklyn in the late '50s and early '60s. "She personally took an interest.
How did she encourage him?
"With the belt buckle, he chuckled, flashing the broad smile he used in the Chicken George role.
He attended the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. Before that he got a thorough immersion into the ritual aspects of religion as theater: He was an active member of the Pentacostal Church.His father was a deacon and his uncle a minister. This fundamentalist setting provided him with a chance to develop his singing and dancing, but he also was pulled between the religious and secular.
At one point he gave up the idea of musical theater and studied for the ministry. He was torn with guilt over studying music and neglecting religion." But I kept going to the theater, watching the dancers," he recalled. "My best friends told me I had a gift and that I should use it.
His first job came in 1965 in "The Prodigal Son," directed by Vinnette Carroll. Later came "Sweet Charity," his first Broadway musical, which was also the first Broadway theatrical production he had seen.
Vereen was Sammy Davis' under-study in "Golden Boy" and subsequently played in "Hair."
Despite his success, the performer said his search for spiritual peace goes on, though if is not as intense as previously. "I've been involved with scientology, Buddhism and now I want to find out more about EST (Erhard Seminar Training). My search is not over. I guess I'll end up on a hill in India."
Several weeks ago Hollywood gossip columnist Rona Barrett said on "Good Morning America" that Vereen was going public with his marriage to a white women, that he need not fear possible reprisals.
"I was not trying to hide the fact that I am married to a Caucasian woman," Vereen said here.
His wife, Nancy, is a ballet dancer who studied for the Joffrey Compnay before auditioning for "Goden Boy," where they met. They have four daughters, ages 7, 6, 2 and 3 weeks.He has a 12-year-old son by a first marriage, and all live in Los Angeles.
For the birth of their last child, the couple used a combination of the Lamaze natural childbirth method, which teaches that the husband should be in the delivery room during birht, and the Boyer method, which suggests a quiet birth by the use of soft lights, music and warm water.
"One was me singing 'Honeysuckle Rose,'" said Vereen.