Veteran talent Ben Vereen is legendary for many reasons, chief among them his acting roles as Lou Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Chicken George in the original Roots miniseries, and his Tony Award-winning lead role in Broadway’s Pippin.
The 70-year-old singer-dancer-actor brings his undiminished skills to another iconic role tonight as Dr. Everett Scott in a Fox network retelling of the 1975 cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (also starring Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-n-Furter). ESSENCE caught up with him to discuss that musical comedy, the overabundance of slave narratives, and the very special episode of Fresh Prince we’ll all remember forever.
Why The Rocky Horror Picture Show?
They asked me! I’d known about the Rocky Horror show, but I’d never seen it. [Producer] Lou Adler—who kept it alive all these years—finally convinced Fox, and then they called me to play Dr. Scott. I said, “Great! Who’s Dr. Scott?” [laughter] Then I found out that Rocky Horror is a cult! I announced to my audience I was going to do Rocky Horror, and the audience went nuts. And it’s not a remake. It is a tribute to the original. ’Cause I finally saw the original, starring Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon. You can’t touch that. All you can do is play tribute to it. We’ll take it to the next generation, but there is no remaking. There’s only paying tribute to.
This year’s Roots miniseries, Birth of a Nation, Underground and Mercy Street all raise a question: Are you in favor of more slave narratives, or should we move on to other stories from African-American history?
I’ll put it this way. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, every Sunday at 6:00 on channel 11, there was a show called Holocaust. My Jewish brothers and sisters reminded us—and they still are doing it!—that there was a holocaust, and their people went through the atrocities of man’s inhumanity to man. Right? Our holocaust, Alex Haley finally brought it to life by writing a book called Roots. That was the beginning of our telling our story, of what our holocaust was like. Now, the reason why we always return to that is to remind people this will never happen to people again. If you know from which you came, you know where you are going.
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There are many great stories to be told. There’s a story of brothers and sisters who ran to Canada on the Underground Railroad. They got to Canada, they got their freedom; these brothers got on their wagon and came back to fight the Civil War for our freedom. There’s a story of a man in Georgia who had like 90 some-odd slaves. He took all his slaves to Canada, gave them their freedom, showed them how to farm and have their own. These stories must be told. Let’s stop talking about the Gods of Egypt [movie], who were all white, and let’s talk about the real gods of Egypt, who were African.
But these [slave] stories need to be told. I don’t hear anybody saying, “oh, another Jewish holocaust story.” No! Let’s not retract, let’s protract—taking what we went through and educating them, so that we let them know this will never happen to our people again.
The most popular episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air involves you playing Will’s absent father. What are your memories?
I’d just come from a horrible accident and Will [Smith] called. I came out, I shot this episode, and I think it’s the key that turned the lock for him for all that he’s doing now. Because we saw him as an actor. We got there. I wouldn’t let him loose. We got down, and you see what happens. When I ran into him at the NAACP Awards, he said, “You know, our show, the one that we did together, is the most requested show of all the shows I did.” And I said to him, “Great! Give me a job.” [laughter]