Ben Vereen is one of the entertainment industry’s most-versatile figures, a performer who’s achieved success as a singer and dancer, as well a stage, film and television actor, overcoming great tragedy – including the death of his daughter and, several years later, a stroke and car accident – in the process. The Tony Award winner counts among his credits Pippin, Jelly’s Last Jam, Hair, Chicago, the landmark miniseries Roots, the film All That Jazz, and series-regular roles, recurring parts or guest shots on such TV shows as Tenspeed and Brownshoe, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Silk Stalkings, Oz, Grey’s Anatomy and How I Met Your Mother. TNG, of course, was a guest shot and a memorable one at that. Vereen, at the behest of LeVar Burton, portrayed Geordi La Forge’s father, Commander Edward M. La Forge, Ph.D., in the seventh-season episode “Interface.” StarTrek.com recently caught up with Vereen for an interview in which he recounted his experience making “Interface” and filled us in on what he’s doing now.
Let’s talk about “Interface.” Though you never actually shared scenes with LeVar Burton in Roots, you and he became friends as a result of the miniseries. You later appeared on Burton’s educational show, Reading Rainbow. Can we assume it was Burton’s idea to bring you on board for “Interface”?
Vereen: It was LeVar’s idea. I was out of rehab after my accident in 1992. I’d just gotten Jelly’s Last Jam through the grace of Gregory Hines, my good friend. Gregory had left the show and I was doing it with Brian Mitchell and Phylicia Rashad. I was in my dressing room and I got this letter from Paramount saying that they wanted me to do The Next Generation. And I flipped out. What they didn’t know was that all through my recovery I was watching, every day, episodes of The Next Generation that a friend had given me. When I was working my way back, I’d been putting on Star Trek, and now I was being asked to do an episode. It was overwhelming. Then I went to Paramount and they gave me a uniform and bars, and I was Dr. La Forge, Geordi’s father. I was honored and, to this day, I thank LeVar Burton for that. It was a great, great gift.
Your appearance wasn’t just a cameo. It was actually a meaty supporting role in an episode with an intriguing concept…
Vereen: My wife (the late Madge Sinclair) has been lost in a wormhole and I have to tell Geordi this, that she was presumed dead. That was the spin on the episode. I was never on the Enterprise, but I was on my ship. Everyone was talking about how, if The Next Generation had continued, they were going to show Dr. La Forge on his ship.
What was your reaction the first time you saw yourself in Dr. La Forge’s blue command uniform?
Vereen: I cried. Tears. Tears. Real tears. I looked in the mirror and I wept. I walked out onto the set, LeVar saw me, and he said, “Welcome to the 21st century. Welcome to Star Trek: The Next Generation.” It was beautiful. It was a beautiful moment.
Do you still from hear Star Trek fans about your role?
Vereen: You know what’s wild? I’ve gone to a few conventions and people have my (trading) card. I get cards mailed to me from Germany, from Switzerland, from Africa, from China, and they’re from people who want me to sign my character card and send it back to them. I’m actually on a Star Trek trading card. That is too cool.
Burton has you beat, though. He’s got action figures that look like him…
Vereen. That’s true. But maybe I’ll get an action figure one day, too. And, you know, I wanted Dr. La Forge to wear a VISOR. But they told me that Geordi wasn’t wearing the VISOR anymore. It would have been great to have father and son with the VISORs.
Let’s fast forward to the present. You recently appeared in a play called Fetch Clay, Make Man, which centered on the unlikely friendship between Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit. The plan was to take the show to Broadway. What’s happening with that?
Vereen: It’s in limbo right now, but one day they’ll get it out of limbo. You have to realize what a treasure (playwright) Will Power has been given us. This play is about these two very controversial people in our history. Stepin Fetchit was ostracized by the African American community, while Ali was – is – revered as a hero of the African American community. It’s a wonderful play. Des McAnuff directed it. We’re trying to work with Des’s schedule, trying to find a theater. We want it to reach Broadway, but there are also people in Chicago and in Los Angeles looking to stage it. So we’ll see what happens.
What else are you working on these days?
Vereen: I have my new album out, and that’s called Ben Vereen: Stepping Out Live. And I’ve done some (live) shows in support of that. There’s a documentary being made about me, so I’ve had cameras following me for a while, and you’ll see a lot of familiar faces, friends and associates, who are being interviewed for that. I’m doing recurring work on How I Met Your Mother. Wayne (Brady) and Neil (Patrick Harris) are amazing. That whole cast is magnificent. So I’m having fun.
It’s not always been fun. You’ve beaten alcohol and drug addictions. You lost your daughter in a car accident and then, after suffering a stroke, were critically injured when you got hit by a car. We’ve heard you quoted as saying that because you’ve survived so much you now live in the moment. Did you ever think about giving up or did you have a sense the future would be brighter?
Vereen: Well, you always look for the future to be brighter. I don’t think about giving up. My godmother had a saying. She was a missionary. She’d help build churches and when she was elderly, a senior, people would say to her, “When are you going to stop?” She said, “I’m working for God. I don’t want to rust out. I want to work out my life.” And I want to work out my life, too. I don’t want to rust out.
Through your work, through your life experiences, you’ve touched and inspired a lot of people….
Vereen: I’m always glad to hear that. It doesn’t get old. I am so honored to have done that, to have touched people’s lives. Do you know what a blessing that is? It’s humbling.
To keep track of Vereen and his upcoming projects, visit his official site at www.benvereen.com.