Ben Vereen is celebrating his 71st today. He grew up in Brooklyn and studied at New York’s High School of Performing Arts. He may be most famous to television viewers of a particular generation for his Emmy-nominated performance as Chicken George Moore in Roots. He also made a number of appearances in film musicals such as Sweet Charity, Funny Lady (for which he was a Golden Globe nominee) and All That Jazz, and received a second Golden Globe nomination for the 1984 CBS miniseries Ellis Island.
Vereen’s greatest accomplishments, however, may be on stage, where he has had a major career in musical theater. He joined the national touring company of Sweet Charity in 1967, and a year later made his Broadway debut as part of the original cast of Hair. He was a Tony nominee as Judas Iscariot in the original Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical as the Leading Player in the original production of Pippin in 1972. He has also appeared on Broadway in Jelly’s Last Jam and as the Wizard in Wicked. In 1981 Vereen returned to the role of the Leading Player, in a production of Pippin staged for Canadian television. While this performance cut portions of the full play, it does preserve one of Vereen’s most famous stage roles.