“It’s a wonderful life, son.”
Tony Award-winning entertainer Ben Vereen on human potential, his long career, and how diabetes was an awakening.
Exactly three years ago today, I spoke to Tony Award-winning actor Ben Vereen for the University of Maine student newspaper, The Maine Campus. You might know Vereen as Will Smith’s deadbeat dad on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (and therefore as part of one of the most emotionally raw scenes in television history), his various other work in TV and movies, and his Broadway roles in Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin.
At the time of our conversation, he was on his way to Maine to perform his one-man show, Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen. Our phone interview — which touched on his long career, human potential, and the awakening his diabetes has given him — remains one of the favorite conversations I’ve ever been a part of, professional or personal.
Vereen is talented, inspirational, enthusiastic and quotable, and I’m thankful to have spoken with him (and to have been called “king” so many times). Please enjoy:
Ben Vereen: King Derrick! Ah, wow! Nice to be talking to you, my king.
Derrick Rossignol: It’s nice to meet you, too. How are you doing?
BV: I’m doing fantastic. I’m so looking forward to coming up to Maine.
DR: And we look forward to having you.
BV: So what would you like to know? What can I tell you about?
DR: You’ve been performing in some capacity for basically your entire life, so what’s it been like watching entertainment change over the course of your career?
BV: Everything changes; it’s the way of life. It’s called evolution. So this business has changed, of course, and I’ve been blessed… and I thank my audiences for this, all my lovely audiences there in Maine, for allowing me the privilege of carrying on in this journey and watching this evolution as we watch things change. Things are different in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and now the 2000s… we have as a people… we have as a people been through this change. Now, we watch video. When it first began, there was no video. Now there’s video, now there’s iPads, now there’s iPhones. There are these things that have evolved that you… how old are you, my king?
DR: I’m 20 years old.
BV: 20 years old, you’re a puppy! [laughs] But look at all the things that your life will see. It’s the same thing with me when I was 20. When I was 20, I was just getting out of school, I was just in my first production, and I’ve watched as, my God, we’ve gone to space! We’ve gone to so many places as a people and this business has changed miraculously. Look, when I was growing up, when I was 20, there were only three or four channels on TV. Now there’s 5,000. [laughs] Now we got plasma TVs, now you can watch TV in your hand. My God! [laughs]
We’re a closer nation… we’re a closer world than we were then. In those days, they had a show called Star Trek, all right? And Captain Kirk would stand and the door would open. Nobody ever thought we’d be able to walk in the grocery store and the door would just be wide open for us, but today we do. In those days they had a flip phone and he’d say, “Beam me up, Scotty.” Today, we have cell phones in our hands. [laughs] It’s a wonderful life, son.
It’s a beautiful human mind that has the ability to manifest that which it visualizes. There’s something within us all that keeps is reaching and evolving and evolving and evolving and evolving.
How are you doing in school?
DR: Ah, you know, I’m getting by.
BV: No no, you’re not getting by: you are by. You’re just there to relearn what you already know, and what you’re doing by writing in the paper… you’re sending out the evolutionary changes that are going to touch people’s lives. You’re not just writing for a paper, because somebody will take that paper and they’ll go to another place and they’ll keep it, and then somebody later on in time will pick up the paper and read the article that you’re writing today. Look at that.
DR: Well, that’s a bigger scope than I’ve ever thought of it in, I guess.
BV: Yeah, son! You are in a fabulous place of creativity. Don’t deny yourself; you are a being of light. A lot of people, not just on the campus… it goes beyond the campus… somebody’s going to hold onto this paper, and it will be read many years from now. Wherever you go in your life, you will take this life with you. It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful.
DR: You’ve done Broadway, movies, TV, you’ve sang, so do you have a favorite kind of work that you do?
BV: It’s called employment. [laughs] I love what I do, and I thank my audiences for allowing me to give them the light that they are themselves. I’m just a reflection of them, I like to think, and I’m so thankful.
I’m in gratitude, and gratitude is a lovely place to be, son. My king, as long as you stay in gratitude, the universe sees your gratitude and gives you more, and I’m so thankful.
I love every aspect of what I have the privilege and the honor to be a part of. I love the stage. I love TV. I love films. I love recordings. I love speaking. I love just being… in service. That’s what we’re doing, you and I: we’re in service to the public.
DR: So over the course of your long and varied career, you’ve been on shows like The Carol Burnett Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air…
BV: Wow, you did your homework. [laughs] I’m sorry, go ahead.
DR: Oh, yeah. So being on these shows, you’ve worked with a bunch of great people, so who are some of the favorite people you’ve had the pleasure of working with?
BV: Oh, you’ve mentioned them: Carol Burnett, Sammy Davis, Jr. … The show that I’m doing, I pay tribute to those who have helped me along my way, and the show is sort of a precursor to a bigger show I’m doing called Last of the Showmen [an upcoming “docu-musical” that chronicles Vereen’s life] where I pay tribute to all of the people who have come along and touched my life.
My God, Jackie Gleason. My God, Carol Burnett. My God, you mention them, I’ve been there. I did a show with Milton Berle… Milton Berle! “Mr. TV” who gave us TV from the very beginning. He was the first variety act on TV; he was my opening act. Joan Rivers, she was one of my opening acts. I’ve been in the presence of … oh God, what’s his name? There’s so many! [laughs] I was in the audience of Charlie Chaplin. You see how special this journey has been? I have shook the hands of kings and queens and duchesses and you name it. It’s been an amazing journey.
DR: It sounds amazing.
BV: Oh, it’s been amazing, it’s been unbelievable. My book’s going to be a best seller, I know it. [laughs]
DR: As part of this amazing journey you’ve been on, during a darker portion of it, you were diagnosed with diabetes in 2007…
BV: I have to stop you right there.
It’s not a darkness: it was an awakening.
You see, a lot of people look at diabetes — and you’re right — as a dark period, and it is a dark period for those who do not awaken to their truth. When I was diagnosed with diabetes in ’07, I went through the same thing, my king.
I was going through the same thing, going, “Oh my God, my life is not going to be the same, how am I going to live with diabetes? Oh my God, I have diabetes, they’re going to take my leg, they’re going to take my liver. What do I do, what do I do? I spoke to my doctor and said, “What am I going to do?” He said, “You can handle this,” and I said, “What do you mean? It’s diabetes, it’s a killer, a disease…” and he says, “You have control over this.” He said, “All you got to do is take your medication.” They put me on insulin. Then he said, “All you got to do is exercise and watch your eating habits.” I said, “That’s it?” and he said, “Yeah.”
So I called a company called Sanofi and I said, “Listen: I have diabetes and I want to tell people the good news about diabetes. They’re not suffering with diabetes: they’re living with diabetes. You don’t have a challenge: you have an opportunity for better health. Diabetes saved my life.
It made me aware of… one thing is eating proper. Another is exercising and another is taking my medication as long as I’m on medication.
You see: the wonderful thing is that it evolves, and you have a greater and a better life and a wonderful way to shine your light for other people who are living with diabetes to see. And we’ve got to let people know: yes, I live with diabetes. We’re so quick to hide and not talk about it because it’s a shameful thing… no! No, you are an example of the most high because you are living with something society says is a killer, but no: you’re living! If you don’t do the right things, yes: you’ll have amputees, you’ll have heart failures, you’ll have those sorts of ugly things.
But if you do the right things, if you work with somebody… work with your doctor. You don’t have to sit in front of that TV all night: get up and walk around the block! You don’t have to sit down at the table and eat the whole cake: you can eat a slice of the cake and say, “Hmm, that tastes pretty good.” You don’t have to drink all that sugar: drink some water. [laughs] See? It’s easy. And that way, we’ve pushed the darkness of diabetes away and we begin to live in the light.
DR: You know, that’s a very positive and beautiful outlook you have on that, it’s really nice.
BV: You know something? It beats the alternative.
This article is an edited version of one that originally appeared on The Maine Campus on September 26, 2012. The original article, which includes more about his one-man show, can be found here.
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