Because of his own injuries, Ben Vereen seems like a natural to highlight a fundraiser for an institute that researches brain damage, but it took an introduction from the woman who walks his dog to make it happen.
Vereen was in Little Rock on Friday to visit hospital patients and raise money for a $32 million center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The Psychiatric Research Institute, opening in December, is one of a few centers that offer outpatient and inpatient care, research and education in one setting.
A car crash June 9, 1992, damaged an artery in Vereen's brain. He suffered a stroke the same day and that night was hit by a sport utility vehicle and thrown 130 feet while walking along the Pacific Coast Highway.
"The doctor said it would be at least three years before I would even walk again," Vereen said in a telephone interview from New York City before his trip to Arkansas. "They told me that I should start thinking about another career."
Ten months later the Tony winner was back on Broadway, performing opposite Gregory Hines in "Jelly's Last Jam" and later performed in "Fosse."
Now he dedicates much of what he does to others. He said he wants those suffering from brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness to know he's with them in their battle to take back their lives.
When the research institute began planning a fundraiser, board member Nell Spears approached Vereen through her daughter Molly, an aspiring dancer and actress in New York. Molly walks dogs to supplement her income.
"And whose dog did she walk? Ben Vereen's," said institute spokesman Tim Taylor. The dog is a miniature pinscher named Satchmo.
Dr. G. Richard Smith, the institute's director and the psychiatric department chairman at UAMS, said Vereen's high profile and commitment to veterans and servicemen who have suffered brain injuries or post-traumatic stress will help highlight the work of the Psychiatric Research Institute.
"It's very exciting for PRI," Smith said. "To have somebody who can champion the causes that we're after is such an important plus."
Vereen, 61, said that when he visits hospitals, he tries to offer encouragement as someone who faced the terror of a debilitating injury.
"It was frightening. It was scary. But I had to take a breath and breathe and trust in the higher power within, in the divine within me," he said. "My job as a wounded warrior of life was to receive and to show up for those blessings to take place. I couldn't just lay there (and say) 'the blessing's going to come, the blessing's going to come.' The blessings are coming, but you've got to get up to receive them."
At the John L. McClellan Veterans Hospital on Friday, Vereen laughed and compared surgery scars with Vietnam veteran Tom Sziszak. The Navy vet was nearly killed in February when he was run over by an 18-wheeler. The two men shared a friendly conversation, Vereen perched on the end of a table and Sziszak in a wheelchair.
When Sziszak said the doctors considered amputating a limb, Vereen said softly, "Let's cancel that. Let's cancel that," as if to brush away anything negative.
As he visited with patients, Vereen stopped often to accommodate fans for autographs and cheerful conversation.
Vereen scheduled a benefit performance _ tickets cost $250 to $1,000 _ that includes "a little bit of Broadway, a little bit of contemporary."
His career includes the Broadway hits "Hair" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." He won his Tony in 1973 as best actor in a musical for the show "Pippin." His 1978 network special, "Ben Vereen: His Roots," won six Emmys.
He appeared in the movie "All That Jazz." But he may be best known for his portrayal of Chicken George in the 1977 TV miniseries "Roots."