The Road Back

UPDATED 12/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

BEN VEREEN HAS JUST SPENT AN hour bobbing, jumping, twisting and lunging in the pool at the Kessler Institute, a rehabilitation hospital in West Orange, N.J. Water is good therapy. It's heavy, so it creates resistance, but it also buoys the body. As anyone who has ever seen Vereen acting, singing or dancing would expect, he does not go gentle into rehab. The 46-year-old star started the day lifting leg weights, then did 15 minutes on a step machine, then sweated through a session of muscle stretches. Now he is getting a rubdown. And only now do the groans and grunts turn into appreciative oooohs and aaaaaahs.

This arduous routine, which he has pursued for four months, five days a week, ends today at 5 P.M. It will resume tomorrow at 9 A.M. "I'd wanted to do seven days," says Vereen, "but I need to give the therapists a break."

Which is not to say that Vereen enjoys pain. But it has been part of his life since about 2:40 A.M. last June 9, when, as he walked on a dark stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, he was struck by a car driven by Grammy-winning composer-producer David Foster, 43. He spent three weeks in intensive care at UCLA and has been a patient at Kessler since July 22. "If it were up to me—I know the impact of the pain I suffered—I would have said bye," says Vereen. "But something greater than me said no." At that, he breaks into that trademark smile, sparkling with showbiz razzmatazz, and the strong, resilient faith he learned growing up in a deeply spiritual Pentecostal family in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section, where his father, James Vereen, was a paint-factory worker and his mother, Pauline, a maid. And what might that something he? Says Vereen simply: "It's called life."

And life won. judging from recent appearances by the actor best known for his roles as the high-stepping star of the Broadway musical Pippin and the enterprising former slave Chicken George in the 1977 miniseries Roots. In the last few months, he turned up on Arsenio and Good Morning America and attended the Malcolm X premiere in New York City. (And it's almost a done deal that he will return to Broadway in the spring, with a supporting part in the hit musical Jelly's Last Jam.) The 5'9" star is an almost robust-looking 170 lbs., down from 190 lbs. before the accident. "It may sound strange, but I feel better," he says. "I feel awake. It was a helluva wake-up call.' "

The strange circumstances of Vereen's accident—including the fact dial lie had wrecked his own car on the same highway only six hours earlier—initially raised suspicions that he had taken an emotional nosedive. Had Vereen been suicidal? Had he relapsed into the depression and substance-abuse problems that crippled him after his 16-year-old daughter, Naja, was killed in an auto accident in 1987? "No, no, no, no," insists Vereen, who says he has remained sober since he attended a treatment clinic soon after her death. In fact, he adds, "I was breezing." He had just flown back to L.A. from the New York area, where he lives in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., with his second wife, Nancy, 48, and the younger two of their three children. Vereen, who kept a condo in L.A., was looking forward to a meeting with Michael Jackson. He had just finished an Emmy-nominated role in the CBS miniseries Intruders—They Are Among Us (he didn't win). And he had just landed a regular role (which he plans to resume) on the late-night CBS series Silk Stalkings.

But he was also exhausted and had barely slept in the previous 48 hours. That's the conclusion pieced together by members of the Malibu sheriff's station; Vereen says he has no recollection of either accident. Apparently he dozed off just after 8 P.M. while driving his new Corvette and ran off the highway and into a tree. In the crash he banged his head on the roof and cut his lip.

After Vereen spent an hour and a half at the sheriff's station (where he passed a sobriety test), his manager, Pamela Cooper, took him to her home nearby. When she headed upstairs to bed. she remembers, he was nursing his lip with a piece of ice. A couple of hours later, though, Vereen apparently decided to walk to his rented condo at Zuma Beach, four miles away. It wasn't unusual for him to go for a very early morning walk—that's how he calms down after a performance, he says.

But Vereen, who may have been dazed by the first accident, somehow ended up out on the lonely Pacific Coast Highway, a beautiful but hazardous ribbon of road running between ocean and cliffs. The sky was overcast and that particular stretch of road, near Malibu's Sea Vista Drive, was unlighted. Vereen was wandering along a white dividing line when he was struck by the dark blue Chevy Suburban driven by Foster, who was minutes away from his own home. Foster was returning from the Record Plant studio in Hollywood, where he had been pulling the finishing touches on the new Michael Bolton album, Timeless (The Classics).

Foster slammed on his brakes and veered to his right, but Vereen darted the same way. "The noise of the impact," remembers Foster, "was jarring, down to the depths of my soul." Vereen was hurled 40 feel through the air, rolled another 50 feet, then lay in the road.

Foster first dialed 911 on his car phone. "I hit somebody on the highway!" he told the dispatcher. "Oh, my God!" Foster then got out of his car and located the bloodied figure, whom he didn't recognize. It wasn't until paramedics arrived that he learned the man he had held in his arms was Ben Vereen.

Foster, already shaken, was shattered. He knew Vereen and had even signed up to work with him on a benefit show for local law-enforcement agencies. By the time Foster's wife, songwriter Linda Thompson, arrived at the scene, all he could do was walk in circles on the darkened highway.

"Ben was pretty darn close to death when he got here," says Dr. Gill Cryer, chief of trauma, emergency surgery and critical care at the UCLA Medical Center. Vereen, who was helicoptered in, was comatose and had suffered traumatic internal injuries (involving liver, spleen, colon and one of his kidneys) requiring five hours of emergency surgery. A second operation was needed later that week to repair the fractured femur in his left leg, and a third, a week later, was performed to drain an abdominal infection. Because he wasn't breathing adequately when he arrived at the hospital, doctors were forced to perform a tracheostomy, cutting a hole in the windpipe. His carotid, the main artery to the brain, had been injured, creating strokelike symptoms on his right side.

Vereen's manager, Cooper, and his sister, Lady Walker Vereen, who lives in L.A., were the first to see him in the ICU. They leaned down on either side of his bed and shouted in his ears, "Come on, Ben, you've got to fight!" His wife, Nancy, a former dancer whom Ben met in the chorus of Golden Boy and married in 1968. arrived that same day. Daughters Malaika, 22, a college senior, Kabara, 17, and Karon, 15, followed later. (Benji Jr., 26, a Minneapolis-based choreographer who is Ben's son by first wife Andrea, kept in touch by phone and later visited his father in New Jersey.)

Three days after the accident, when Vereen finally came to, he felt at first that a wonderful dream had come to an end. He saw his family at his side. Then he realized he was attached to a small arsenal of monitors. Malaika explained to him that he had been in an accident. "How bad am I?" he asked Dr. Cryer.

"You're one sick puppy," Cryer said.

"Can you fix it?"

Cryer paused. "We can fix it," he said, "but the recovery will be up to you.

It was another three weeks before Vereen was well enough to leave the ICU. During that time he underwent a hall-dozen treatments every day.

"What really got me through," he says, "was that Nancy and the kids were there. It was devastating for them."

But Nancy's strength and patience were formidable, say her daughters. "I fell I couldn't allow myself to be anything but positive," she says. "Ben and I have been together 24 years, and times have been rough, but that's all a pari of it." They had already been through the tragedy of Naja, who was killed on the New Jersey Turnpike five years ago when a truck overturned on her car. "We never forget that fourth girl," says Nancy. "We talk about her in the family all the time."

Nancy realizes that her husband's indomitable personality played no small part in his survival. "It was his love of life and people," she says. Even so, Vereen doesn't deny having bouts with the blues. "I went through times wondering if I'd ever walk again," he says. "If I'd sing again, talk again, even talk on the phone." Once, he complained to Cooper, "My career's over." When Cooper tried to cheer him up by showing him a thick sheaf of cards and letters, Vereen just groaned. "They're all bills," he said hopelessly.

Those definitely weren't bills. More than 30,000 expressions of sympathy and encouragement poured in, including notes from Michael Bolton, Shirley MacLaine and Kevin Costner. Liza Minnelli visited and cajoled him into singing a duel of "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive." To sing, Vereen had to cover the hole in his windpipe. That was the first time he had heard his voice since the accident. "It was hard for me to see anything," a moved Vereen recalls, "because I was always in tears."

Six weeks after the accident, Vereen was judged well enough to fly back east. His doctors had estimated it would be a year before he would walk. But, thanks to his athletic body and his unbeatable drive, he has gone—in just five months—from walker to crutches to two canes to one to none. Still, it took hours to relearn how to roll out of bed and to move his hand to his mouth just to feed himself.

Doctors, family and Vereen himself are confident that he will dance again. He used to be able to kick as high as his nose, and already he can kick as high as his waist. "When he works on his dancing," says Karen Cameron, a therapist at Kessler, "everyone stops to watch.

Blessedly, perhaps, one thing he has not gotten back is his memory of the accident. According to Dr. Cryer, this is not unusual. "In a way, I think it's a defense mechanism," he says.

David Foster's mind did him no such favor. For four days after the accident, he says, he suffered flashbacks. "My recovery was totally tied into Ben's," says Foster, who briefly saw a psychologist (Vereen, too, has gone for counseling). "Every little tidbit of news we got was like a feast."

The banquet arrived two months after the accident, when Vereen phoned him. "David?" said Vereen. "Good hit!"

Foster got together with Vereen at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital in September, when Ben was having minor corrective surgery. They have since had dinner together in L.A., and Foster and his wife, Linda (an ex-wife of Bruce Jenner's and at one time Elvis Presley's girlfriend), even wrote a song for Vereen: "Live Each Day."

Vereen, who hopes someday to perform and record the song, already understands its lesson. "The universe," he says, smiling like a Cheshire cat that has no intention of melting into air, "is very good."

TOM GLIATTO
LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles and ALLISON LYNN at the Kessler Institute

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