Ted Neeley, Superstar

Ted Neeley as Jesus in the latest stage production of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
CBS
Talk about a starring role! A certain actor we know of has devoted much of his life to one show that has particular resonance this season. Tracy Smith takes us backstage:

"He's just awesome!" one woman told us.

He'd be the first to tell you that he's not who you think he is.

Oh, he looks the part: the beard, the robe, the air of infinite wisdom. But Ted Neeley, best known for his work in the title role of "Jesus Christ Superstar," knows that his success is a blessing.

"It's something I always wanted to do, and I have the opportunity to still be doing it, it's absolutely remarkable," he said.

After playing the lead in the stage production and in the 1973 movie, Neeley has taken the stage as Jesus more times than he can count. At age 65 he can still - somehow - hit the high notes.

"Jesus was 33 when he died," Smith said.

"And I'm 32 now, for the 33rd time!" Neely laughed.

"You're almost double the age he was when he died. Is age an issue when you play this part?"

"Not with me, and apparently not with the audience," said Neely.

To a multitude of fans, Neeley has become an icon of, shall we say, biblical proportions.

"Big fan," one woman said, "and I can't imagine anyone but Ted Neeley singing those lyrics," another woman said.

"He's as good as he was 30 years ago, I mean he's phenomenal," another fan said.

"I'm sold," one man said.

A native of Ranger, Texas, Ted Neeley grew up singing in church, and signed his first record deal at the age of 22.

By 1969, Neeley was the lead in the musical "Hair." When casting began for the stage production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," Neeley wowed the director with his portrayal of ... Judas.

"And he ran upon stage and threw his arms around me and said, 'That was wonderful!'" neeley recalled. "'But I want you to come back tomorrow and sing the other guy.'"

"The other guy? Jesus?" Smith asked.

"Been doing the other guy ever since!" neeley said.

Still, he wasn't the first choice for the film: the part had already been cast. So Neeley, who was clean shaven at the time, arranged a meeting with director Norman Jewison and showed up wearing a fake beard, a story Jewison told in a 1996 documentary:

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"Here he was sitting there with the glue and the fake beard, it was hysterical," Jewison said. "But the eyes were like burning, burning, just burned right through you."

Did he show up in a robe and sandals as well?

"I should have," Neeley said, then added, "If I'd done that I probably wouldn't have gotten the part!"

On the list of 1973's top grossing movies, "Jesus Christ Superstar" was a respectable 13, and you could argue that so many people saw Neeley as Jesus it was difficult for them to see him as anyone else.

He followed the film with a series of TV roles and musical projects, none as celebrated.

In 1992 Neeley was persuaded to tour with a new production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," and has played the role off and on ever since.

"I just put on a robe, I put on the sandals, I walk stage right, the music starts, and it carries me into this magnificent space," Neeley said.

"You can do it just like that?" Smith asked.

"Mmm-hmmm."

It doesn't take long for Neeley to get into character.

"Boom!, you're Jesus? And then when you take that robe off, does he leave you?" Smith asked.

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"Oh boy, that's the tough part. It's there, for quite a while. And that's one of the major things that makes it wonderful talking with people after the show - they help me come back to being me."

And he gets a lot of help. After nearly every performance, people really do flock to see him. Most of them are just longtime fans, but to some, meeting Ted Neeley really is a religious experience.

"Oh, they think he's really Jesus," said Tessa Neeley, Ted's daughter. "Pregnant women, they ask him to bless their child. They wait after the show hours and hours. … He's very patient with them and he speaks to every single one of them just as if they're the only people in the room.

"People have tattoos of him!" Tessa said. "One guy had a tattoo of him, his actual face. And someone had a tattoo of his signature on his arm!"

"Is there ever a part of you that wants to say, 'Dad, give the Jesus thing up'?" Smith asked.

"Never, never. If he could do it forever I believe he would."

He's definitely trying: The current national tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar" is scheduled through next spring, starring an ordinary man for whom every performance is a miracle.

"I could not be happier," Neeley said. "And I hope that I can do this for another 2,000 years!"