"It seemed like it," said Vereen.
But whatever point he intended was overshadowed by the images of Ben Vereen in blackface.
"Exactly -- that's all the country saw, the world saw," he said. "And the headline in the Chicago Defender was, 'Vereen, disgrace to the race.'"
It was, he said, the beginning of a difficult period. "Yes, it was. Yes, it was. I was flying at that time. I was doing fantastic. My career was taking off. And then BAM, knocked me down. I had no friends. Everybody went (whoosh)."
Things only got worse.
Six years later, Vereen's daughter, Naja, just 16 years old, was killed in a car accident. Vereen descended into a spiral of substance abuse.
"You're hiding from who you really are because of the scars, because of the pain, because of all this stuff," Vereen said.
Then in 1992, Vereen was stumbling along a dark road near his Malibu home. He says he'd suffered a stroke behind the wheel of his own car, when was struck by an SUV.
He says he was actually pronounced dead at one point. "When I first met Ben he was not even ambulatory," said physical therapist M.J. Liederbach, who has been working with him since 1993. "He had just had a very, very traumatic series of injuries."
But, he said, "I just could tell that he was a fighter."
"You can't let the pain stop you, or hinder you," said Vereen. "You push through it."
Doctors told Vereen it would be three years before he could walk -- and forget about dancing or singing ever again. But vocal coach William Riley helped him find his voice. "He looked at me and said, 'OK, let me hear the scales,'" recalled Vereen. "And I couldn't talk. And he said, 'Uh, OK, you'll sing again, but you'll sing differently. It'll be like driving a new car. Get used to it.' And he put me back together."
He was back on stage just 10 months after the accident.
Rocca asked, "Why are you doing all of this?"
"Because I love what I do," said Vereen.
To him, performing isn't just an artistic pursuit; it's a sacred one. "I believe the arts can heal anything and everything," he said at the Ben Vereen Awards.
And he's been working on a Broadway musical based on his own life. And in the role of Ben Vereen: who else?
"We've all gone through ups and downs, we've all gone through tragedies and joys and disappointments," he said.
Ben Vereen will turn 69 this October. And make no mistake: he's still here.
"Let's make it to 79, 89, 109. Let's go!" Vereen said. "And give and give and give! Whoo! And when you give, it comes back to you! Double-fold."
"You're 69," said Rocca. "You're already over the speed limit. You might as well just floor it."
"That's right!" Vereen laughed.
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