The rash of accusations of sexual assault and harassment has snared another famous name – and he is now apologizing for his actions.
Tony-winning actor Ben Vereen has a career in entertainment spanning nearly half a century, from stage to screen to television, including the landmark miniseries “Roots.” Now, however, a number of women have come forward to accuse him of misconduct when he led a theatre production of Hair in 2015.
The women — part of the Venice Theatre production outside of Tampa — say Vereen forced unwanted kisses, hugged them aggressively, stripped naked during an acting exercise and made degrading comments about their weight, sex appeal and personal lives.
Two of the actresses told the Daily News that Vereen lured them to his Florida rental home on separate occasions in September 2015 under the guise of “private rehearsals.” Then he pressed his erect penis into their legs without warning.
Kaitlyn Terpstra was 22 years old at the time. The other actress, who asked to be identified by only her first name, Kim, was 23 years old.
Vereen was weeks shy of his 69th birthday.
The women, who first provided statements to Chris Peterson of the blog OnStage before speaking to The News, said they had no idea until recently that Vereen used the same lines on both of them to get them naked in his backyard hot tub.
“He gave this whole speech about how nudity was not inherently sexual. ‘That’s not what it’s about.’ He made me feel that if I wasn’t mature enough to understand that, I wasn’t mature enough to be in ‘Hair,’” Terpstra told The News.
“He basically told both of us, ‘Get over yourself. Nudity doesn’t have to be sexual.’ If we asked questions or hesitated, we were the ones making it weird,” Kim said.
The women said once they got into the hot tub, Vereen began breaking them down with probing personal questions allegedly aimed at reaching creative breakthroughs. This was the same technique he used during rehearsals when he made different cast members, usually women, sit in the center of a circle and discuss their emotional triggers.
“He was acting as my mentor, asking me about my parents, then that same night, he put me on his lap while I was crying, and I felt his erection,” Terpstra recalled.
“He asked me, ‘Feel that?’ It was terrifying. I said, ‘Feel what?’ I wanted to act like I didn’t. I pushed myself off with a laugh. Then later, he asked, ‘Do you think I want to f–k you?’ I said ‘Yes,’ and he got angry. He said, ‘Well, I don’t, and that’s unfortunate.’ He made me feel like I had my mind in the gutter.”
Kim said during her time in the hot tub, things went even further. He asked her to perform oral sex on him. She passively obliged, feeling “confused,” she said.
“I just think at the time, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I didn’t want to do it, but I was intimidated and scared. He was being very intense and angry. He seemed very angry and offended. I had seen him behave this way toward others in the tribe during circle,” she told The News.
“I just felt powerless because I thought I really needed his help and guidance. And when he said nudity doesn’t have to be sexual, I was like, ‘OK, maybe this isn’t even sexual,’ ” she said.
“Now I understand it was a power play. It was so calculated. It was like we were putty in his hands.”
Cast members say Vereen, who played Claude in the original musical from 1968 to 1972, used the artistic boundaries of the show to take advantage of the star-struck, volunteer cast at Venice Theatre.
Terpstra said she was asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, even though she didn’t have a lawyer present, and that the document propped up Vereen’s aura of power.
The Broadway icon gained more influence over the group with his repeated claims he wanted to take their little production on the road, Kim said.
The prospect of a traveling show stoked the cast members’ hopes they could earn their highly sought-after Actors’ Equity Association cards, she explained. The elite union provides everything from health insurance to a guaranteed minimum wage and is often viewed as a springboard to a professional acting career.
“He mentioned all of us getting our Equity cards. He said if we went on tour, we would all get our cards,” Kim told The News. “There were lots of those kinds of promises. He was painting glorious pictures.”
A third actress, Ariella Pizarro, said Vereen pressed himself against her one night as he hugged her goodbye and later texted her, “Yo (sic) felt so good tonight.”
The News obtained a copy of the text message sent by Vereen and confirmed the number was listed in his name.
Pizarro said Vereen also randomly kissed her on the lips in the first few weeks of rehearsals, when she was 22 years old.
“We were in a music rehearsal, and he was just walking around, and then he walked up and kissed me on the lips. It was so weird. We all knew ‘Hair’ was going to be a different kind of production, like in the 60s, but he didn’t even ask first. He just kissed me. I was shocked, for sure,” Pizarro said.
“He didn’t shove his tongue down my throat, but it gave me an uneasy feeling. Then he moved on. I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “From that point on, I kept myself at arm’s length with Ben.”
In a series of statements to The News, Venice Theatre officials said they finally became aware of the full extent of the allegations against Vereen after Terpstra posted about her experience on Facebook in November.
Vereen apologized in a statement released to Fox News.
“I would like to apologize directly to the female cast members of the musical Hair for my inappropriate conduct when I directed the production in 2015. While it was my intention to create an environment that replicated the themes of that musical during the rehearsal process, I have since come to understand that it is my conduct, not my intentions, which are relevant here,” Vereen told Fox News in a statement. “So I am not going to make any excuses because the only thing that matters here is acknowledging and apologizing for the effects of my conduct on the lives of these women. Going forward, my having come to terms with my past conduct will inform all my future interactions not only with women, but with all individuals. I hope these women will find it in their hearts to accept my sincere apology and forgive me.”