The New York Magazine Jan.23, 1995 Is God Ted?
Ted Neeley is famous for playing the Messiah in the film and the
stage revival of Jesus Christ Superstar now at the Garden. But he has no
trouble remembering who he really is. Most of the time.
by Marshall Sella
When Jesus comes to town, he stays at the Paramount. Today he is
seated near the second-floor bar, gazing down upon the well-dressed
humanity in the lobby as he sips a margarita. "Ninety percent of
the hotels on my tour screw up my reservations", he says without a
trace of malice.
"Even here - they lost my name entirely. There's still no room
for this guy at the inn."
Granted, the Son of Man lounging at the table is not precisely Jesus
of Nazareth. He is Ted Neeley, who portrayed a shrieky Messiah in the
1973 Norman Jewison film of Jesus Christ Superstar and who has
resurrected his performance for a road show of the rock opera. Over the
past two years, the anniversary tour has dragged Neeley (and Carl
Anderson, who played Judas in the movie) to 112 cities and towns across
America, and it will finally hit New York this Tuesday, the seventeenth,
when the play begins a two-week run at the Paramount (no relation to the
hotel) in Madison Square Garden. For the time being, though, New York is
only a fleeting vision. Neeley has flown all the way from Omaha for this
one interview; the next week will find him in Providence and Boston,
where he will be crucified, to the delight of local audiences, eight
times before returning to New York. The seventeenth, in fact, will be a
full day for the miracle boy: At a luncheon, he'll donate a pair of
sandals to the Hard Rock Cafe; then he'll do a dress rehearsal of the
show - to say nothing of Live at Five - all before opening night.
"Honestly", he says, holding out cupped hands to convey
honesty, "I never thought anybody would see this show. I figured,
they've seen the movie. But people come up to me and say, 'The film
changed my life' or 'When I looked into your face, I thought I was
looking into the face of God.' Ministers ask me if I'll speak to their
congregations. And I've gotta tell you: It scares the hell out of
Neeley is wearing a chenille sweater of many colors, with a tiny
Jiminy Cricket pinned to the neck. "He's the only other J.C. I
know", Neeley says. "I've loved him since I was a kid." I
mention Jimmy Carter, Johnny Carson, even Jill Clayburgh, but Neeley's
thoughts are elsewhere. He breaks into a soft, high-pitched rendition of
"When You Wish Upon a Star", causing black-suited Paramount
security men to stare up from the lobby.
If Neeley is an unusually jovial man, perhaps it's because the years
have been kind to him. His 1973 Jesus wore his youth like a taunt, but
these days he is not far shy of 50. (He declines to tell his age,
quaintly saying that he "will always be 33".) But Neeley has
hardly changed. His beard is still wispy in spots. He is lean and
hyperactive. Most reconizable are the wide-set eyes: They don't seem to
focus on the same point, giving Neeley the neat trick of appearing to
stare straight at you but also beyond you, toward some hallowed middle
distance. In short, his face was built to play Jesus. He could be bored
to death and still look like he's pondering the nature of sacrifice.
On this night, sacrifice is not on the agenda. Over dinner at Orso,
Neeley retraces the winding path that bought him from his childhood in
Ranger, Texas, to filming Superstar in Israel. "I've been drumming
since I was 4", he says, "and screaming out songs while
drumming since I was 8". In high school, he formed a band called
the Teddy Neeley Five; after graduating in 1962, Neeley and his pals
went to Los Angeles in search of the wild life. They found it. Within a
few months, the band was headlining at the legendary club known as the
"One minute we're playing the Ranger Rotary," he says,
"and the next, we're doing covers of tunes by Elvis, James Brown,
and the Stones while those guys are sitting right in front of us,
hanging out with us. It was quite a scene."
By 1964, Neeley was working Vegas, fronting for Rickles, Cosby, and
acts even he can't remember. When the band broke up, Neeley was offered
a solo singing gig. "There I was", he says. "Charlie the
Chameleon, doing whatever I had to do. So I became Bobby Darin. I got
short hair, a tuxedo, the whole bit - every mother's dream - and ended
up on the Smothers Brothers, Gleason, and Carson."
Despite the fact that he considers the Bobby Darin impression a
formative lesson in acting (not to mention that it earned him enough
money to buy a house), Neeley was soon singing in stage productions of
Hair and Tommy and playing the role of Reporter/Leper/Understudy in the
original Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar. His tux hasn't
seen the light of day since.
These days, there are rumors going around that Ted Neeley takes his
role far, far too seriously. "I never have a problem knowing who I
am," he says. I'm a rock-and-roll drummer from Texas. But for two
hours a night, I am, with every fiber of my being, trying to assimilate
the essence of Jesus Christ. I'm a palette on which people project the
Jesus they came to see."
With supper, Neeley chooses a 1989 Barbaresco - red wine "holds
a special significance" for him - then a few exquisite tequilas
whose names I cannot now recall. A discussion of Christianity ensues,
interrupted only when Neeley ogles the local lovelies. " No one had
a clue who Jesus was," he says, arms outstretched. "He was a
rabbi with a radical view - a man who could speak in parables and
connect. And that thing we call charisma - well, he had a big bag of
that. Me, I eat Cheerios for breakfast. Is that charisma?"
Laughing, Ted Neeley rises and wanders off to use the lavatory.
As 3 a.m. rolls around, we have somehow ended up in a pool hall on
Eleventh Avenue. The place is empty except for two tables in the back,
where gangish boys in Jet caps are smoking dope and repeatedly chipping
their cue ball onto the floor. One of them has taken to sitting on a
stool in front of the CD jukebox and seems to think it's a video game.
Neeley walks to a pay phone to whisper a late good night to his wife in
Houston, then floats back toward our table, flashing a beneficent smile
at the guys as he passes. They reward his kindness with a smirk.
Our game proceeds as you'd expect; Neeley is all charity. He insists
that I break, and refuses to penalize me both for scratching and sinking
a garbage shot. "A little gift from the Jeez man," he sings,
resting his cue horizontally across his shoulders. Eventually, of
course, the trouncing begins; God has decreed that his only begotten son
must win at billiards. Neeley plays as assuredly as if it were part of
his show; the tequila and the late hour have put a glow on him. He
finishes me off with a shot that sends the eight ball through the
thicket of my many remaining balls and into the side pocket.
After the game, I sit on the edge of the pool table as Neeley
contentedly paces back and forth. "This tour started out as a
three-month thing," he says. "Bringing it to New York was
never part of the plan. But this city has always been a wonder to
me." Since trying to picture Christ in a place like this is
suddenly not so difficult, I ask Neeley how Jesus of Nazareth would
react to New York if he walked its streets today. Neeley draws close and
shows how he personally treats homeless people. He asks me to hold out
my hand as if I were a supplicant, then takes it solemnly in both of his
and stares with dramatic empathy into my bloodshot eyes. There is a
moment of puzzled silence at the table behind us, and I try to drag the
subject back to Jesus, if we have ever strayed from it. How, I ask,
would Christ react to violence? I lean back, fully expecting to hear a
few words about forgiveness. "He would react with rage,"
Neeley says quietly. "I mean, I'm the most nonviolent person I
know. But if you move against my wife or children, I will kill you.
There is no quarter. It doesn't matter what your background is, what
made you violent, why you attack. You fuck up, you die. I am a
capital-punishment man. Jesus, I think, would be no different. He
knocked over a few tables. He let' em know he was there. I've read so
much in the press we've gotten about Judas's strength and Jesus's
fraility - but I can kick Judas's ass anytime. That's not the point.
Betrayal is a metaphor for love. Jesus, as I understand him, is not
weak. The essence of Christ is to say, 'What's mine is yours.' But where
I come from is primal - an animal world. You can be Christlike and also
Neeley has his hands on my shoulders, and he is aiming The Look
straight into my face. But not even the subject of vengence has spoiled
his merry mood. I take the opportunity to ask him about one especially
odd rumor. I've heard it said that when the Superstar cast travels by
bus, Neeley sometimes hops off at the city limits so as to arrive on
foot, in the style of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. It's just the sort
of behavior that sets folks to talking. "If they think I'm in
character when I do that," he says, "that's their perception.
...Their words, not mine." This last phrase rings a bell, until I
realize it's a line from the play.