This past Sunday (October 5, 2014) we lost a great Modern Renaissance Man. Born in Trinidad on August 1, 1930, Geoffrey Holder was an extraordinarily talented choreographer, dancer, director, actor, painter, costume designer, and more. Known to most Americans as the star and spokesperson for 7 Up’s “uncola” commercials and later as a villainous henchman in the James Bond film “Live and Let Die”, he had a larger than life personality embellished by his lilting, sing song accent and a voice that oozed warmth and good humor.
Discovered in 1952 by Agnes De Mille while dancing in St. Thomas, Holder was invited to New York where he soon made a career for himself, teaching at Katherine Dunham’s school, dancing on Broadway and in the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and by 1957 starring in an all black production of Waiting for Godot. He went on to create choreography for such companies as Alvin Ailey and Dance Theater of Harlem. On stage Geoffrey strived to “create magic”, and he became the first black man to be nominated and win two Tony Awards, for direction and costume design for The Wiz. All of this was no small miracle given that Geoffrey Holder had to overcome both dyslexia and a severe stutter.
Beyond all this, I will always remember Geoffrey Holder for his relationship with dancer, choreographer, and educator Carmen de Lavallade, as profiled in the beautiful, 2004 documentary Carmen and Geoffrey. The two of them made a stunning and seemingly wonderful duo – creating both work and a son, Leo, together, inspiring one another, and apparently living life to its fullest.
Looking back at some of Holder’s interviews, I was struck by his charm, humility, and honesty. In one interview he spoke eloquently about many things, including overcoming his stutter, and about how he discovered and owned something of his own personal power because someone was gracious enough to really listen to him.
“Once you have somebody listening to you, you have a captive audience…If you know somebody’s really listening, you don’t mind making a fool of yourself…The problem is today people don’t listen to each other! Everybody is a movie star, nobody wants to be in the chorus.”
RIP Geoffrey Holder. You did both.