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Ted Neeley, "Jesus Christ Superstar"
Ted Neeley says his near-40-year run playing the title role in "Jesus Christ Superstar" on stage and screen hasn't dulled his enthusiasm for the part one bit. (Courtesy photo by Joan Marcus)

Meet Ted Neeley, Superman.

He may not move faster than a speeding bullet or leap tall buildings in a single bound.

But he can tirelessly talk up a lightning storm about a role he's been playing longer than any other living stage actor in recent history -- almost 40 years. And counting.

Not even that famed long-runner Yul Brynner spouted his "etceteras, etceteras, etceteras" in "The King and I" as long as Neeley has been getting crucified nightly.

The occasion, of course, is the actor's career-long stint playing the Man from Galilee in the first and most enduring rock opera of them all, "Jesus Christ Superstar," coming to Illinois State University's Braden Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

He's essayed the title role in virtually every medium extant, and, as some of his fans might confuse it, in real life -- witness their eagerness to interface with him both before and after performances, and Neeley's equal eagerness to comply (he makes a point of asking that we let people know he wants to meet and talk with them at some point in the evening, either before or after the performance).

There are a few key distinctions between man and Man, however -- like, Jesus was 33 when his mortal stay ended and Neeley just turned 66.

"With all due respect, I have to say that I have no idea how I've pulled it off. The voice should have been gone a long time ago. But it's stronger now than it's ever been," he insists in the very un-Jesus-like twang that instantly marks him as a Texan, not a Galilean.

And so what? "There's no doubt in my mind that's exactly who I am: a longhaired rock 'n' roll drummer from Texas who screams high notes and who got really, really lucky."

That luck, he says, shows no sign of waning. Nor does he want it to.

Genesis of a hit

In the beginning (1970), there was "Jesus Christ Superstar," the two-record album with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. And it was good.

A year later (1971), there was "Jesus Christ Superstar," the glitzy Broadway stage rendition of the album. And it was, according to some of the critics, not so good. Two years after that (1973), there was "Jesus Christ Superstar," the big-budget Hollywood movie. And it was, well, um, different.

Now, 37 years after the movie, there is "Jesus Christ Superstar: The North American Farewell Tour." And, lo, it is still coaxing manna from heaven.

Chalk that up to the singularly potent casting coup of maintaining the Neeley connection that spans the decades.

And, until his death from leukemia five years ago, the late Carl Anderson had been on board over the decades, too, recreating his original role of Judas.

In fact, Anderson was scheduled to join the current tour until his illness took over, a setback that hit Neeley hard, but that had to be overcome.

"I had no idea at the time," recalls Neeley of his friend's condition. "All I could think is that it would be impossible for anybody to do that role. So we've been very fortunate to find performers in the years since who've been able to create their own vision while paying tribute to Carl through what they learned from him watching the film."

Ironically, the show that was once one of the most controversial pop culture phenomena of its era -- accused of everything from outright blasphemy to anti-Semitism -- has evolved into a family-values event up there with "Annie."

If the presentation has grow leaner and less glitzy over the decades, the substance remains unchanged: It's set during the final seven days of Christ's life and presented through the eyes of his anguished disciples and eventual betrayer, Judas. The bulk of the spectacle is centered on the attempts to turn Jesus into a media celebrity against his will.

Stage to screen

Following the success of the 1970 album, which spun off three hit singles, the Broadway edition debuted with Ben Vereen as Judas and Jeff Fenholt as Jesus. Neeley signed on as Fenholt's understudy, while Anderson became Judas after Vereen bowed out with throat problems.

Within a year, Neeley and Anderson were leading the Los Angeles production and pretty much cementing the roles as their own -- witness their quick casting in the movie version over several seemingly more likely candidates. Shot on location in Israel, the film alienated some audiences with several unorthodox stylistic devices: the cast members were introduced as movie actors arriving on location via bus; the time frame thrown out of synch as tanks and jets could be seen amassing in the background during the climax.

"That was certainly Norman's (director Norman Jewison) idea, and it almost demanded to be done," Neeley recalls "There we were in Israel, surrounded by real tanks and jets, bombing and attacking the borders. If we didn't see it on screen, we would have been lying about what was going on. I still feel Norman's decision was absolutely well-chosen."

Ask Neeley if he's kept a scorecard on how many times he's been crucified in front of an audience, and he seems genuinely mystified by the seemingly infinite possibilities.

"I do know that my late friend Carl and I did over 2,000 performances on the '90s tour alone," he says. "So you'd have to add a lot to that total from both before and after."

Wouldn't it look good to see it with the Guinness Book of World Records seal of approval?

"I honestly don't know," he says. "It's something that if I did keep count, and see it in print, it would probably just frighten me."


At a glance


What: National tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar" starring Ted Neeley

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Illinois State University Braden Auditorium

Tickets: $29.50 to $44

Box office: 309-438-5444

Ted Neeley's near-40-year run playing the same character may or may not be a record for a stage or film actor. He says he honestly "doesn't know." For comparison's sake, here are some other famously long-running thespian relationships:




53. Helen Wagner: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the long-running matriarch of TV's soap, "As the World Turns," has scored Earth's most steadfast thespian feat. Wagner, now 91, has played the same character, Nancy Hughes, since the series signed on in 1956 (she's followed by fellow cast members Eileen Fulton, 40 years, and Don Hastings, 39 years).

38. Fred Rogers: The genial, cardigan-clad host of PBS' "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" created the character for Canadian TV in 1963, then emigrated stateside where he came into his own in 1968 via the series several generations of kids came to know and love. It continued through 2001.

36. Yul Brynner: Before Neeley's J.C., the bald-pate actor held the stage record, as the regal half of "The King and I," a role he created on Broadway in 1951 and held onto for decades, including a short-lived '70s sitcom and an '80s Broadway revival that continued just months before his death in 1985.

33. Carl Anderson: Had he lived, Neeley's "Jesus Christ Superstar" comrade would be tied at near-40 years. But the actor who originated the role of Judas in 1971 and continued to play it on stage and screen through 2003 was felled by leukemia in 2004.

32. Basil Rathbone: The movies' most famous portrayer of Sherlock Holmes first donned the deerstalker cap in 1939's "Hound of the Baskervilles," then found himself portraying the world's greatest detective for the rest of his career -- in 14 films, countless radio shows, a disastrous stage edition and TV sketches. He ended the association, somewhat sadly, spoofing Holmes in a series of early-'60s ads for Getz Exterminators ("Getz gets 'em!").

28. Pee-wee Herman (aka Paul Reubens): Amazing but true, the pasty-faced man-child has been at it since 1982, when Reubens parlayed his parody of a TV kiddie show host into a live stage show, which then became a hit HBO special and, in 1986, a bona fide TV kiddie show. Two movies followed. Reubens' arrest on a morals charge in 1991 ended Pee-wee's re ign, until the past year, when he returned in a new stage rendition.

27. Harrison Ford: Eclipsing his three turns as Han Solo in the "Star Wars" series is the actor's turns as whip-cracking archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones in a quartet of Steven Spielberg-directed hits that convened in 1981 and continued to 2008. Rumors of a fifth time round are circulating.

25. Rex Harrison: The droll British actor had been a stage screen star for years before he took Broadway by storm in 1956 as the original Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," followed by the 1964 screen version. He continued growing accustomed to her face all the way through the 1981 Broadway revival.

21. Sean Connery: The movies' first and best James Bond took 007 through the '60s and into the early '70s before calling it quits, supposedly for good. But never say never ... as his 1983 return to the role, "Never Say Never Again," proved.

-- Dan Craft


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