FLASHBACK Interview: The Confessions of Ted Neeley, Superstar

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Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson
Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson in the 1973 film version of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
Photo credit: Universal Studios Home Video

HollywoodChicago.com: What was Universal’s reaction?

Neeley: The executive there said, ‘what do we have to do with it?’ He didn’t even know that Decca was producing the rock opera. They bought the rights, and as soon as he finished work on ‘Fiddler,’ he started working on the film version of Superstar. He wrote the screenplay and put the unknown cast together. Everything that was the film version came from Norman Jewison. Everything I did came from his decision.

HollywoodChicago.com: Since you’ve portrayed him over 5,000 times, what is your personal relationship with Jesus Christ right now?

Neeley: I was born and raised in Texas, and knew as much about the Bible at ten years old as I knew anything. I’ve had a personal connection to God and Jesus since then, and I am a believer. The only thing I challenge in that relationship is what happens when religion becomes organized, and which interpretation do you believe?

My feeling about what Andrew and Tim wanted to do was to look at the last seven days of the man called Jesus of Nazareth, seen through the eyes of his friends and contemporaries. They saw him as a man, as they saw the divinity. We’re seeing Jesus in the rock opera before he died and before he was resurrected. In that connection, human beings can relate more to what they perceive Jesus to be.

HollywoodChicago.com: Have you experienced that absolution in the feedback regarding your role in the film and stage versions of Superstar?

Neeley: Apparently, because I’ve been hearing it for forty years – people say to me, ‘you brought me to my spiritual recognition.’ I always contend I’m a rock and roll drummer from Texas, what are you talking about? I recently saw the film again, for the first time on the big screen. I do see what they’re talking about in that experience. It was powerful and visionary, and beautifully plays up Andrew and Tim’s interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and Judas. The essence of that is Judas thought he was doing the right thing – it wasn’t about betrayal, but what he thought was his purpose and humanity. I’m not quoting the Bible, I’m quoting the philosophy of ‘Superstar’.

HollywoodChicago.com: What song from the show that you perform is based on the philosophy you’ve just espoused?

Neeley: The song ‘Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)’. The lyrics to me are a conversation, just like I had with my father when I was a child. When I didn’t know something, we’d sit and talk. He’d give me answers, and I would ask questions. I’m not ‘Jesus talking to God’ in that song, but a son talking to his father. That is the way I perform and interpret that song.

HollywoodChicago.com: Finally, you had a unique relationship with the man who portrayed Judas opposite you so many times, the late Carl Anderson…

Neeley: We were on the road with the show for years. Three to six months is considered a success for most road companies. When we put together the movie’s 20th anniversary stage tour, we couldn’t find a producer that was interested. They loved the show, but they just thought there would be no demand. So we produced it ourselves.

We started the run in Baltimore, got the promoters together, and ran for two years there, and another three on the road. Carl and I were together more than any two human beings in the world during that time. We were the yin/yang of the show, because we knew if one guy needed it, the other guy had his back. It freed us to perform, because we knew we could try different things, and it was just brilliant.

HollywoodChicago.com: What story do you think best defines your connection and friendship?

Neeley: We did a church seminar, just to talk to people, and they were listening to us as if we were the real deal. It was two guys talking about the human nature of those divine characters. We were astounded that they were listening to us, I had to remind Carl ‘no profanity.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Neeley, all this time we’ve been together, why don’t we just get married?’ [laughs]

That, in a nutshell, was our relationship. We had wives and families elsewhere, but no matter where we would go we had the authority of those two characters, filtered through the relationship we had. We accepted the blessings of receiver and transmitter. Whatever the audience saw in us through those characters, we didn’t challenge it, we just accepted it. We were thankful for it, and let it be.

“The Hollywood Show” in Chicagoland presents celebrities meet-and-greets and memorabilia vendors every spring. For more information click here.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Editor and Film Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2019 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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