Geoffrey Holder, the dancer, choreographer, actor, composer, designer and painter who used his manifold talents to infuse the arts with the flavor of his native West Indies and to put a singular stamp on the American cultural scene, not least with his outsize personality, died on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 84.
Charles M. Mirotznik, a spokesman for the family, said the cause was complications of pneumonia.
Few cultural figures of the last half of the 20th century were as multifaceted as Mr. Holder, and few had a public presence as unmistakable as his, with his gleaming pate atop a 6-foot-6 frame, full-bodied laugh and bassoon of a voice laced with the lilting cadences of the Caribbean.
Mr. Holder directed a dance troupe from his native Trinidad and Tobago, danced on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera and won Tony Awards in 1975 for direction of a musical and costume design for “The Wiz,” a rollicking, all-black version of “The Wizard of Oz.” His choreography was in the repertory of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theater of Harlem. He acted onstage and in films and was an accomplished painter, photographer and sculptor whose works have been shown in galleries and museums. He published a cookbook.
Mr. Holder acknowledged that he achieved his widest celebrity as the jolly, white-suited television pitchman for 7Up in the 1970s and ’80s, when in a run of commercials, always in tropical settings, he happily endorsed the soft drink as an “absolutely maaarvelous” alternative to Coca-Cola — or “the Uncola,” as the ads put it.
Long afterward, white suit or no, he would stop pedestrian traffic and draw stares at restaurants. He even good-naturedly alluded to the TV spots in accepting his Tony for directing, using their signature line “Just try making something like that out of a cola nut.”
Geoffrey Lamont Holder was born into a middle-class family on Aug. 1, 1930, in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, the youngest of five children of Louise de Frense and Arthur Holder, who had immigrated from Barbados. Geoffrey attended Queen’s Royal College, an elite secondary school in Trinidad. There he struggled with a stammer that plagued him into early adulthood.
“At school, when I got up to read, the teacher would say, ‘Next,’ because the boys would laugh,” he said in an oral history interview.
Growing up, Mr. Holder came under the wing of his talented older brother, Arthur Aldwyn Holder, known to everyone by his childhood nickname, Boscoe. Boscoe Holder taught Geoffrey painting and dancing and recruited him to join a small, folkloric dance troupe he had formed, the Holder Dancing Company. Boscoe was 16; Geoffrey, 7.
Geoffrey Holder’s career mirrored that of his brother in many ways. Boscoe Holder, too, went on to become a celebrated dancer, choreographer, musician, painter and designer, and he, too, left Trinidad, in the late 1940s, for England, where he performed on television and onstage.
His brother’s departure put Geoffrey Holder in charge of the dance company, as its director and lead performer, and he took it to New York City in 1954, invited by the choreographer Agnes de Mille, who had seen the troupe perform two years before in St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. She arranged an audition for the impresario Sol Hurok. To pay for the troupe’s passage, Mr. Holder, already an established young painter, sold 20 of his paintings.
After dropping his bags at an uncle’s apartment in Brooklyn, he fell in love with the city.
“It was a period when all the girls looked like Janet Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor, with crinoline petticoats and starched hair,” he told The New York Times in 1985. “The songs of that period were the themes from ‘The Moulin Rouge’ and ‘Limelight,’ and it was so marvelous to hear the music in the streets and see the stylish ladies tripping down Fifth Avenue. Gorgeous black women, Irish women — all of them lovely and all of them going somewhere.”
Mr. Holder had the good fortune to arrive in New York at a time of relative popularity for all-black Broadway productions as well as black dance, both modern and folk. Calypso music was also gaining a foothold, thanks largely to Harry Belafonte.
For a while Mr. Holder taught classes at the Katherine Dunham School, and he was a principal dancer for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet from 1956 to 1958. He continued to dance and direct the Holder dance company until 1960, when it disbanded. In the meantime, at a dance recital, he caught the attention of the producer Arnold Saint-Subber, who was putting together a show with a Caribbean theme.
Thus did Mr. Holder make his Broadway debut on Dec. 30, 1954, as a featured dancer in “House of Flowers,” a haunting, perfumed evocation of West Indian bordello life, with music by Harold Arlen and a book by Truman Capote, based on his novella of the same name. Directed by Peter Brook at the Alvin Theater , it starred Diahann Carroll and Pearl Bailey, and among its dancers was a ravishingly pretty young woman named Carmen de Lavallade. She and Mr. Holder married in 1955, had a son, Léo, and sometimes shared the stage. Both wife and son survive him. Boscoe Holder died in 2007.
One character Mr. Holder played in the musical was the top-hatted Baron Samedi, the guardian of the cemetery and the spirit of death, sex and resurrection in Haitian Voodoo culture. Mr. Holder relished Samedi: he played him again in the 1973 James Bond film, “Live and Let Die” (the first of the Bond franchise to star Roger Moore), and featured him in his choreography — in his “Banda” dance from the musical “House of Flowers,” and in “Banda,” a further exploration of folk themes that had its premiere in 1982.
His Voodoo villain in “Live and Let Die” was of a piece with much of his sporadic film career: with his striking looks and West Indian-inflected voice, producers tended to cast Mr. Holder in roles deemed exotic. In “Doctor Dolittle” (1967), he was a giant native who ruled a floating island as William Shakespeare (the 10th). In Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * but Were Afraid to Ask” (1972), he played a sorcerer. In “Annie” (1982), he was the Indian servant Punjab. (An exception was the 1992 romantic comedy “Boomerang,” in which he played a randy director of commercials working for Eddie Murphy’s playboy advertising executive.)
Mr. Holder was multitasking before the term gained currency. In 1957, he landed a notable acting role playing the hapless servant Lucky in an all-black Broadway revival of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” directed by Herbert Berghof. The show, just seven months after the play’s original Broadway production, closed after only six performances because of a union dispute, but the role, with its rambling, signature 700-word monologue, lifted Mr. Holder’s acting career.
That same year, he choreographed and danced in a revival of the George and Ira Gershwin musical “Rosalie” in Central Park. And he received a Guggenheim fellowship in painting.
Painting was a constant for him. Whether life was hectic or jobs were scarce, he could usually be found in the SoHo loft he shared with Ms. de Lavallade, absorbed in work that drew on folk tales and often delivered biting social commentary. On canvases throughout the studio, sensuous nudes jostled for space with elegantly dressed women, ghostly swimmers nestled beside black Virgin Marys, bulky strippers seemed to burst out of their skins, and mysterious figures peered out of tropical forests.
His work was shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And then there was his photography, and his sculpture.
His visual creativity extended to costume designs, “The Wiz” being just one showcase. Another was John Taras’s 1982 production of “The Firebird” for the Dance Theater of Harlem, in which the Russian fairy tale was relocated to a tropical forest. Mr. Holder designed both the sets and the costumes, one of which was a blend of 30 or 40 colors. He earned another Tony nomination for best costume design for the 1978 Broadway musical “Timbuktu!,” an all-black show based on the musical “Kismet.” He also directed and choreographed “Timbuktu!”
Mr. Holder’s dance designs were equally bold. Reviewing a 1999 revival of “Banda” by the Dance Theater of Harlem, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The Times, “Mr. Holder is a terrific showman, and his mix of Afro-Caribbean rituals, modern dance and even ballet’s pirouettes is potent and dazzling.”
Other Holder dance classics were “Prodigal Prince” (1971), a dreamlike re-creation of the life and work of Hector Hyppolite, the Haitian folk painter, for which he also composed the musical score; and “Dougla” (1974), anevocation of a mixed-race Caribbean wedding. (Dougla refers to people who are of African and Indian descent.)
In 1959, he published a book on Caribbean folklore, “Black Gods, Green Islands,” written with Tom Harshman and illustrated by Mr. Holder; in 1973, he produced “Geoffrey Holder’s Caribbean Cookbook.” He himself was the subject of books and documentaries, including “Carmen & Geoffrey” (2009), by Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob.
Mr. Holder said his artistic life was governed by a simple credo, shaped by his own experience as a West Indian child who had yet to see the world.
“I create for that innocent little boy in the balcony who has come to the theater for the first time,” he told Dance magazine in 2010. “He wants to see magic, so I want to give him magic. He sees things that his father couldn’t see.”
Geoffrey Lamont Holder (August 1, 1930 – October 5, 2014) was a Trinidadian-American actor, choreographer, director, dancer, painter, costume designer, singer andvoice-over artist.
Born in Port of Spain to Barbadian immigrants. He was known for his height (6 ft 6 in), "hearty laugh" and heavily accented bass voice.
One of four children, of parents who had emigrated to the United States from Trinidad, Holder attended Tranquillity School and then secondary school at Queen's Royal College in Port-of-Spain. At the age of seven, he began dancing in the company of his elder brother, Boscoe, a Tony Award-winning stage director and costume designer.
In 1952, choreographer Agnes de Mille saw Holder dance in St. Thomas. She invited him to New York; he would teach at the Katherine Dunham School of Dance for two years.
Holder was a principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York City from 1955-56. He made his Broadway debut in House of Flowers, a musical by Harold Arlen (music and lyrics) and Truman Capote (lyrics and book). He also starred in an all-black production of Waiting for Godot in 1957.
Holder began his movie career in the 1962 British film All Night Long, a modern remake of Shakespeare's Othello. He followed that with Doctor Dolittle (1967) as Willie Shakespeare, leader of the natives of Sea-Star Island. In 1972, he was cast as the Sorcerer in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*. The following year he was a henchman – Baron Samedi – in the Bond movie Live and Let Die; He contributed to the film's choreography. In addition to his movie appearances, Holder became a spokesman for the 1970s 7 Up soft drink "uncola" advertising campaign.
In 1975 Holder won two Tony Awards for direction and costume design of The Wiz, the all-black musical version of The Wizard of Oz. Holder was the first black man to be nominated in either category. He won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Design. The show ran for 1672 performances over a four-year period; it was revived in 1984.
As a choreographer, Holder created dance pieces for many companies, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, for which he provided choreography, music and costumes for Prodigal Prince (1967), and theDance Theatre of Harlem, for which he provided choreography, music and costumes for Dougla (1974) and designed costumes for Firebird (1982). In 1978, Holder directed and choreographed the Broadway musicalTimbuktu! Holder's 1957 piece "Bele" is part of the Dance Theater of Harlem repertory.
In the 1982 film Annie, Holder played the role of Punjab. He was in the 1992 film Boomerang with Eddie Murphy. He was also the voice of Ray in Bear in the Big Blue House and provided narration for Tim Burton's version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He reprised his role as the 7 Up Spokesman in the 2011 season finale of The Celebrity Apprentice, where he appeared as himself in a commercial for "7 Up Retro" for Marlee Matlin's team.
Holder was a prolific painter (patrons of his art included Lena Horne and William F. Buckley, Jr.), ardent art collector, book author and music composer. As a painter, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship in fine arts in 1956. A book of his photography, Adam, was published by Viking Press in 1986.
In 1955, Holder married dancer Carmen de Lavallade, whom he met when both were in the cast of the musical House of Flowers. They lived in New York City and had one son, Léo. They were the subject of a 2004 film, Carmen & Geoffrey. One of his siblings (an elder brother), Boscoe, was a Tony Award-winning stage director and costume designer.
Geoffrey Holder died in Manhattan from complications from pneumonia on October 5, 2014. His immediate survivors were his wife, Carmen, and their son, Léo.
- Waiting for Godot, Revival (all black cast), 1957 – Performer
- House of Flowers, Original Musical, 1954 – Banda dance choreography, performer
- Josephine Baker, Musical Review, 1954 – Performer
- The Wiz, Original Musical, 1975 – Direction, Costume Design (Tony Award for Best Costume Design and Best Direction of a Musical, 1975)
- Timbuktu!, Original Musical, 1978 – Direction, Choreography, Costume Design, Playbill Cover Illustration
- The Wiz, Revival, 1984 – Direction, Costume Design
- The Boys' Choir of Harlem and Friends, Staged Concert, 1993 – Staging
|1962||All Night Long||Film debut|
|1967||Doctor Dolittle||Willie Shakespeare|
|1972||Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask||The Sorcerer|
|1973||Live and Let Die||Baron Samedi||also choreography|
|1978||Doctor J. Kanye|
|1998||Hasards ou coïncidences||Gerry|
|2005||Charlie and the Chocolate Factory||Narrator|
|2006||Joséphine Baker. Black Diva in a White Man's World|
|1967||Androcles and the Lion|
|1983||Alice in Wonderland||the Cheshire Cat|
|1985||John Grin's Christmas||Ghost of Christmas Future|
|1988||The Cosby Show||choreography||Choreographed the Season 5 opening credits.|
|1990||The 62nd Annual Academy Awards||performing|
|1997||Bear in the Big Blue House||Ray||Voice|
|2002–2003||Cyberchase||Master Pi||Episode 118, "Problem Solving in Shangri-La"|
|Episode 209, "Double Trouble"|
|1994||Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller||Jean St. Mouchoir||One of only two live actors in the game (as opposed to voice only)|
Geoffrey Holder 1930-2014
A little more than a week after developing pneumonia, Geoffrey Holder made a decision. He was calling the shots as always. He was done. 2 attempts at removing the breathing tube didn't show promising results. In his truest moment of clarity since being rolled into I.C.U. he said he was good. Mouthing the words “No, I am not afraid” without a trace of negativity, sadness or bitterness, he sincerely was good with it. He had lived the fullest life he could possibly live, a 70 + year career in multiple art forms, and was still creating. Still painting, a bag of gold (of course) fabric and embellishments in his room for a new dress for my mother, sculptures made out of rope, baseball caps and wire hangers. New ideas every second, always restlessly chasing his too fertile mind. A week of breathing tubes and restrained hands had forced him to communicate with only cryptic clues which I was fortunate enough to be able to decipher at best 40% of the time. The fact that we all struggled to understand him enraged him to the point that he could sometimes pull tantrums taking up to 4 people to restrain him from pulling out the wires. He was head strong (understatement), but he was also physically strong. Iron hand grip that no illness could weaken. 9 days of mouthing words that, because of the tubes, produced no sound forcing him to use his eyes to try to accentuate the point he was trying to make. But this didn’t mean he wasn’t still Geoffrey Holder. This didn’t mean an end to taking over. Holding court as he always did. Directing and ordering people around. Choreographing. Getting his way. We still understood that part, and the sight of his closest friends and extended family brought out the best in him. Broad smiles in spite of the tubes, nodding approval of anything that met his standard (which was very high), and exuding pride and joy in all those in whom he saw a spark of magic and encouraged to blossom. The week saw a parade of friends from all over the world checking in to see him, hold is hand, rub his head, and give him the latest gossip. But he was still trying to tell me something, and although I was still the best at deciphering what he was saying, I still wasn’t getting it.
Saturday night I had a break through. After a good day for him, including a visit by Rev. Dr. Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church who offered prayer and described Geoffrey’s choreography as prayer itself, which made him beam, I brought in some music. "Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra”, one of his all time favorites. He had once choreographed a piece to one of the cuts on the album… a throwaway ballet to fill out the program, but the music inspired him. From his bed, he started to, at first sway with the music, then the arms went up, and Geoffrey started to dance again. In his bed. Purest of spirits. Still Geoffrey Holder. Then he summoned me to take his hands, and this most unique dancer / choreographer pulled himself up from his bed as if to reach the sky. It was then I broke the code: he was telling me he was going to dance his way out. Still a Geoffrey Holder production. If it had been up to him, this evening’s solo would have been it. The higher he pulled himself up, the higher he wanted to fly. I had to let him down. Not yet. There are friends and family coming in from out of town. He resignedly shrugged his shoulders, closed his eyes and went to sleep.
I got it. Really. I got it. I walked out of the hospital elated. Ate a full meal for the first time in days, slept like a baby after. The next day would be his last. I was not sad. It wasn’t stressful for me to deal with him in this state. It was an honor and a privilege to tend to anything he needed. This impromptu dance was his dress rehearsal.
Next morning, I show up early. Possible second thoughts? Should we wait? What if he changes his mind? Did he understand what we were talking about here? Thoroughly. Mind as clear as crystal. "You still game for our dance tonight?" A nod, a smile, and a wink, with tubes still down his throat.. We’re still on. But he still wants to do it NOW. NOT later. He’s cranky. Sulks a while. Sleeps a while. Eventually snaps out of it.
From noon on, a caravan of friends and family from all over the globe comes through the ICU wing. Ages 1 to 80. Young designers and artists he nurtured and who inspired him. Younger dancers he encouraged to always play to the rear balcony with majesty. The now “elder statesmen” dancers on whom he built some of his signature ballets. His rat pack of buddies. Wayward saints he would offer food, drink, a shoulder to cry on, a couch to sleep it off, and lifetime’s worth of deep conversation and thought. Closest and oldest friends. Family.
They know they are here to say goodbye. He knows they are here to say goodbye. He greets them beaming with joy to see them. By this time I’m reading his lips better and am able to translate for him as much as I can. The last of them leave. It’s time for his one true love to have her time with him. His muse. Her champion. This is their time. 59 years distilled into 5 minutes of the gentlest looks and words as she caresses his noble brow one last time. She puts a note she wrote to him in is hand. She leaves.
Everyone is gone except me. My moment. I will be with him as he goes.
One more time: “you good?” Nod & faint smile. ‘you ready?” He is.
I have asked the doctors to not start the morphine drip right away, because I want him to have his solo on his own time. Knowing him, he might stop breathing right after his finale. For dramatic effect. He’s still Geoffrey Holder.
They remove the tube that has imprisoned him for the past 9 days and robbed this great communicator of the ability to speak. I remove the mittens that prevent his hands from moving freely.
I start the music, take his hands and start leading him, swaying them back and forth. And he lets go of me. He’s gonna wing it as he was prone to do when he was younger. Breathing on his own for the last time, Geoffrey Holder, eyes closed, performs his last solo to Bill Evans playing Faure’s Pavane. From his deathbed. The arms take flight, his beautiful hands articulate through the air, with grace. I whisper “shoulders” and they go into an undulating shimmy, rolling like waves. His Geoffrey Holder head gently rocks back and forth as he stretches out his right arm to deliver his trademark finger gesture, which once meant “you can’t afford this” and now is a subtle manifestation of pure human spirit and infinite wisdom. His musical timing still impeccable, bouncing off the notes, as if playing his own duet with Evan's piano. Come the finale, he doesn’t lift himself of the bed as he planned; instead, one last gentle rock of the torso, crosses his arms and turns his head to the side in a pose worthy of Pavlova. All with a faint, gentile smile.
The orchestra finishes when he does. I loose it.
They administer the morphine drip and put an oxygen mask over his face. and I watch him begin taking his last breaths.
I put on some different music. I sit and watch him sleep, and breathe… 20 minutes later, he’s still breathing albeit with this gurgling sound you can hear though the mask. Another several minutes go by, he’s still breathing. Weakly, but still breathing… then his right hand starts to move. It looks like he’s using my mother’s note like a pencil, scratching the surface of the bed as if he’s drawing. This stops a few minutes later, then the left hand begins tapping. Through the oxygen mask the gurgling starts creating it’s own rhythm. Not sure of what I’m hearing, I look up to see his mouth moving. I get closer to listen: “2, 3, 4….2, 3, 4… He’s counting! It gets stronger, and at it’s loudest sounds like the deep purr of a lion, then he says “Arms, 2, 3, 4, Turn, 2, 3, 4, Swing, 2, 3, 4, Down, 2, 3, 4….”
I called my mother at home, where she was having a reception in his honor. She picks up. There are friends and family telling Geoffrey stories simultaneously laughing and crying in the background.
"Hi, honey, Are you alright?”
“Yes actually… he hasn’t stopped breathing yet.” I tell her about his solo, which brings her to a smile and a lightening of mood. I continue:
“Can I ask you a question?”
"Sure Honey. What?
"Who the hell did you marry?”
"What do you mean?”
"You’re not gonna believe this. He’s got a morphine drip, going on over half an hour, an oxygen mask on, his eyes closed, AND HE’S CHOREOGRAPHING!”
This brings her to her first laugh of the day. She now knows we will be alright.
He continues on like this for quite a while, and a doctor comes in to take some meter readings of the machines. I ask the doctor if this is normal. As she begins to explain to me about the process, his closed eyes burst open focused straight on us like lasers and he roars with all his might: ”SHUT UUUUUUUUUUUUUP!!! YOU’RE BREAKING MY CONCENTRATION!!!!!!!”
We freeze with our mouths open. He stares us down. long and hard.
Then he closes his eyes again, “Arms, 2, 3, 4, Turn, 2, 3, 4, Swing, 2, 3, 4, Down, 2, 3, 4…”
He continued counting ’til it faded out, leaving only the sound of faint breathing, slowing down to his very last breath at 9:25 pm
Still Geoffrey Holder.
The most incredible night of my life.
Thank you for indulging me.
Love & best,
Here is an NPR piece on Carmen De Lavallade, the wife of Geoffrey Holder. Enjoy.