Out of all the actors known for playing iconic roles in movies and plays, Texas native Ted Neeley easily wins the award for the most interesting public approach by fans who encounter him. Neeley played Jesus of Nazareth in the original Broadway production and feature film of Jesus Christ Superstar.
"They come up and say, 'You're my Jesus,'" Neeley says. "I say, 'Please, forgive me. I am not Jesus. I'm a rock 'n' roll drummer from Texas who screams high notes and got really, really lucky to be in this movie.'"
Neeley's first big breaks happened in the theater, with roles like Claude in the New York and Los Angeles productions of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical and Billy Shears in the original Broadway production of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He also served as an understudy for Jesus of Nazareth in Jesus Christ Superstar until film director Norman Jewison decided to cast him in the title role for his 1973 film adaptation. Universal Studios completed a high-definition update to Jewison's film and Neeley has been on a national screening tour that came to an end last weekend at the Texas Theatre.
Neeley, an actor and musician who grew up in the small Central Texas town of Ranger, says it's strange to constantly be recognized as one of the most famous philosophical and religious icons in the world because of his career, but it's fulfilling since his job with the show has never ended.
"I wish you could walk in my sandals just once and see what I'm talking about," Neeley says. "It is remarkable to walk on that stage and feel that experience."
Neeley says he's very grateful for the role for several different reasons. For starters, it made him a film and theater star and he continues to play the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera for packed theaters around the world. He also met his wife, Leeyan, as a result of Jesus Christ Superstar. She was one of the lead dancers in Jewison's film production.
"It's become a blessing for me," he says. "It's changed my life for the better in every possible way."
It also presented him with one of the biggest challenges of his acting career. Preparing for the role was a huge undertaking for obvious reasons, Neeley says.
"Anybody who chooses to get into this business, you know you're going to have critics taking care of whatever you do whether you're a singer, a dancer or whatever," Neeley says. "The entire world is your critic because everybody knows something about Jesus, and some are personal relationships, so I was scared to death."
The original theatrical production was met with protests from devout Christians who thought the pairing of Jesus' story and a rock soundtrack was pure blasphemy. Neeley says he often invited protesters to see the show and discuss anything they might have found objectionable in the theater lobby following the final curtain call.
"I'd go out as soon as the show was over and as soon as I opened that door, they would throw up their arms and go, 'We love the show. We're gonna come back and bring our family,'" Neeley says. "So honestly, the people who were our protesters turned out to be our promoters."
Neeley says the film and stage musical still seem to resonate with new generations, and he believes that's not a result of religious conviction or personal beliefs in a specific faith.
"The guys who wrote it, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, it was their idea to look at Jesus as a human being because he walked upon the Earth first as a human being and no one saw him back then as anything other than a human being until he was crucified and resurrected," Neeley says. "So you're looking at a man who's going through the same trials and tribulations of everyone around him. So that human element was added because our director Jewison, who wrote the screenplay, he put that element in there for all of us to respect."
The story of Jesus' last seven days before his crucifixion puts the audience on the same level as the film and musical's main subject, Neeley says.
"The audiences, by and large, can really understand much more easily that they're looking at a person who goes through the same trials and tribulations they go through in their daily life," he says. "So they can relate to those problems and confusion and all that, and it certainly made a difference in the whole way they perceive the film."
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The musical's message about human connectivity is still pertinent. The original concept album and stage production for Jesus Christ Superstar was formed in the dark shadow of the Vietnam War. Neeley says he feels the themes of the musical still have a lot to teach the world.
"It's almost a parallel existence, if you will, between spirituality and war because we were in Israel in 1972 making a film about something that happened 2,000 years ago and war was going on in Israel while we were there," he says. "We were there just after allegedly the Six Day War and yet there was still bombing with tanks and jets, and now here we are 43 years later and war is even worse in that part of the world than it was back then. So the idea was, are they connected somehow? Are spirituality and disagreement a parallel universe with each other? Can we not learn that if you disagree that it's OK?"
Neeley says he feels the musical's true message is the connection all people have to each other regardless of who they consider to be their spiritual savior.
"I don't know about you but I'm one who always believed that we can find a peaceful solution if we just open our minds and listen to each other, and I think that's an underlying element within this film and people can feel that when those songs happen and they want to sing the songs with us," Neeley says. "So without being a blatantly anti-war statement, it has that essence in it that we need to love each other and learn to forgive each other and live with each other as opposed to, 'I don't like you so I'm going to blow your brains out.'"