Family & Companions
A Tony-winning actor, dancer, director and choreographer, Geoffrey Holder was a magnetic figure in multiple mediums - film, television, theater and advertising - for over four decades. Tall, sepulchral-toned and radiating refinement and good cheer from every pore, Holder established himself on the Broadway stage as a dancer and choreographer in the 1950s before branching into television and film as an actor who specialized in fantastic personas like his sinister Baron Samedi in "Live and Let Die" (1973) and the mystical and heroic Punjab in "Annie" (1982). On television, he embodied the warmth of the islands in much-loved commercials for 7-UP, among others, while his stage career included the original production of "The Wiz" (1976), which brought him two Tonys. Though his visibility dropped off in subsequent decades prior to his death in October 2014, Holder and his distinctively deep, Trinidadian accented voice remained an indelible part of the pop culture landscape - an immediately identifiable image and sound that suggested exotic lands, carefree movement and above all, an unquenchable love of life, which radiated in all of his work.
Geoffrey Richard Holder was born Aug. 1, 1930 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. One of four children in a middle-class family with artistic leanings, he was heavily influenced by his brother, Boscoe Holder, who trained him in painting and dance. Gifted in both fields, his early paintings were showcased at the Public Library in Trinidad for years. Holder made his performing debut at the age of seven with his brother's dance troupe, the Holder Dance Company, and eventually took over direction of the company when Boscoe relocated to London. In 1952, American choreographer Agnes de Mille - daughter of pioneering filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille - saw Holder perform with his troupe on the island of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and invited him to audition for Sol Hurok, the legendary impresario who managed such iconic artists as Marian Anderson, Isadora Duncan, Arthur Rubinstein and others. Holder sold 20 of his paintings to finance the company's trip to New York City in 1954. After failing to secure Hurok's support, Holder kept himself afloat through dance instruction at the Katherine Dunham School and through one-man shows of his art.
In 1954, his striking appearance - Holder was 6'6" and possessed a mellifluous, basso profundo voice - caught the attention of producer Arnold Saint Subber, who cast him as the voodoo sorcerer Samedi in his production of "House of Flowers," a Tony-winning musical directed by Harold Arlen and written by Truman Capote. Holder would also choreograph one of the show's key numbers, the "Banda Dance." Though "House of Flowers" was not a success, it served as Holder's introduction to dancer Carmen de Lavallade, whom he would marry in 1955. Holder would then go on to serve as principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York, as well as manage and perform with his own troupe, Geoffrey Holder and Company. He found time to author a book, beginning in 1959 with Black Gods, Green Islands, a collection of Caribbean folk tales co-written with Tom Harshman. Holder would go on to write several books through his life, including a West Indies cookbook. His art career also flourished, earning him a Guggenheim Fellowship in painting in 1957.
That same year, Holder established himself as an actor in an all-African-American production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." He would soon develop a tertiary career as a performer in features and television, beginning in 1957 with "Carib Gold" (1957), an obscure drama starring Ethel Waters. Holder's exotic visage and voice made him a natural for otherworldly figures, like the genie in "Aladdin" (1957), a musical penned by Cole Porter for "The DuPont Show of the Month" (CBS, 1957-1961) or the Lion in a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion" (NBC, 1967) with music by Richard Rodgers. Holder later appeared as himself in the British noir "All Night Long" (1962), a retelling of Shakespeare's "Othello" set against the world of jazz nightclubs. In 1967, he enjoyed a featured role as William Shakespeare X, the cultured leader of the Sea-Star Island tribe, in the expensive flop "Doctor Dolittle" (1967).
Throughout the 1970s, Holder was a ubiquitous presence in a variety of mediums. As a theater director and choreographer, he was the first black artist to win a Tony Award for his 1975 staging of "The Wiz, for which he also received a Tony for Best Costume Design. Three years later, he received Tony and Drama Desk nominations for costume design and choreography for "Timbuktu!" a revamp of "Kismet" set in the West African nation of Mali. As if he did not have enough on his plate, he also choreographed pieces for numerous companies, including the acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Holder was also busy as a supporting player in major Hollywood features. He was again cast mainly as mystical figures, like the medieval sorcerer who gave court jester Woody Allen a potion to seduce his queen (Lynn Redgrave), but there were occasional roles steeped in reality, like his knife-wielding pirate in the 1976 period adventure "Swashbuckler." His most high-profile role during this period was undoubtedly Baron Samedi, the voodoo priest and henchman to corrupt West Indian dictator Dr. Kanaga (Yaphet Kotto) in "Live and Let Die" (1973), the first James Bond feature to star Roger Moore as 007. Holder also choreographed the film's eerie ritual sequences, in which he struck an imposing figure in half-white face and top hat and tails.
However, most audiences became familiar with Holder through a series of television advertisements for the soft drink 7-UP, which featured the performer in a vague tropical setting while extolling the virtues of the soda over its main competition, Coca-Cola. Holder's booming laugh and cooing vocals soon entered the pop cultural landscape for television viewers who were most likely unaware of his long and storied career in the theater. So successful was Holder as the product's pitchman, he represented 7-UP well into the early 1980s, and also provided voiceover work for numerous radio spots. Despite his success as a pitchman, his output as an actor slowed down in the 1980s. His most visible role was that of Punjab, trusted manservant to Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney) in John Huston's film version of "Annie" (1982), though he also made a chilling Ghost of Christmas Future in "Christmas" (ABC, 1986), a modern-day take on Dickens' A Christmas Carol with an all-African-American cast led by Robert Guillaume as Scrooge. In 1992, he played an advertising designer whose overtly sexual campaign was overruled by Eddie Murphy in "Boomerang" (1992). Holder also continued to contribute choreography and staging to numerous theater productions, including a 1993 concert by the Boys' Choir of Harlem.
Parents who brought their children to Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005) were undoubtedly pleased to hear Holder's rumbling tones as the film's narrator, a role he reproduced for the accompanying video game. Holder was also the subject of a 2005 documentary, "Carmen and Geoffrey," which examined the couple's long and extraordinary marriage and careers. And in 2011, he provided another dose of welcome nostalgia on "The Celebrity Apprentice" (NBC, 2004- ) when a team led by Marlee Matlin, charged with producing a commercial for 7-UP, called Holder to reprise his pitchman role, which he executed with unflagging charm and enthusiasm despite being noticeably frail. Though in his eighth decade and requiring the use of a cane, Holder's singular presence retained its regality and visual flair and the task taken on by Matlin ended up more of a tribute to the man than anything else. Geoffrey Holder died at the age of 84 from complications of pneumonia in Manhattan on October 5, 2014.