Ted Neeley, of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' fame, to appear with film in Columbus

You might say that singer-actor Ted Neeley likes to spread the good news of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Over 50 years ago, Neeley was tapped to appear in the title role of the first U.S. tour of the iconic, biblically inspired musical with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Then, in 1973, the native of Ranger, Texas, was cast in Norman Jewison’s hit film version of the musical, netting a pair of Golden Globe nominations — and cementing his association with the project for decades to come.

Neeley still performs the part in stage productions, and for the past nine years, he has been taking the still-popular film on the road, making live appearances during screenings. The latest such screening will take place Sept. 20, at the Drexel Theatre in Bexley — a date that, coincidentally, is the star’s 79th birthday.

Ahead of the screening and appearance, Neeley spoke by phone with The Dispatch about making “Jesus Christ Superstar,” why the musical still resonates and his unexpected friendship with Quentin Tarantino.

Franklin art tour:Want to see and hear about art on a walking tour? Check out Franklinton

Question: Why has “Jesus Christ Superstar” continued to captivate audiences?

Neeley: Honestly, it’s what Tim (Rice) and Andrew (Lloyd Webber) did with that first album, and the fact that it was the first rock opera made into a motion picture. And the story that everybody in the world knows something about. Then, add to that, our brilliant, visionary producer/director/screenplay writer Norman Jewison, who conceived this whole idea (of the film) from Tim’s lyrics.

Theater:Broadway in Columbus 2022-23 season will include 5 shows new to Columbus

Q: When you accompany screenings, do you still sit back and watch the film every time?

Neeley: Definitely. Honestly, believe it or not, I find new things every time I watch it, and we have a brand-new remastered version of the film (that will be shown) that looks like it was shot yesterday. It’s just great sound, great everything.

Q: Norman Jewison shot the film in Israel. What was that experience like?

Neeley: I’ve done a lot of projects, and this was the first one — and the only one, so far — that I’ve been able to be a part of where you actually felt inspiration from walking in the sand. Every time you took a footstep, you were basically stepping in somebody’s footsteps from the past. The irony was that we were there in what was considered the end of the Six-Day War, but there was bombing all over the place while we were there. . . . Normally, when you’re doing a film, what you hear most is, “Action!” and “Cut!” We had, “Action,” “Cut,” “Hit the dirt!”

Q: How did you approach the role of Christ?

Neeley: I must honestly say petrified, because everybody in the world knows something about Jesus Christ and they all have an opinion. Here I am, a screaming rock ’n’ roll drummer from Texas and I’m going to pretend to be Jesus? Thank God it was Norman Jewison (directing), because he made all of us feel like we’d been in movies for life.

Fall arts & entertainment guide:Columbus concerts, comedy shows, theater and more

Q: You bring a lot of understatement to your performance.

Neeley: The whole idea was the last seven days in the life of the man called Jesus Christ, as seen through the eyes of his friends and his foes. And only he knew what the result was going to be. It was almost as if I needed to be as subtle as possible because it would be so easy to overstate anything in that character.

Q: During the making of the film, you met your future wife (dancer Leeyan Granger), right?

Neeley: She’s a classical ballerina from the National Ballet up in Canada. . . . What would be the chance those two lives would ever cross anywhere? And there we met in the desert.

Q: Besides “Jesus Christ Superstar,” you’ve continued to make music and work as an actor, and years later, you appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” How did that come about?

Neeley: (In the 1980s), I get a call from these two gentlemen who were producing and directing commercials and short films . . . They called me and said, “Ted, could you do us a big favor? . . . We’re on location right now. We’re going to be out here for three weeks, and we have one of our crew members who is really perfect. He’s a great worker, but he has this super-positive energy thing (where) he’s constantly, not intentionally, but interrupting what we’re doing. Would you mind coming and kind of being his overseer, so you can tell him when to calm down?” . . . It was Quentin. But the bottom line was, he was wonderful. He worked his buns off being on the crew, so we got to be buddies.

When he was doing “Django,” he just called me and said, “OK, I’ve got something I want you to be a part of.” . . . What a great guy. He’s incredible. He and Norman could be family.


At a glance

The movie “Jesus Christ Superstar” will screen with star Ted Neeley in attendance at 7 p.m. Sept. 20, at the Drexel Theatre, 2254 E. Main St., Bexley. General admission tickets cost $20. For more information, visit www.drexel.net.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ted Neeley to visit Columbus for 'Jesus Chris Superstar' showing