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Obituaries

Gregory Hines, 57; Tap Dancer, Actor

August 11, 2003|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Gregory Hines, the innovative and influential tap dance star who became invaluable in the renewal of his art and also enjoyed wide success as a film and television actor, has died. He was 57.

Master of a distinctively earthy, roughhewn tap style, the Tony and Daytime Emmy award-winning performer died Saturday in Los Angeles of cancer.

Although he lent his choreographic talents to the emergence of tap as a concert-dance form, Hines arguably achieved his greatest importance as the bridge between the nightclub-tap tradition of his mentors (most of them known primarily to tap insiders) and the kind of multimedia stardom that no African American tapper had enjoyed since Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the 1930s.

A monument to Hines' personal tap style -- which he once defined as trying "to make it as real as possible, as natural as possible" -- the 1989 film "Tap" encompasses the whole range of tap achievement. It casts him as a rebel who explores tap's often neglected expressive possibilities in an intense jailhouse solo under the opening credits and new technological and spatial horizons for tap in an elaborate production number near the end.

The film also devotes plenty of footage to a lifelong Hines preoccupation, tap's legendary seniors, and the future tap icon Savion Glover, Hines' protege on stage, screen and television.

In his book "Savion," written 12 years later, Glover said working with Hines could be humbling: "It felt like he was passing the torch down to me every night."

"For me," Glover wrote, "knowing Gregory is like knowing you have a pops but not meeting him until you're 20, and it turns out he's been very cool all this time.... That relationship made it easy for me to, like, complete my education as a tap dancer."

Hines was born in New York City on Feb. 14, 1946, and began studying dance before the age of 3 along with his elder brother, Maurice. By the time he was 5, the Hines Kids had an act that began to appear in nightclubs throughout the U.S. A year later, they performed at New York's Apollo Theater for two weeks, and in 1954 they were cast in the Broadway musical "The Girl in Pink Tights," starring French ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire.

When Hines was in his teens, the boys' father, Maurice Sr., joined them on drums in a touring act billed as Hines, Hines and Dad that appeared on such television programs as the "Ed Sullivan Show" and the "Tonight Show." The brothers also danced together in the Broadway musical revue "Eubie!" in 1978 and the film "The Cotton Club" in 1984, though relations between them were not always smooth.

Hines' first nondancing movie roles came in 1981, with "Wolfen" and "The History of the World, Part I." By 1985, he could hold his own in duets with ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov in the Cold War dance-melodrama "White Nights."

His other films include "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (1984), "Deal of the Century" (1983), "Running Scared" (1986), "Eve of Destruc- tion" (1991), "A Rage in Harlem" (1991), "Renaissance Man" (1994), "Waiting to Exhale" (1995), "The Preacher's Wife" (1996) and "The Tic Code" (1998). In 1994, he made his feature directorial debut with the independent film "Bleeding Hearts."

"I enjoy acting, the challenge it presents," he told The Times in 1984, "but I look on it as a job. And I always think of myself as a tap dancer; that's what I do, and I'm going to do it until I can't."

As a result, Hines' most indelible contributions came in dancing roles on television and on Broadway, where he earned Tony nominations for "Eubie!" "Comin' Uptown" and "Sophisticated Ladies" in 1979, '80 and '81, respectively. He subsequently won the Tony for best actor in a musical, playing jazz legend "Jelly Roll" Morton in "Jelly's Last Jam" in 1992.

Honed in nightclubs and the theater, his tap style reached television screens through such specials as "I Love Liberty" (1982), "Motown Returns to the Apollo" (1985) and "Gregory Hines' Tap Dance in America" (1989), all Emmy-nominated.

His own 1997 situation comedy series, "The Gregory Hines Show," was not a success critically or commercially. But in 2001, he was Emmy-nominated again for a job that he considered a labor of love: the title role in a Showtime "Bojangles" film biography. His own tap identity may not have meshed with Bill Robinson's more finicky style of attack, but Hines' understanding of and respect for tap's heritage distinguished the whole project. And Glover, of course, turned up as the tap of the future.

"His dancing came from something very real," said actress Bernadette Peters, Hines' co-host for the 2002 Tony Awards. "It came out of his instincts, his impulses and his amazing creativity. His whole heart and soul went into everything he did."

In 1999, Hines won a Daytime Emmy Award for his voice performance in the animated TV series "Little Bill," and the same year he began a recurring role on the NBC sitcom "Will and Grace." He also appeared in the fact-based Showtime production "Who Killed Atlanta's Children?" in 2000 and made his small-screen directorial debut with "The Red Sneakers" for Showtime in 2001.

"He was the last of a kind of immaculate performer -- a singer, dancer, actor and a personality," said George C. Wolfe, the director of New York City's Public Theater, who directed "Jelly's Last Jam." "He knew how to command."

At the time of his death, Hines was engaged to Negrita Jayde. Besides his father and brother, he is survived by his daughter, Daria; son, Zach; grandson, Lucian; and stepdaughter, Jessica Koslow.

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