Dancer and actor Gregory Oliver Hines (born 1946) began his career when he was still a toddler. He tapped his way to fame in nightclubs with his brother, Maurice Hines, on Broadway and in Hollywood.
Gregory Oliver Hines
Valentine's Day, 1946, marks the birth of Gregory Hines in New York City. His father was Maurice Sr., who worked as a soda salesman, a nightclub bouncer, and a semi-pro baseball player. His paternal grandmother, Ora Hines, was a showgirl at the Cotton Club, the famous Prohibition-era nightclub in Harlem where African American entertainers performed for a wealthy white clientele.
His brother, Maurice Jr., was two years old when Gregory was born, and already in tap shoes. The boys grew up in Harlem and Brooklyn, and it was their mother who steered them toward tap-dancing careers as a way "out of the ghetto." Envisioning them as the new Nicholas Brothers, she enrolled them in dancing school as soon as they could walk. The boys made regular visits to Harlem's vaudeville mecca, the Apollo Theatre, and Gregory's idols were the improvisational tap masters "Sandman" Sims and Teddy Hale.
The brothers first performed locally together when Gregory was five and Maurice seven. Their education took place at professional children's schools; summer vacations were booked with tours of their dance act, called the Hines Kids. Their Broadway debut was in 1954 as the newspaper boy (Maurice) and the shoeshine boy (Gregory) in the musical comedy "The Girl in Pink Tights, " starring French ballerina Jeanmarie.
Under the tutelage of tap coach Henry LeTang, the Hines Kids became an international attraction. When Maurice reached his teens, they became the Hines Brothers, and briefly they were Hines, Hines and Brown when singer and pantomimist Johnny Brown joined the act. The next member of the act joined in 1962, when Maurice Sr., having learned to play the drums, made possible Hines, Hines and Dad. Maurice Jr. was the straight man for Gregory's comedy, and the three of them played such venues as "The Ed Sullivan Show, " "The Tonight Show, " the Palladium in London, and the Olympia Theatre in Paris.
By the late 1960s, the interests of the two brothers took divergent paths. Maurice wanted to concentrate on "legitimate theatre, " and Gregory, more influenced by the times, wanted to write songs and perform rock-style music.
In 1973 the brothers' act broke up, and Gregory moved to Venice, California, where he became, in his words, "a long-haired hippie." He organized a jazz-rock group, Severence, for which he wrote songs, sang, and played guitar. He worked as a waiter, busboy, and karate instructor (he is a Black Belt), and joined a men's consciousness-raising group. He met his second wife, Pamela Koslow, during this period. Hines had been married once before to dance therapist Patricia Panella, and his daughter from that marriage, Daria, lived with her mother in Manhattan.
Hines missed his daughter and moved back to New York in 1978. He landed a tap-dancing spot in "The Last Minstrel Show, " a Broadway hopeful that opened and closed in Philadelphia.
His next effort was his first joint appearance in five years with his brother, in the African American musical revue "Eubie!" (1978-1979). Choreographed by their mentor Henry LeTang, the show was an homage to then 95-year-old composer Eubie Blake. Gregory sang a soulful rendition of "Low Down Blues, " and he "machine-gun" tapped out "Hot Feet, " a number that was repeatedly interrupted by audience applause. Gregory and Maurice sang and danced "Dixie Moon" as a duet and joined others in the tango "There's a Million Little Cupids in the Sky." Hines won several awards for his performance in "Eubie!", including one from the Outer Critics' Circle, and was nominated for a Tony as Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.
A musical-comedy version of "A Christmas Carol" called "Comin' Uptown" (1979-1980) was Hines' first vehicle for genuine acting. Although it flopped at the box office, Hines, who played the lead, was nominated for a Tony as Outstanding Actor in a Musical.
His next effort was to choreograph "Blues in the Night, " a revue based on classic blues songs. This show ran for six weeks off-Broadway in early 1980.
In May 1980, Hines participated with Charles "Honi" Coles, John Bubbles, Nell Carter, and others in "Black Broadway, " George Wein's salute to African American Broadway musicals of the past. The same year, a pair of Hines' tap shoes was placed on the "Wall of Fame" at Roseland, the venerable Manhattan dance hall, alongside the shoes of Fred Astaire and Ruby Keeler.
"Sophisticated Ladies" was a showcase of Duke Ellington's music conceived by director-choreographer Donald McKayle, with its tap segments choreographed by LeTang. After its Philadelphia tryout, reviewers complained it was too long and encumbered with wooden narration, which minimized the song-and-dance talents of Hines and co-star Judith Jamison. The show moved to Washington, D.C. in early 1981, where Hines criticized the show publicly and was dismissed. The cast rallied on his behalf, threatening to walk out; Hines was rehired, and McKayle was replaced by Michael Smuin.
The revamped show reached Broadway in March 1981. It was no longer a drawn-out tour of Ellington's musical life and times, but a slick, elegant bundle of nostalgia for a Saturday night party at the old Cotton Club. With Mercer Ellington, Duke's son, conducting the on-stage orchestra, Hines sang the title song as well as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Something to Live For"; a duet with Jamison, "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart, " and others including "Take the A Train" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If I Ain't Got That Swing)." For "Sophisticated Ladies, " Hines received his third straight Tony nomination, this one for Best Actor in a Musical. The show didn't close until January 1983. In January 1982 Hines turned over the role to his brother in order to help produce the West Coast production of the show.
During this period he made his first film appearance, opening up yet another venue for his talents. In Mel Brooks' farce "The History of the World—Part I" (1981), Hines brief comic scene featured him as Cleopatra's long-tongued slave. That same year, he appeared in the horror film "Wolfen" (1981), and in 1983 he co-starred with Chevy Chase and Sigourney Weaver in "Deal of a Century."
While in Los Angeles for "Sophisticated Ladies, " he heard about a jazz-era film titled "The Cotton Club." For two weeks, he begged the film's producer, Robert Evans, for the part of Sandman Williams, a promising, young Cotton Club tap dancer. Evans had his mind set on Richard Pryor for the part, and when Pryor turned it down, Hines got his wish.
Francis Ford Coppola relied on his cast's real-life experiences in rewriting the screenplay for "The Cotton Club" 40 or 50 times, with the help of William Kennedy, before it was satisfactory. After hearing Hines describe the breakup of the Hines, Hines and Dad act, Coppola decided to make Gregory's character half of a feuding brother act, with Maurice Hines playing the other half. The film was released in 1984, to lukewarm reception by critics and audiences.
Hines appeared on the star-studded two-hour NBC network show "Motown Returns to the Apollo" (May 19, 1985), a condensed version of a six-hour taping that took place at the official re-opening of the historic Harlem theater two weeks earlier. The same year, he co-starred with Mikhail Baryshnikov in "White Nights" (1985), which impressively juxtaposed the tap and ballet talents of the two stars, but critics agreed that not much else about it was impressive. Other films for Hines include "Running Scared" (1986) with Billy Crystal and "Off Limits" (1988) with Willem DeFoe. "Tap" (1989), a tribute to his old idols, included appearances by Sammy Davis, Jr., and Sandman Sims and was choreographed by Henry LeTang.
Nineteen-ninety-two marked a turning point in Hines' career. He received his fourth Tony Award nomination for his role as Jelly Roll Morton in "Jelly's Last Jam, " and this time he won. Dinitia Smith reviewed the performance in New York and called Hines "perhaps, the greatest tap dancer in the world." In the 1990s, Hines became well known in the film industry, earning important roles in many films, including "White Lie, " "A Rage in Harlem, " "Eve of Destruction" (1991); "T Bone N Weasel, " "Dead Air" (1992); "Renaissance Man, " "Dying for a Smoke" (1994); "Waiting to Exhale" (1995); and "The Preacher's Wife" (1996). He has directed an independent film, "White Man's Burden, " released in 1994. Hines' next move appears to be into television, with the advent of the prime-time sitcom "The Gregory Hines Show, " in which Hines plays a widower trying to get back into the dating scene while also raising his 12-year-old son.
Despite his many successful endeavors in other areas, Hines continued to think of himself as a tap dancer. He told Leslie Bennetts of Vanity Fair, "Whenever I go to Europe and have to fill out that landing card that asks what your occupation is, I always put down 'tap dancer."'
Further Reading on Gregory Oliver Hines
Although no biographies of Hines have been published, numerous newspaper and magazine articles give in-depth profiles of him, including the Christian Science Monitor (March 1981); New York (March 1981); New York Daily News (December 1984); People (August 1981); Time (April 1981); Jet (March 1988); and the Washington Post (January 1981, February 1985, September 1988, and February 1989). See also Essence (November 1993); Who's Who in America (1996); and Who's Who Among African Americans (1996).