Geoffrey Holder, at age 84, has left the building. I wonder how many movie fans are saddened by that news. Holder is perhaps not a household name, despite his memorable appearances as the eerie Baron Samedi in To Live and Let Die and as the amiable Punjab in Annie. Ironically, he was best known for a series of commercials for 7-Up, in which, clad in a gleaming white suit, he sang the praises of “the Uncola.”
Even if you didn’t know the name, Geoffrey Holder made an impression. Measuring down from the top of his bald heat, he was six foot six, with a dancer’s grace and an exuberance all his own. His voice was basso profundo, his Caribbean inflection was lilting, and he spoke in superlatives: the world for him was “lovely,” “mahvelous.” And his clothes . . . suffice it to say that one of his many talents was for costume design.
I’ve been following Geoffrey Holder’s career for many years, ever since my beloved first dance teacher, the beautiful Carmen De Lavallade, brought him down the aisle of the Lester Horton Dance Theater and introduced him as the man she was going to marry. If memory serves, all of us little girls at Dance Theater were invited to the wedding, even though it was quite clear that we were not about to travel from L.A. to the fabulous estate in Connecticut where the outdoor nuptials were held. But we saw the photo spread (I think it was in Ebony, or Jet), and it looked to be a splendid calypso-flavored bash.
Carmen had met Geoffrey on Broadway, when both appeared in a Harold Arlen/Truman Capote musical fable called House of Flowers. Playing the God of Life and Death, Geoffrey designed his own costume: a burnt-orange cape and a loin cloth. He intuitively knew how effective this get-up would be: “Being a dancer you stand with a straight spine. You look 12 feet tall.” In later years, Geoffrey returned to Broadway with The Wiz, the “urban” musical based on The Wizard of Oz. As director and choreographer he won two Tonys, and I well remember him dancing up to claim his statuette, artfully working the Uncola into his acceptance speech.
I’ve interviewed Geoffrey twice over the years, once for a piece on costume design, and once regarding his role as an unlikely tribal chieftain, Willie Shakespeare X, in the elephantine movie musical, Doctor Dolittle. He mostly enjoyed this first of many Hollywood adventures, but was blunt in discussing the egotistical and racist Rex Harrison, as well as his equally obnoxious wife, actress Rachel Roberts. Typically, Geoffrey found a creative way to upstage Harrison in their first scene together. Noting Harrison’s veddy British vocal timbre, he decided, “I will drop my voice to make him sound like a sissy.” Gleefully he told me, “I had a private ball doing that.”
After describing to me the Paris soiree at which he met Marlene Dietrich, Geoffrey announced, “I am deliberately dropping names. I am so rich by being so honored by the best people. So when people talk about stars today – please!” He loved fun, but also held tightly to his formidable sense of self. As he liked to put it, “Dignity is not something you buy at Bloomingdale’s.”
A 2005 documentary film called Carmen & Geoffrey chronicles the long creative partnership of my former teacher and this amazing man. When I mentioned to Geoffrey that his wife was a truly lovely person, he promptly replied, “I know. I have good taste.”
Au revoir, Geoffrey. You’ve earned an “absolutely mahvelous” rest.
A quick segue from Geoffrey Holder’s flamboyant costumes to a heartfelt documentary about the subtle craft of Italian-born tailors. Vicki Vasilopoulos’ Men of the Cloth will be playing at the La Femme Film Festival for women directors in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday October 19th at 2 PM. Brava, Vicki!