Geoffrey Holder, a multi-talented stage and film artist who directed and designed the original Broadway production of The Wiz, an African-American musical retelling of "The Wizard of Oz," died Oct. 5, 2014, in Manhattan. He was 84.
The Wiz was written by composer-lyricist Charlie Smalls and librettist William F. Brown, who created a rhythm-and-blues-inflected score to tell a hipper, more soulful account of Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West.
Mr. Holder replaced the original director, Gilbert Moses, when the show was doing an out-of-town tryout in Detroit. The cast changed during its journey to Broadway. By the time it opened in New York, it included then-unknowns Stephanie Mills (as Dorothy), Hinton Battle (as the Scarecrow), Dee Dee Bridgewater (as Glinda) and Andre De Shields (as The Wiz). Reviews were mixed, but an ad campaign that heavily featured the catchy number "Ease on Down the Road"—as well as an injection of emergency funds by 20th Century Fox, an investor—helped the show's fortunes rebound. Soon it was selling out. It eventually won seven Tony Awards, including prizes for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Direction of a Musical for Mr. Holder. It went on to play 1,672 performances.
Mr. Holder staged a revival of the show on Broadway in 1984, but it did not fare as well, closing in under a month. In between those two productions, he mounted the Robert Wright-George Forrest musical fable Timbuktu!, starring Eartha Kitt and Melba Moore. This time, he wore several hats, as director, choreographer and costumer designer. (He even designed the Playbill cover.) He was nominated for a Tony Award for his costumes, and a Drama Desk Award for his choreography. The show closed in under a year.
Unusual for a man who primarily worked behind the scenes, Mr. Holder cut a well-recognized public figure. This was partly due to his striking profile—six-foot-six and bald, with a wide smile—but could be largely traced back to his most famous role, as a white-suited, belly-laughing, charmingly spoken pitchman in a popular series of 7-Up commercials in the 1970s and '80s.
On film, he was known for his appearances in "Doctor Doolittle," "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask" and "Live and Let Die," in which he played Baron Samedi, a Caribbean baddie with distinctive black-and-white face paint. It is his character who gets the last laugh in the film's final shot.
Mr. Holder made his Broadway stage debut in House of Flowers, the 1954, French West Indies-set Harold Arlen musical derived from a Truman Capote story. In 1957, he played Lucky in an all-black production of Waiting for Godot. And in 1964 he supported Josephine Baker in a Broadway revue built around the legendary performer.
Geoffrey Richard Holder was born Aug. 1, 1930, in Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Louise de Frense and Arthur Holder. Under the tutelage of his older brother, Boscoe, he began dancing at an early age. In 1952 famed choreographer Agnes de Mille spotted him performing in St. Thomas, and invited him to come to New York. Mr. Holder was a principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York from 1955 to 1956, and appeared in his own dance company from 1960 on. Also a talented painter, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study painting. He would appear with his dance company, now titled Geoffrey Holder and Company, in New York through 1960.
Mr. Holder is survived by his wife, Carmen de Lavallade and their son, Léo.