Geoffrey Holder was multi-talented: artist, dancer, choreographer, painter and actor, a Tony Award-winning director and designer and a memorable James Bond villain.
He gained early renown as a dancer, leading a folk-dance troupe in his native Trinidad before moving to New York in the 1950s. He soon became a fixture in the city’s theatrical and artistic worlds, known for his rich, Caribbean-accented voice and the vast range of his cultural interests.
He acted on Broadway and wrote a cookbook as well as choreographing works for the Dance Theater of Harlem. He won Tony Awards as director and costume designer for the 1975 Broadway play The Wiz, the all-black musical based on The Wizard of Oz. In 1973 he played the top-hatted voodoo villain Baron Samedi in the Bond film Live and Let Die. “When people ask me, ‘What are you?’ “ he said, “I have to say I don’t know.” For all that, he may be best known, in the US at least, for a series of advertisements he made in the 1970s and 1980s for 7Up.
In 1959 Holder published a book about Caribbean folklore, Black Gods, Green Islands, written with Tom Harshman. He would draw on island folk traditions as thematic material for much of his choreography, painting and acting. “They’re all the same thing,” he said.
One of his recurring characters was Baron Samedi, a lusty underworld spirit from Haitian voodoo traditions. Holder based his dance work Banda on the character, usually depicted in a top hat, tails and painted face. His menacing portrayal of the maniacally laughing Baron in Live and Let Die gave the overly formulaic Bond film a much-needed dramatic jolt.
In the 1970s, Holder was the original director and choreographer of The Wiz but was replaced. When an out-of-town try-out faltered, the producers recalled Holder. He brought cast and crew together on stage and burned incense from Trinidad while performing an exorcism rite. He restored some of the dances and costumes, including the “tornado dance”, in which 100 yards of black silk unwinds from the head of a dancer. His vision was rewarded with Tonys for best director and best costume design. He received another costume design nomination in 1978 for Timbuktu!, a reworking of Kismet which he directed and choreographed.
Born in Port-of-Spain in 1930, he described his father as a “salesman with brains” who encouraged his children’s artistic interests. At seven he began dancing in his brother’s troupe, and was painting and designing costumes at an early age. “At Carnival,” he said, “every Trinidadian is a costume designer. I just grew up believing everybody could do everything.”
He was leading a folk-dance troupe in the Virgin Islands in 1952 when the choreographer Agnes DeMille met him and encouraged him to move to New York. He appeared in the 1954 Broadway musical House of Flowers, where he met the dancer Carmen de Lavallade. He proposed four days later; they married in 1955.
Holder became a principal dancer in the ballet of the Metropolitan Opera in 1956, the same year he received a Guggenheim fellowship for painting. A year later he acted in an all-black Broadway production of Waiting for Godot while also choreographing a revival of the George and Ira Gershwin musical Rosalie.
Besides Live and Let Die, he had film roles in Doctor Dolittle (1967), Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), Annie (1982) and the 1992 Eddie Murphy film Boomerang, in which he played a director of TV commercials. “I’m no snob,” Holder said about the dozens of commercials in which he appeared. “The commercial is an art form unto itself. After all, you are seducing people.”
Carmen & Geoffrey, a documentary about Holder and his wife, who is still performing, was released in 2005. “I walk through doors,” Holder says in the film. “If I’m not wanted in a place, there’s something wrong with the place, not with me.”
Geoffrey Lamont Holder, actor, director, choreographer and author: born Port-of-Spain, Trinidad 1 August 1930; married 1955 Carmen de Lavallade (one son); died 5 October 2014.
© The Washington PostReuse content