Geoffrey Holder dies at 84; Tony-winning director and 7-Up pitchman

Geoffrey Holder, Trinidadian actor, dancer, choreographer and artist, dies at 84

Geoffrey Holder, the Tony-winning director and costume designer from Trinidad who brought an exuberant style to his work in dance, theater, movies and even a series of soft drink commercials, died of complications of pneumonia Sunday at a New York hospital. He was 84.

His death was confirmed by his attorney, Charles Mirotznik.

Holder was a multitasking cultural wonder, who danced on Broadway and for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, choreographed signature pieces for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Dance Theater of Harlem, and exhibited his paintings and sculptures in museums, including Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art.

In 1975 he won Tony awards for direction and costume design for "The Wiz," the all-black musical retelling of "The Wizard of Oz" that dazzled audiences with its urban rhythms and extravagantly fanciful look.

He also left an imprint on pop culture as an actor, lending theatrical flair to the 1973 James Bond movie "Live and Let Die" as the flamboyant villain Baron Samedi, who defies death until the hero sends him into a casket of poisonous snakes.

In the 1970s Holder also charmed television audiences as the spokesman for 7-Up who, in a white suit and deep, West Indies-inflected tones, proclaims the caffeine-free drink "maaah-velous … absolutely maaah-velous."

To anyone who found his versatility confounding, Holder was unapologetic.

"You can't put a label on me, like a can of soup," he told Newsday in 2007.

The youngest of five children, Holder was born Aug. 1, 1930, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. His father was, he once told The Times, "a salesman of everything," who brought home horse hair for hats and "marvelous" fabrics from which his talented mother made clothes for the family.

He suffered from a speech impediment when he was a boy. "I used to stammer to the point where I couldn't speak at all," he recalled in Ebony magazine in 1975. "I couldn't even read in school because the class would just break up. So I turned to the physical, to art and dance.... I wanted to express myself and I could only do it physically."

His family supported his artistic leanings, especially his father, who "paved the way for me when it was not fashionable for a son to be a dancer. He stood by me," Holder said in a 1975 interview in The Times.

His older brother, Boscoe, exposed him to artists like Modigliani and Martha Graham and became a dancer, choreographer, painter and couturier. Geoffrey emulated him, making his professional debut in his brother's dance troupe when he was 7 and showing his own paintings at 15.

At 19 he took over the dance troupe when his brother left Trinidad for Europe.

A few years later, in 1952, he met dance legend Agnes de Mille when she saw him perform at a festival in Puerto Rico. She urged him to come to the United States. He sold 17 of his paintings to finance the trip and landed in New York in 1953.

The city enthralled him. "It was a period when all the girls looked like Janet Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor … and it was so marvelous to hear the music in the streets and see the stylish ladies tripping down Fifth Avenue. Gorgeous black women, Irish women — all of them lovely and all of them going somewhere," he recalled in the New York Times in 1985.

At 6 foot 6, with a princely bearing and mellifluous English, Holder, too, found his way. He taught at Katherine Dunham's dance school before landing a role on Broadway in 1954 as principal dancer in "House of Flowers," the Truman Capote-Harold Arlen musical that featured Pearl Bailey, Alvin Ailey and Diahann Carroll.

The cast member who most interested him was Carmen de Lavallade, a lead dancer from Los Angeles. Holder proposed to her four days after they met and she consented a month later.

He is survived by De Lavallade and their son, Leo.

Soon after settling in the U.S., he attracted notice as a painter — a "West Indian Manet," by one description — and won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a couple of one-man shows. The Soho loft he shared with his wife was filled with his paintings, many of which depicted his family, as well as their collection of Haitian art.

He created classic dance pieces in "Dougla," performed by Dance Theater of Harlem in 1974, and "The Prodigal Prince," staged by Ailey's company in 1968. Critic Clive Barnes said "The Prodigal Prince," inspired by Haitian folklore, "vividly conveyed the feel and texture of paintings."

Holder turned "The Wiz" into a visual feast that ran on Broadway from 1975 to 1979. He brought the same visual energy to "Timbuktu!" in 1978 as director, choreographer and costume designer, but it closed on Broadway after six months.

The show "dazzles visually but has no innards," Los Angeles Times critic Sylvie Drake wrote, adding that Holder's extravagant costumes and glittering lame and chiffon, stilts and gold body paint barely masked a lack of substance.

Some called his productions gaudy, but Holder said he was trying to restore glamour to American life. "Too many people are in blue denim jeans and dirty tennis shoes. Society has been starved for beauty," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1978.

When he arrived in New York in the 1950s, his uncle, who had immigrated decades earlier, warned him that blacks did not have the same freedoms as whites. But, as Holder explained several years ago in an interview for the Visionary Project, he did not let fears of racism hold him back.

"The world is a very small place, so you have to be bigger than life. It's about having a straight back," he said, as he lifted his carriage ever so slightly, "and … bam!"

Twitter: @ewooLATimes

Times staff writer Kurtis Lee contributed to this report.

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