Gregory Hines, who parlayed his remarkable talents as a tap dancer into a career on both stage and screen, died Saturday in Los Angeles of cancer. He was 57.
Hines, considered by many the greatest tap dancer of his generation, won a Tony Award in 1992 for his performance as jazz legend “Jelly Roll” Morton in “Jelly’s Last Jam.” On the bigscreen, he starred in “White Nights,” “The Cotton Club” and “Tap,” all of which showcased his tap skills.
With his smooth, solo tap style reminiscent of Fred Astaire, Hines became internationally known at a young age as part of a jazz tap duo with his brother, Maurice. “His dancing came from something very real,” said Bernadette Peters, who co-hosted the 2002 Tony Awards show with Hines. “It came out of his instincts, his impulses and his amazing creativity. His whole heart and soul went into everything he did.”
“He was the last of a kind of immaculate performer — a singer, dancer, actor and a personality,” said George C. Wolfe, who directed “Jelly.” “He knew how to command.”
Hines and his brother performed together in the musical revue “Eubie!” in 1978, in Broadway’s “Sophisticated Ladies” and on film in 1984’s “The Cotton Club.”
Hines was also one of the stars of “The Cotton Club,” and his perf led to more starring roles in film. He starred with Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1985’s Cold War-era dancers’ story “White Nights” and with Billy Crystal in 1986’s police dramedy “Running Scared,” and he appeared in 1995’s “Waiting to Exhale,” among other movies.
On TV, he had his own CBS series in 1997, “The Gregory Hines Show,” as well as a recurring role on NBC’s “Will and Grace.” Last March, he appeared on ABC’s “Lost at Home.”
Gotham native said his mother urged him and his older brother Maurice toward tap dancing because she wanted them to have a way out of the ghetto.
Hines was three years younger than Maurice, who started taking tap lessons as a child and passed on the steps. They began performing together when Gregory Hines was 5, and they appeared at the Apollo Theater in Harlem for two weeks when he was 6. In 1954, they were cast in the Broadway musical “The Girl in Pink Tights,” starring French ballerina Jeanmaire.
In their teens, the brothers were joined by their father, Maurice Sr., on drums, when they were known as Hines, Hines and Dad.
“I don’t remember not dancing,” Hines said in a 2001 interview with the Associated Press. “When I realized I was alive and these were my parents, and I could walk and talk, I could dance.”
Sammy Davis Jr. was one of young Hines’ inspirations, as were the Nicholas Brothers and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Hines drew on Robinson’s style for some of his work in “Jelly’s Last Jam.”
He fell out with his brother in the late 1960s because the younger was becoming influenced by counterculture and wanted to perform to rock music and write songs. In 1973, the family act disbanded and he moved to Venice Beach, Calif.
He returned to New York in 1978, partly to be near his daughter, Daria, who was living with his first wife, dance therapist Patricia Panella. His brother, with whom he had reconciled, told him about an audition for the Broadway-bound “The Last Minstrel Show.” He got the part, but the show opened and closed in Philadelphia.
The brothers reunited onstage for “Eubie!,” a homage to composer Eubie Blake, choreographed by Henry LeTang. Gregory was lauded for his singing of “Low Down Blues” and his rat-tat-tat tapping during “Hot Feet.” He won several awards and was nominated for a Tony.
He later earned Tony nominations for “Comin’ Uptown” and “Sophisticated Ladies.” Tony-winning choreographer and dancer Savion Glover, a protege of Hines, danced the roll of the young Morton in the Broadway show.
Hines landed his first film role in the 1981 Mel Brooks comedy “History of the World Part I,” in which he played a Roman slave as a last-minute replacement for Richard Pryor.
Among his numerous film and TV awards noms, he was most recently nominated for an Emmy in 2001 for his lead role in the miniseries “Bojangles.”
His PBS special “Gregory Hines: Tap Dance in America” was nominated in 1989, and in 1982 he was nominated for his performance in “I Love Liberty,” a variety special saluting America. He was also nominated in 1985 for a performance on “Motown Returns to the Apollo.”
He won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1999 for his work as the voice of “Big Bill” in the Bill Cosby animated TV series “Little Bill” and NAACP Image Awards for “Bojangles” and “Running Scared.”
Hines was engaged to Negrita Jayde at the time of his death and, in addition to his father and brother, is survived by his daughter, son Zach and stepdaughter Jessica Koslow.