Upon the blood-spattered trail Django leaves as he tears his path through the South in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, lies strewn the carcasses of actors once heralded, now wasted before an audience that barely recognizes them. There are multiple that include Tom Savini (if you don’t know, known for his George Romero work and once groundbreaking special effects), Robert Carradine, and…well, Jesus…A.K.A. Ted Neeley.
I hadn’t even noticed the great Ted Neeley, the actor who portrayed (in my humble opinion) the greatest Jesus Christ EVAR in the 1973 theatrical version of Jesus Christ Superstar opposite the stellar Carl Anderson.
Neeley is most recognized for his role as Jesus, but was also successful in other theater productions such as Tommy and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band and minor television roles such as “Of Mice and Men” (the Robert Blake/Randy Quaid version) and one episode of “Starsky and Hutch”.
In Django, his role was so small he barely made an impression, playing one of the hillbilly band of brothers in the now infamous dog scene. His role consisted of at most three scenes where he was given a couple seconds total screen time and no lines, however, there may have been a grunt somewhere. However, in proper Tarantino style, he did of course meet a gloriously violent end at the hands of Django himself in the final orgiastic burst of violence that concludes the film.
I remain surprised at Tarantino’s need to cast stars such as these to be gloriously slaughtered without the luxury of a peep of dialogue. Did he initially have more focus on these characters, but had to sacrifice them to a bloated run time? The reason I point this out is that I didn’t even notice Tom Savini (my friend had to point him out to me) and had to be told Ted Neeley was in the film by my friend who whispered in my ear that Jesus was on the screen. These actors are barely a blip on the audience’s radar.
I can only imagine the want of an actor not having worked on the level of blockbuster for some time to be included in such a film production. Any face-time would be greatly appreciated within a film that promotes a much needed dialogue on barbarism and with the awards season upon us, is poised to remain in the public consciousness for some time. But, Tarantino’s want to cast these actors in roles where only few will recognize them remains a mystery to me.
But, I digress.
While his part was extremely limited, my thirst for Ted Neeley (Jesus) was heightened due this exposure, and because of this I decided to give a little time and appreciation to what was for many years my divine friend and drunken confidant: Ted Neeley.
As my gay friends know, there have been many a Jesus throughout the years cast in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Sebastian Bach of the band Skid Row was even cast for a short time, but his national tour was put to a premature end. Shocking. To be honest, I have only seen two other actors play Jesus, all of which were great, but could not touch the rock freakout scream that Ted could belt out (example forthcoming).
No words can describe the impact this role had on my formative years. I lived and breathed Neeley’s performance and still remain moved at the depth of his ability. Neeley’s performance was powerful not only because of the strength of his voice, but of the humanity he conveyed. He portrayed a character angered and frightened by the power bestowed upon him and in doing so with the subtlety only Neeley could bring, created a flawed, but beautiful vision of one of the most well-known figures in history.
To be most honest, I would like to apologize to my sister or anyone that I knew during the three years I was obsessed with this film. My drunken attempts to hit every note of this performance, normally between the hours of midnight to three a.m., were numerous and wildly unsuccessful. That in no way deterred me from trying. I offer you my heartfelt apology.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973):
And for those reasons, Ted Neeley will always be more than a mere blood stain on Django’s roadmap.