Gregory Oliver Hines was an American dancer, actor, choreographer, and singer. He is considered one of the most celebrated tap dancers of all time.
Hines starred in more than 40 films and also made his mark on Broadway during his lifetime. He was the recipient of many accolades, including a Daytime Emmy Award, a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award, as well as nominations for a Screen Actors Guild Award and four Primetime Emmy Awards.
Hines was born in New York City on February 14, 1946, to Alma Iola (Lawless) and Maurice Robert Hines, a dancer, musician, and actor, and grew up in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem. Hines began tap dancing when he was two years old, and began dancing semi-professionally at age five. After that, he and his older brother Maurice performed together, studying with choreographer Henry LeTang.
Gregory and Maurice also studied with veteran tap dancers, such as Howard Sims and The Nicholas Brothers when they performed at the same venues. The two brothers were known as “The Hines Kids,” making nightclub appearances at venues such as the Cotton Club in Miami with Cab Calloway. They were later known as “The Hines Brothers.”
When their father joined the act as a drummer, the name changed again in 1963 to “Hines, Hines, and Dad.”
Hines performed as the lead singer and musician in a rock band called Severance based in Venice, California during the years 1975 and 1976. Severance was one of the house bands at an original music club called Honky Hoagies Handy Hangout, otherwise known as the 4H Club, which released their debut album on Largo Records (a subsidiary of GNP Crescendo) in 1976.
Hines made his Broadway debut with his brother in The Girl in Pink Tights in 1954. He earned Tony Award nominations for Eubie!(1979), Comin’ Uptown (1980), and Sophisticated Ladies (1981), and won the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Jelly’s Last Jam (1992) and the Theatre World Award for Eubie!.
In 1989, he created and hosted a PBS special called “Gregory Hines’ Tap Dance in America,” which featured various tap dancers such as Savion Glover and Bunny Briggs. He also co-hosted the Tony Awards ceremony in 1995 and 2002. In 1986, he sang a duet with Luther Vandross called “There’s Nothing Better Than Love,” which reached the No. 1 position on the Billboard R&B charts.
Hines made his movie debut in Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part I (1981), replacing Richard Pryor, who had originally been cast in the role but suffered severe burns in a house fire just days before he was due to begin shooting. Madeline Kahn, also starring in the film, suggested to director Mel Brooks that he look into Hines for the role after they learned of Pryor’s hospitalization.
Critics took note of Hines’s comedic charm, and he later appeared in movies such as Wolfen, The Cotton Club, White Nights, Running Scared with Billy Crystal, Tap, and Waiting to Exhale. On television, he starred in his own series in 1997 called The Gregory Hines Show on CBS, as well as in the recurring role of Ben Doucette on Will & Grace. He would return to voice Big Bill in Nick Jr.’s television show, Little Bill, at the end of 1999. He starred in The Tic Code in 2000.
In an interview in 1987, Hines said that he often looked for roles written for white actors, “preferring their greater scope and dynamics.” His Will & Grace role, for example, never made reference to race.
In 1990, Hines visited his idol Sammy Davis Jr., who was dying of throat cancer and was unable to speak. After Davis died, an emotional Hines spoke at Davis’s funeral of how Sammy had made a gesture to him, “as if passing a basketball … and I caught it.” Hines spoke of the honor that Sammy thought that Hines could carry on from where he left off.
Hines was an avid improviser who did a lot of improvisation of tap steps, tap sounds, and tap rhythms alike. His improvisation was like that of a drummer, doing a solo and coming up with all sorts of rhythms. He also improvised the phrasing of a number of tap steps that he would come up with, mainly based on the sound produced. A laid back dancer, he usually wore loose-fitting pants and a tighter shirt.
Although he inherited the roots and tradition of the black rhythmic tap, he also influenced the new black rhythmic tap, as a proponent. “He purposely obliterated the tempos,” wrote tap historian Sally Sommer, “throwing down a cascade of taps like pebbles tossed across the floor. At that moment, he aligned tap with the latest free form experiments in jazz and new music and postmodern dance.”
Throughout his career, Hines wanted and continued to be an advocate for tap in America. In 1988, he successfully petitioned the creation of National Tap Dance Day, which is now celebrated in 40 cities in the United States, as well as eight other nations. He was on the board of directors of Manhattan Tap, a member of the Jazz Tap Ensemble, and a member of the American Tap Dance Foundation, which was formerly called the American Tap Dance Orchestra.
Through his teaching, he influenced tap dancers such as Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, Ted Levy, and Jane Goldberg. In an interview with The New York Times in 1988, Hines said that everything he did was influenced by his dancing: “my singing, my acting, my lovemaking, my being a parent.”
Hines’ marriages to Patricia Panella and Pamela Koslow ended in divorce. He had two children, a son named Zach and a daughter named Daria, as well as a stepdaughter named Jessica Koslow, and a grandson.
Hines died of liver cancer on August 9, 2003 en route to the hospital from his home in Los Angeles. He had been diagnosed with the disease more than a year earlier, but informed only his closest friends. At the time of his death, the production of the television show Little Bill was ending, and he was engaged to Toronto based Negrita Jayde. Hines is buried at Saint Volodymyr Ukrainian Cemetery in Oakville, Ontario.
Jayde died of cancer on August 28, 2009 at the age of 57, weeks after holding the sixth annual memorial/celebration to Hines. On January 28, 2019, the United States Postal Service honored Hines with a postage stamp, issued with a ceremony at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. The stamp is part of its Black Heritage Series.