Debbie Allen (Early Career, Fame TV series)
Originally published in August 2015
With four decades of experience wearing many, many hats in show business, Debbie Allen’s career is wholly worthy of study and understanding. Her early years on TV and the stage truly have affected TV Herstory, as we know it to be today.
She is a dancer, writer, a choreographer, businesswoman, director, producer, speaker and actress. And at 65 years of age, she’s shown no signs of slowing down.
A full accounting of Debbie Allen’s career would take us right up to today. In the past year, she’s directed episodes of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy. She acts a recurring role in Grey’s Anatomy.
Her business, LA’s Debbie Allen Dance Academy is now in its second decade of operation.
So, because she is such a prolific and active leader across so many fields, her full story will need to be told in an autobiography, on her timetable.
Advanced TV Herstory however knows that her roles in the 6 year TV show Fame gave her the confidence and experience to be where she is today. The show, which aired 1982 to 1987 was transformative in many ways, largely due to Allen’s drive for excellence.
So this installment is a celebration of Allen’s humble beginnings and upbringing. We’ll learn how she led Fame to become a high quality TV show and how Fame opened doors for her – and closed a few.
We’d love to dabble in the Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World, and how she influenced all aspects of that show. Let me know if you’d like that topic & terrific show explored in a future installment of Advanced TV Herstory.
If, after a few minutes, you’re still fuzzy about who Debbie Allen is…
When many of us think of Debbie Allen, we think first of her as a dancer and choreographer, because that’s how we met her, quite likely by seeing the movie Fame in 1980..
She recounts her initial fascination with dancing going all the way back to her early grade school years. She says she was always being called upon by her family to entertain as she and her siblings grew up in Houston, Texas. This is a family of achievers and from an interview that appears online at the Emmy TV Legends website, it’s clear that Debbie’s mother in particular played a huge role in her work ethic, how she manages her own expectations and her career.
Growing up in a segregated South, Debbie describes her father Andrew Allen as a successful and gregarious dentist. Her mother, Vivian Ayers Allen, was an accomplished poet and artist.
D Allen’s Mother
Vivian was intent on helping guide her children to maximize their potential in whatever filled their hearts.
Mom helped direct us
Debbie’s siblings all went on to great achievements too as business or artistic professionals – and that includes her older sister, Phylicia Allen Rashad. As she tells the story of her childhood, Debbie has to remind us all that the 50s was a time of segregation. When the 1961 movie of West Side Story played in theaters in Houston, it was only shown for white audiences.
To minimize the disruption in her children’s development and confidence, Vivian Ayers Allen moved her family to Mexico City, Mexico. The children attended school, were exposed to all sorts of arts and sporting opportunities and learned a new language. They learned how diverse cultures could co-exist and collaborate for a more beautiful outcome.
A few years later, the family returned to Texas and Debbie pursued her passion for dance and theater. She admits that attending Howard University, from which she would ultimately graduate with a degree in speech and theater, was not her first choice. She had applied to a national dance academy and been rejected.
However, she is the first to credit the diversity of her learning opportunities at Howard for giving her the foundation for success in TV, film and business.
While she learned lighting, directing and choreography to be used on the stage, it wasn’t too many years later that she discovered those skills and attention to detail crossed over to TV nicely.
Upon graduating from Howard, she moved to New York City and lived with Phylicia and struggled for working gigs in theater or TV. Her first TV role was on Good Times as JJ’s junkie fiancée. Getting that role was a matter of really good timing.
JJ’s junky fiancée
At age 30, 1980 was Debbie Allen’s breakthrough year. She had scored the role of Anita in a Broadway production of West Side Story, and her portrayal of Lydia Grant, the task master dance teacher in the movie Fame gave her one of Hollywood’s most memorable motivational lectures.
The movie Fame’s impact was felt worldwide. You may recall those were the years of big movie musicals, the soundtracks of which then served as backdrops for summer radio – Grease in 1978, Fame in 1980, Flashdance in 1983, Footloose the year later, and Dirty Dancing in 1987 - blockbusters at the box office and soundtracks that sold records.
In 1982 Debbie was approached about signing on to be a main adult character in a TV version of Fame. She recounts the how the opportunity was presented.
The show was highly ambitious and managed to do an awful lot with a relatively untested cast, each week. Grateful for the opportunity to work, Allen and others were up for the challenge. Allen describes her character, Lydia Grant’s central role in the school community.
Who remembers Fame, the TV show? You had to have either seen it when it was first aired or maybe caught it in syndication not long after it aired, because it seems to have been banished from reruns for the better part of 25 years.
Seasons one and two of the total of six have been issued on DVD. A few episodes are available free online, the entire series may be available through a subscription service. Why would it be worth paying for? Many of these scenes could have occurred in any high school in America in the mid-80s. Leotard clad and sweaty, Debbie Allen as Lydia Grant helps Bruno Martelli, played by Lee Curreri, work through casting the next big school musical theater production.
Adults treated young people with respect and let them learn by doing, learn by making mistakes. This was quality TV, so let the honor roll of award nominations and wins speak for themselves:
Debbie Allen won a Golden Globe for best performance by an actress in a comedy/musical TV series in 1983, 1985 and was nominated in 1984.
The show won Golden Globes for Best TV series comedy or musical in 1983 and 1984, and was nominated in 1985.
Over the years, crew members won Primetime Emmys for costuming, choreography, art direction, cinematography, directing, individual achievement, video editing. Emmy nominations by cast and crew in those categories and others were earned in every season starting in 1982.With 16 wins and 33 nominations in all, the show demonstrated quality among a very intense and competitive period of prime time TV.
As the show that was more artistic, however, Allen and others gave it their all. From the first episode Allen served as choreographer as well as her acting in her role as Lydia Grant. She soon took on more responsibility.
On set of Fame
Plots for Fame ran the gamut of urban life situations and ventured in to the lives of the adults as much as the teen characters. Production was non-stop, allowing only 2 days, over the weekend, for dance sequences to be developed, taught and practiced.
Allen rose to the occasion, using all she learned at Howard University to make the most of this opportunity to be part of something special.
In a recent interview, Allen spoke of her work on A Different World as the vehicle for the voice of young people.
Importance of young
Remember, this was a woman whose mother so wanted her to be exposed to the real world and embrace opportunities for learning that she lived in Mexico City for a few years. So, when Debbie Allen speaks with such certainty, passion and conviction, you realize full well she has carried the torch of tolerance and education handed to her by Vivian Allen.
And being an educated black woman in Hollywood in the mid 80s wasn’t easy, Allen revealed in her Emmy TV Legends interview. With a diverse cast doing a show set in an urban high school, the writers offered up all sorts of opportunity for controversy.
She speaks openly of the sexism she has encountered over the years. Yet she doesn’t let it overshadow the stories she tells of being recognized in many foreign countries, of how the TV series Fame salvaged arts programming in the schools across the world. Beyond the fulfillment she receives from sharing art and dance with young people, these interviews reveal her energy because she knows her work is relevant.
She shares her encounters of the past as a way of inspiring anyone who faces discrimination or harassment.
Fame lasted for six years and finally ran out of plots. By the late 80s, the world of music and TV had changed just enough that Fame couldn’t keep up. But she admits it gave her a full experience of TV production which would serve her well. Just a few years later, Allen was again in the middle of a cast of young actors this time as director and recurring character in A Different World. Maintaining her worldwide artistic network, she’s been prolific in dance as well as TV and film.
So without Fame and Debbie Allen’s leadership, A Different World may never have embarked on the story lines it did, or retained the quality cast and crew that made it such a memorable series. And without Fame, would we ever have had Glee?
At 65, she’s a force behind the scenes of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy – three of prime time’s most quality dramas. Yet her humility and drive keep her focused on her goals, not on any notion of fame.
fame today, fame then
Audio for this installment of Advanced TV Herstory comes from Debbie Allen’s interviews on the Oprah: Where are They Now? segment about A Different World in 2014, an in-studio interview with Good Day New York which aired in December 2014 and a 2013 in-studio interview at a Dallas TV station.
Please, post comments about this or other topics at my Libsyn hosting site or iTunes. The script for this and past shows can be found at my website: cynthiabemisabrams.com.
Debbie Allen’s early career and Fame’s role in TV Herstory is worthy knowing and re-telling. Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.