"I think 'Fame' still resonates three decades later because what we did was so pure and it was honest ... those stories were always so compelling. The dancing and the singing were just revelatory to the audiences. They hadn't seen anything like that week to week to week."
About This Interview
In her two-hour archive interview Debbie Allen discusses her beginnings in the entertainment industry. She talks of dancing and her Tony nomination for her role as "Anita" in West Side Story, and winning the Drama Desk Award. She recounts her various roles on television, including an appearance on Good Times and Captain Kangaroo, as well as her role in Roots: The Next Generation as "Nan." She then speaks about her part in the film "Fame" and how that lead to one of the most famous roles of her television career, playing "Lydia Grant" on the TV version of Fame. She elaborates on wearing many hats on the show - as actress, choreographer, and eventually director and co-executive producer. She also discusses its deep resonance with audiences and how the show inspired and encouraged the creation of dance schools all over the world. Allen then describes how she was brought on to the show A Different World as the director and how she made the show more relevant to the times by covering topics pertinent to young adults, and tackling such subjects as AIDS and the Gulf War. She also mentions her involvement as director on the shows Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Grey's Anatomy, and Everybody Hates Chris and describes what it was like choreographing sequences for the Academy Awards for ten years. Allen discusses her Emmy win for her choreography on the dance number, "African American Odyssey" for the special, Motown 30, What's Going On? and then elaborates on producing "Amistad"; a film project near and dear to her heart. She shares her views on the current popularity of reality dance TV shows and also recalls working with her sister Phylicia Rashad on the TV movies Old Settler and Polly. Stephen J. Abramson conducted the interview at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy on April 15, 2011 in Los Angeles, CA.
Debbie Allen began her show business career on Broadway in the 1970s. Her debut in the chorus of Purlie and her performance in "A Raisin In the Sun" were noted by stage critics, and in a 1979 production of "West Side Story" her performance as Anita earned her a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award. Allen later returned to Broadway as a star, and garnered her second Tony nomination, with a 1986-87 performance in "Sweet Charity". In 1988, she choreographed "Carrie," a newly composed American musical, with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Allen's stage presence and choreography quickly moved her from the Broadway stage to the larger venue of television. Throughout the 1970s she made guest appearances on popular programs such as Good Times, The Love Boat and The Jim Stafford Show. Her roles in the miniseries Roots: The Next Generation and the special, Ben Vereen--His Roots, allowed her to work with some of the most prominent African American performers in show business and to demonstrate her dramatic and comedic acting range. She also appeared in the short-lived 1977 NBC series 3 girls 3. Her latest television role was in the NBC situation comedy, In the House. In this series, which first aired in April 1995, Allen played a newly divorced mother of two who shares her house with a former football star, played by rap artist L.L. Cool J.
In the early 1980s, a portrayal of the dance instructor, Lydia Grant, on the hit series Fame brought the name Debbie Allen to international prominence. Although the NBC show was canceled after one season, the program went on to first-run syndication for four more years. Its popularity in the United Kingdom prompted a special cast tour in England and spurred a "Famemania" fan phenomena.
Allen's success as a dancer and actress allowed her to move behind the camera to direct and produce. While still a cast member of Fame she became the first African American woman hired by a television network as a director in prime time. In 1989, after directing episodes of Fame, she co-wrote, produced, directed, choreographed and starred in The Debbie Allen Special for ABC. She received two Emmy nominations, for direction and choreography of this variety show.
In 1988, Allen solidified her reputation as a television director and producer by turning a flawed television series, A Different World, into a long running popular program. Under her leadership the program addressed political issues such as apartheid, date rape, the war in the Persian Gulf, economic discrimination, and the 1992 Los Angeles riot. The highest rated episode focused on sexual maturity and AIDS and guest starred Whoopi Goldberg, who was nominated for an Emmy award. Allen was awarded the first Responsibility in Television award from the LA Film Teachers Association for consistently representing important social issues on A Different World.
In 1989, Allen made her debut as a director of made-for-television movies with a remake of the 1960 film, Pollyanna. The telefilm, titled Polly, starred two players from The Cosby Show, Phylicia Rashad and Keshia Knight Pullman. Set in 1955, Polly is a musical tale of an orphan who brings happiness to a tyrannical aunt and a small Alabama town. The film was produced by Disney and NBC. Television critics hailed the display of Allen's keen sense of innovative camera work, stemming from her ability to choreograph. The film is also notable for its all Black cast and for succeeding in a genre, the musical film, rarely popular on television. Allen followed Polly with a sequel which aired in November 1990.
In 1990-91, Allen directed the pilot and debut episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a series which currently enjoys high ratings on NBC. Also in 1990-91, she directed a highly rated episode of Quantum Leap in which she co-starred. In October 1991, Allen received her star on the Hollywood walk of Fame for her achievements in television. In 1992, Allen directed Stompin' at the Savoy for the CBS network. This program included a cast of prominent performers from the African American community: Lynn Whitfield, Vanessa Williams, Jasmine Guy, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Mario Van Peebles.
Complementing Allen's versatility as a television actor is a repertoire of critically acclaimed film roles. In 1986 she played Richard Pryor's feisty wife in his semi-autobiographical film "Jo-Jo Dancer Your Life Is Calling" and she co-starred with Howard E. Rollins and James Cagney in Milos Foreman's "Ragtime" in 1981. Allen's debut as a feature film director will be the upcoming film "Out of Sync" starring LL Cool J, Victoria Dillard, and Yaphet Kotto.
Presently, Allen is one of the few African American women working as a director and producer in television and film. Her success in TV and film production has not deterred her from her love of dance and she continues to dazzle television viewers with her choreography. In 1982, she choreographed the dance numbers for the Academy Awards and for the past consecutive five years, her unique style of choreography has been featured on the worldwide broadcast of the Award ceremony. For over twenty years, Allen's contributions to television, on the three major networks and in syndicated programming, have highlighted the maturity of a performer and artistic producer with an impressive spectrum of talents in the performing arts.
DEBBIE ALLEN. Born 16 January 1950 in Houston, Texas, U.S. Educated Howard University, Washington, D.C., BFA (with Honors), 1971; studied with Ballet Nacional and Ballet Folklorico (Mexico); Houston Ballet Foundation, Houston Texas; New York School of Ballet. Married (1) Wim Wilford (divorced); (2) Norm Nixon; children: Vivian Nicole, Norm, Jr. Began career as dancer with George Faison Universal Dance Experience; AMAS Repertory Theatre; taught dance, Duke Ellington School of Performing Arts; in television as actor from 1973; actor/producer/director/coreographer of various television shows, miniseries, and specials. Recipient: 3 Emmy Awards, 1 Golden Globe Award for Choreography, Fame, the television series; Ford Foundation Grant; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Clarence Muse Youth Award, 1978; Drama Desk Award, 1979; Out Critics Circle Award (West Side Story), 1980.
1977 3 Girls 3
1987 Bronx Zoo (director)
1987-93 A Different World (producer/director)
1990-96 Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (director)
1990 Quantum Leap (also director)
1995 In the House (also director)
1977 The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened
1980 Ebony, Ivory and Jade
1983 Women of San Quentin
1989 Polly (director)
1990 Polly - Comin' Home!
1992 Stompin' at the Savoy
1979 Roots: The Next Generations
Choreographer 1982, 91-95 The Academy Awards
1983 The Kids from Fame
1989 The Debbie Allen Special (co-writer, producer, director, choreographer)
1992 Stompin' at the Savoy (director)
The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979); Ragtime (1981); Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986); Mona Must Die (1994); Blank Check (1994); Forget Paris (Choreographer) (1995); Out-of-Sync (1995) (Director).
Purlie (1971); Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1972); Raisin (1973); Ain't Misbehavin' (1978); The Illusion and Holiday (1979); West Side Story (1980); Louis (1981); The Song is Kern! (1981); Parade of Stars at the Palace (1983); Sweet Charity (1986). Carrie (1988)
"Doing It All--Her Way! Versatility Reaps Multiple Successes for This Exciting Entertainer." Ebony (New York), November 1989.
Dunning, Jennifer. "Debbie Allen Chips Away At the Glass Ceiling." New York Times (New York), 29 March 1992.
Randolph, Laura B. "Debbie Allen on Power, Pain, Passion and Prime Time." Ebony (New York), March 1991.
Stark, John. "It's a Different World For Dancer and Choreographer Debbie Allen: She's Moved to Prime-Time Directing." People Weekly (New York), 14 November 1988.