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Debbie Allen: Back in the Fame Game

The multi-talented actress and director discusses being in the new film version of Fame and her many other new projects.

Debbie Allen
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
You many not remember that four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines and fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi both had smallish roles in the original 1980 film version of Fame. But no one who saw that film will ever forget how Debbie Allen parlayed playing teacher Lydia Grant into a starring role on the hit TV version -- the first two seasons of which have recently been released on DVD.

Now almost three decades later, Allen is playing Mrs. Simms, the high school principal, in the lavish new movie remake of Fame, opening nationwide on September 25, alongside fellow stage veterans Megan Mullally, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelsey Grammer, Charles S. Dutton, and Naturi Naughton. "In my mind, I'm still Lydia -- but now I'm married to Mr. Simms," she says of the role. "Because no matter what they call me, everybody knows I'll always be Lydia."

Allen was more than just an actress on the TV series; she was its resident choreographer for five years and eventually directed nearly a dozen episodes -- which was not a common thing for a woman. "It was tough on the series, well, it's still tough, but it was really a 'boy's club' back then," she notes. "I remember having to figure out what to wear the first day I directed. You know, should I wear something kind of macho-looking? But I ended up just wearing my comfortable pink overalls like the ones Lydia used to wear. I figured I'm not going to work as a woman, I'm going to work as a director. And the boys loved it!"

Since then, Allen has spent a lot of time directing -- from episodes of such television shows as That's So Raven, Quantum Leap and Everybody Hates Chris -- to last year's African-American revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway. Now, she's about to begin rehearsals for the upcoming London production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof co-starring Broadway cast members James Earl Jones and (Allen's sister) Phylicia Rashad as Big Daddy and Big Mama alongside American film star Sanaa Lathan as Maggie and British film and stage actor Adrian Lester as Brick.

"We can't say African-American cast anymore, since most of the cast is currently British," she says, "It was amazing to do the show on Broadway and now to do it again in the West End is just beyond anything I ever dreamed. You know, I had the A-Team on Broadway and now I have a whole other A-Team for London. With a combined 'must-see' cast like this, everyone has something good to bring to the party."

If that wasn't enough to keep Allen busy, she has been working with pop superstar Mariah Carey on her Las Vegas concerts, and later this year, she will return to L.A. to restage her Debbie Allen Dance Academy triumph Oman Oh Man!. But as Allen knows well: "Fame costs. And right here is where you start paying in sweat!"


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