Most of the stills of Debbie Allen in Fame that I could find are from the TV show, which I never in fact watched. That’s not surprising; after all, her scenes in the movie were cut down to two, whereas she was on the show for 132 episodes. Even when she was doing Sweet Charity on Broadway, they filmed exterior scenes in New York with her to keep her on the show—since all the show’s exteriors were in New York and all the interiors were in LA. Still, her first scene in Fame is a memorable one, even if she doesn’t get many lines.
We have the Debbie Allen career we do because of racism. She was studying to be a ballerina, and like so many young black dancers, she was told she had “the wrong body” for ballet. She shifted her focus to academics, and in fact has a degree in classical Greek literature. However, when she went from ballet to popular dance, the culture was more accepting, and she became an established dancer and choreographer, not to mention dance teacher, over the decades.
Perhaps less well known is her career as a producer and director. Easy to say that she became a producer on Fame because of her popularity on the show; it’s less easy to say that’s why she produced Amistad. (Obviously, she is not the only producer credited, but still.) Likewise, while she might have been given the opportunity to direct a single episode of the show, or even the eleven she actually directed, as part of a contract negotiation, it’s harder to say that about her two episodes of Quantum Leap, only one of which she appears on, or the eighty-three of A Different World, which she also produced.
It makes me sad that the movie Fame didn’t do as much for its young performers’ careers as the TV show seems to have done. A few went on to do other things—but other than Paul McCrane, most of them appear to be ’80s footnotes. Debbie Allen feels as though she would’ve been a success without either version; by the time the movie debuted, she was already a success on Broadway. And of course, she is a skilled teacher, which is a valuable skill all by itself; she had to recuse herself from judging on So You Think You Can Dance because one of the competitors was one of her students.
There is, on YouTube, a clip from the show of her dancing with Gwen Verdon, who is apparently playing Montgomery’s mother, and it is all by itself worth seeking out. They both move so beautifully, and it’s such a great view of the history of dance, and you should watch it. It honestly makes me want to seek out the show, to see if there’s more moments like that in it.