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HOLLYWOOD - DEBBIE ALLEN is a 5-foot, 2-inch, 108-pound package of energy
that spills all over NBC's new musical series, "Fame."
The viewer sees the 28-year-old daughter of a Houston oral surgeon as Lydia, the dance teacher at the New York High School for Performing Arts, which is the setting of "Fame." But Miss Allen not only is a pivotal character in the ensemble cast, but she also is the show's choreographer. That means her responsibilities include creating the production numbers and directing them.
"Fame" could be this year's "Hill Street Blues." The critics love the new series. Their lavish praise was heartwarming to the network, which undoubtedly will keep it on the air next season, although the early ratings have been less than modest. Yet, "Hill Street Blues" started out with good reviews and low ratings, but caught on this season and now is considered a healthy series. What has encouraged NBC's program department is that "Fame," on Thursday nights, has at times beaten out ABC's "Mork & Mindy" for second place in the time period. CBS's "Magnum, P.I." is the solid leader.
It is a precedent-setting show, a weekly musical. It remains for Miss Allen to dream up the critical musical, numbers. She is responsible for two major productions 31/4 to four minutes each, plus several mini-numbers of 45 seconds to a minute long. It keeps her busy. Even when she had a two week vacation from production and went back to New York for Christmas, they had her on the phone almost daily, playing the music for productions she was expected, to have in hand when she returned. The heavy schedule does not disturb Miss Allen. It is what she wanted.
"When they called and offered me the role," said Miss Allen during a break at the MGM studio, "I told them I was more interested in doing the choreography. They offered both, and I accepted." She also gets two salaries, she was quick to reveal, one each for acting and choreographing. "Two contracts, two salaries," she said. So, when she gets the script each week, she has to scrutinize it from two angles. Obviously, she has lines to memorize. She also has to discuss dance concepts, tailored to the plot. It's a tall order in itself, creating all those dance routines. They must be conceived with camera shots in mind since it would be easy to lose the full impact of a dance ensemble on the small home screen. "I haven't run out of juices yet," she said. "I have a wonderful dance team of 15 dancers whom I put together. Two of them are my assistants and, when I'm in the number, they watch for me." She brought most of the dancers in from New York, and she employs them every week. "I'm not concerned about this hectic schedule. In fact, I'm used to it," Miss Allen said. "In New York, even when I was in a production, I would still go to classes every day." She has been honored on Broadway. She was nominated for a Tony for her performance as Anita in the revival of "West Side Story." Moviegoers recognize her as Sarah, the young wife who dies tragically in "Ragtime." She even had a brief fling at a series, "3 Girls 3," an unmemorable show, in 1977.
She's put a lot into this show, but there's always the possibility of cancellation. How would she react? "I would be very disappointed," she responded. "But it has happened before - on Broadway and in television. Life goes on." Besides, Miss Allen revealed that a psychic told her years ago that 1982 would be her big year. With that in mind, she is thinking of career expansion. She would like to produce. "I think I would do well as a producer?" she said, speaking of films. "My mother brought me up to keep broadening my horizons. She used to tell me to read Aristotle at least once a year. Her theory was, if the mind is working, the body will work,' too."
This interview was provided to me by Timothy Newton.