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by Nancy Falls
(November Magazine 1982)
FAME is a four-letter word for electricity! It burst onto British TV screens this summer, having already gathered twelve nominations in America's top television awards, including Best Drama Series. Beautifully photographed and edited, and combining an extraordinarily talented large cast with exciting music and choreography and fine writing, FAME was something special from the very beginning.
The series is based on the hit 1980 movie with the same title. there is a show business saying that good films don't make good TV series, and when it was first announced that NBC were going to make a series of FAME for television a lot of people wondered whether the magic of the movie would work on the small screen, and whether the quality could be maintained from week to week. The answer to both questions has been definitely Yes!
The setting of the stories is the School of the Arts in New York City, a fictional institution closely resembling that city's real High School for the Performing Arts. The series is shot partly on location in New York, and partly on the MGM studio lot and at a location in downtown Los Angeles. Like the real-life school, the School of the Arts combines a regular high school curriculum with intensive training in dance, drama and music. Though it is part of the city's public school system, admission is by invitation only, and applicants must pass a tough audition in one of the performing arts in addition to having achieved good passes in the ordinary subjects. The students are a collection of the most talented and energetic kids in the city, and the air at the school almost crackles with their ambition.
For such a special show, a special cast was needed. The challenge was to put together a large cast of young actors who were not only able to handle the vivid and complex characterisations but who also had a highly developed talent in another of the arts. There was to be no faking in this show. No miming to someone else's voice on the soundtrack. No tricky camera angles to hide the fact that an actor wasn't really playing his instrument or that the dancer in the longer shots was actually someone else. And not only did the actors have to really sing or dance or play an instrument, but they had to do it extremely well, so it was believable that they could qualify to be students at such an elite school.
Three actors from the movie continued their roles in the series. Lee Curreri, who plays the composer and keyboard musician, Bruno Martelli, and Gene Anthony Ray, as dancer Leroy Johnson, have returned as two of the students, and Albert Hague is repeating his role as Professor Shorofsky. All three are such marvellous actors that is hard to believe that their roles in the movie FAME were the first time any of them had been in front of a camera.
Of the rest of the cast that was eventually put together, some have credit lists an inch thick and others are in their first-ever role, but all who have two things in common: they're all very very good, and all are new faces to TV viewers. The combination of the fine subtle acting, the freshness of the faces and the realistic, involving stories create the effect that is television at its best, the feeling that we are watching real lives unfolding right in front of us.
The two cast members with the longest list of credits, Debbie Allen as the dance instructor, Lydia Grant, and Carol Mayo Jenkins as Elizabeth Sherwood, the English teacher, have backgrounds mainly on the stage, so even they are comparatively new to television.
Debbie Allen not only plays the dance teacher, she is the instructor of the show's fifteen stock dancers and the principals (the main actors) of the series, and she choreographs all the original production numbers used on FAME. Since FAME features at least two production numbers per episode, that amounts to creating an original stage show every month! To increase the challenge, the dance numbers have to fit into the story logically.
Debbie was born in Houston, Texas, and attended college in Washington, DC, where she graduated with honours from Howard University. During college and after graduation, she studied with the Houston Ballet Foundation, Ballet Nacional de Mexico and the New York School of Ballet. Her Broadway debut was in the chorus line of “Purlie”, and she has gone on to receive outstanding praise from the critics for her roles in other musical productions, including the national touring company of “Guys and Dolls”. An accomplished actress, she has also been highly praised for her memorable roles in the TV series “Roots: The Next Generation” and the films “Ragtime” and “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh”.
As if her acting and dancing talents were not enough, Debbie also does her own singing to the original music on FAME. She provides a sensitive, complicated characterisation for Lydia Grant in the series. Lydia is iron-willed, demanding and as ambitious for her students as they are for themselves. She is a magnificent dancer with the sensitivity to interpret music in all its nuances and moods, and watching her move is breath-taking. A fine teacher, she can force and mould her students to levels of achievement they had barely imagined. But beneath it all, she is an unfulfilled promise, a talent that never reached the heights she seemed destined for, and now, in her thirties, there is no denying that she's on the downhill side of her career. Along with the drive and energy and self-assurance, in Lydia there are glimpses of the feelings in all of us, whatever our talents. There is pride in what she has accomplished and joy in what she's doing, but there is also empathy for those students who, though they don't know it yet, have already gone as far as they will go in the dance, and a sort of envy edged competitive pride in Coco, whom Lydia knows can be a be a better dancer than she ever was.
Carol Mayo Jenkins is a stage actress who says that she loves FAME because it is the closest of any TV work she has done to capturing the feeling of live theatre. Carol has done a great deal of theatre, as well as having a continuing role in a soap opera on American TV. At the time of this magazine, her most recent Broadway performance was in “First Monday In October” with Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander. She has won the famous Drama Desk award for her performance in the off-Broadway production “Zinnia”. As Miss Sherwood in FAME, she has the job of trying to teach English literature to students who are much more interested in what is written in the show business trade papers than in the great novels. A non-performer herself, she doesn't quite understand her pupils' hunger for recognition and fame. She cares about them, worries about some of them, and sometimes seems to be one of the few adults who see the vulnerability behind the students' precocious talent and ambition. Miss Sherwood is the kind of teacher all kids need, one who always has time to listen.
The characters in FAME ring so true because to a large extent the actors are playing their own experiences and holding up their own lives as mirrors. The same is true of the younger actors who play the students.
This interview was provided to me by Elaine Prescott.
The article above is from the Official Fame Magazines from 1983. The OFFICIAL FAME MAGAZINE was published by Beat Publications Ltd. and the interviews are copyright MGM/UA Entertainment Co.