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Entertainment Profile: Debbie Allen

by Kenney Dennard

It is almost impossible to typecast Debbie Allen. She is a multifaceted artist whom has worn many hats for many years. Allen is known as a dancer, actress, choreographer, producer, director and even has a couple of albums under her belt where she sang. It's been a long hard journey for Allen; yet, she has been so successful and has made it look quite easy.

She was born in 1950 to a poet and a dentist in Houston TX. Her parents divorced while Debbie was a little girl. Allen had already discovered her love for dancing and knew at an early age that she wanted to be a performer. When she was five, she started taking private dance lessons.

The Allen sisters were groomed for the artistic life from early on. Their mother, whom had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and also published a magazine, gave them writing assignments to encourage their creativity. Allen's sister Phylicia would eventually become an actress as well, playing Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show in the 80's.

Allen tried out for the Houston Ballet School in the early 60's but was denied because they didn't accept Black Students. A year later, a Russian dancer who had seen her perform secretly enrolled her. Allen would later say, by the time they discovered that she was in the school, "I was dancing so great they couldn't deny it."

Once graduating high school, Debbie joined her older sister Phylicia at Howard University. She graduated cum laude from Howard in 1971 with a degree in drama. She set right off to NYC's Broadway to pursue the career she had dreamed of since childhood. "I pounded pavements, went to every audition. That was my spirit. Work at whatever you do rather you get paid or not," she would later say.

Her tenacity paid off in 1972 when she got a part in, "Purlie." The next year she got the part of Beneatha in the musical "Raisin." She stayed with that show for two years before going into television, working in commercials.

In 1975 Allen married Winfred Wilford, an actor and fellow cast member. She continued to work both on Broadway and in television. She had begun to get small parts in shows like Good Times and The Love Boat.

In 1980 she won the role of dance teacher Lydia Grant in the movie, "Fame." That movie was one of the biggest hits in the 80's and finally brought Allen star power that she had not seen yet on Broadway. Two years later, in an effort to capitalize off the movie, Fame became a TV series. During Allen's stint with the show she began to direct whole episodes as well as dance numbers. She would win three Emmy awards through out the four years of syndication of the show for choreography.

Unfortunately, she would get divorced that same year. She would tell the Washington Post later, "Divorce was the most difficult decision of my life." However, an old friendship would soon turn into romance. She had become friends with Norm Nixon, of Macon GA, who was an all-star guard on the Los Angeles Lakers at the time. They would marry in 1984.

In 1988, a few years after Debbie’s sister Phylicia had found success with "The Cosby Show," Bill Cosby created a spin-off, "A Different World." During it's first season taping, Phylicia was sent from The Cosby Show's Queens NY Studio to Los Angeles to check on the show. She would later say in an interview that she flew back to NY with a taped version of the show and said to Bill, "Your name is on this, and it’s not right."

The show was about life at predominately Black College life but was very light and didn't dwell into anything of depth for a young Black College. Bill would send Phylicia's sister Debbie out that next season and tell her to clean house. Allen beefed up the scripts with meatier plots and more realistic characters; addressing political and social topics while keeping it’s comedic edge. She not only saved the show, she boosted it to the top of the ratings. She continued to direct the show until it went off the air in 1993.

Throughout the 90's Debbie would continue to direct and produce for both big and small screens. Some of her TV works include, "The Sinbad Show," "The Jamie Foxx Show," and "Between Brothers." She returned to the television screen as well in the late 90's in the show, "In the House," starring LL Cool J.

Perhaps one of her most important projects was the Steven Spielberg movie, "Amistad." Allen had read the story of Amistad in 1979. She would later tell Essence Magazine that it was an event "The world needed to hear, and a feature film if ever there was one." She bought the film rights in the 80's and began to shop the story around, but no one showed interest. In late 1990, after Steven Spielberg’s film "Schindler's List," got made, although many people doubted that the depressing film would make it, Allen took her film directly to DreamWorks, Spielberg's film company. At first Spielberg was hesitant, but he finally agreed. She later told Essence, "I knew we were going to make the movie, that I would produce it, and I knew he had to direct it."

Debbie Allen has had way too many accomplishments to list here. Recently she's been guest judge on, "So You Think You Can Dance." She's also worked on the reality Television show Fame, as well as played a part in the recent remake of the movie. She has been nominated and won many Emmy Awards, Tony Awards, Golden Globe Awards and Lifetime Achievement Awards and has never stopped progressing on stage and in life.

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Debbie Allen