Main > Series > Articles/Interviews > TV Guide November 6, 1982

Will 'Fame' Pass Its Toughest Test?

A look at the cast in action as it prepares to do battle against shaky ratings.  By Larry Cole

It's the last day of shooting on NBC's Fame before a two-week hiatus, and everyone is tired and looking to go home. In this series, based on the hit movie about students and teachers at New York City's real-life School of Performing Arts, a typical "school day" runs anywhere from 6:30 A.M. to 9 P.M.; a typical episode takes seven days to film. The episode being completed today is called, appropriately enough, "The Crazies," a reference to those pre-vacation frazzles familiar to anyone who's ever been a student. Indeed, a visitor walking about the set might think this really was the last day of school. Although Fame is produced at MGM in Culver City, Cal., its set contains hallways, lockers, stairways and a foyer that are unnervingly close copies of what you'd find in the real Performing Arts school. Even the hand-printed notes on the bulletin board in the principal's office, selling cars and bikes and typing services, are real. You can almost smell the illicit cigarette smoke coming from the bathrooms and envision students clogging the corridors between classes. In fact, the students and faculty in this "school" are played by a cast of 11 regulars as well as some 50 extras, stand-ins, musicians and dancers, a large number of whom are now gathered for the episode's final production number. The air is filled with the tension of the last push, and there's grumbling among the dancers about doing still another take after the seventh or eighth. They're exhausted. Suddenly the steps are too difficult. Impossible. That's when Debbie Allen takes charge. She is the star, choreographer and major energy source behind the adrenaline pumping dance productions that make Fame stand out as a dramatic series. But she is also Lydia Grant, Fame's dance teacher extraordinaire, and right now, as she addresses her exhausted troupe, it's difficult to separate the actress from the character she plays. She looks at the dancers and says, with a radiant energy drawn from some unexplainable reserve, "Do it like this," and proceeds to simplify the moves, dancing as if she were being suspended by some unseen cable, Peter Pan style, over the floor. The young dancers perk up. They're nodding and smiling. "We can do that," they say. And they do. Such impromptu, backstage miracle working is nothing new for Debbie Allen. Back when she was at Howard University, she was a dance teacher in a workshop that spawned what is now Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. "I can't tell you what that experience did for me, but it's like I'm re-creating it here. I had the most wonderful, talented little chickens around me. I gave them a lot and I got a lot back. I really had to pull myself away from that job or I never would have left. I never would have pursued my own creative fulfillment. Allen's voice drops. "When I finally decided to move to New York, they came over. AlI of 'em. Twenty-five kids. And they stayed in my efficiency apartment all night. Packed my things for me. It was a very tearful time." She pauses and flashes a Lydia Grant smile. "It was funny. They packed up all my shoes and I went off to New York barefoot." Allen is from Texas and "a very close family," she says, with two brothers and a sister. "I'm used to a big family and to sharing problems. I think that helps me in my life and, of course, my work. All that caring seems to translate to the screen." If all the caring and hard work and sheer energy that go into Fame translated into high ratings, the series would be soaring by now. But there have been problems. Fame burst onto the air last January as a midseason replacement and immediately captivated the critics with its offbeat blend of down-to-earth drama and high-flying production numbers. But audiences have been slow to catch up to Fame, partly because of its late start, but largely because of the competition it faced Thursday nights from CBS's popular Magnum, P.I. As a result, Fame, which won five Emmys, wound up last season 68th among shows rated by Nielsen (tied with a limited-run series called Herbie, The Love Bug). Nevertheless, NBC, perhaps mindful of the slow start of another acclaimed series, Hill Street Blues, took a gamble and placed Fame in this fall's lineup. The show has seen some changes. Among the students, the role of Montgomery (played. by P.R. Paul) has been dropped. And this season, actor Morgan Stevens has joined the faculty as Mr. Reardon, a handsome young drama teacher. But one thing remains unchanged: the kids of Performing Arts still face an uphill battle against Magnum, which continues to dominate the time period, as well as close competition from two youth-oriented ABC series, Joanie Loves Chachi and Star of the Family. A visit to the Fame set last spring revealed little visible preoccupation with ratings or the threat of cancellation. Instead, members of the cast still seemed to be coming to grips with the sudden fame that Fame has bestowed upon them. Albert Hague, the white-bearded, bespectacled actor who plays the sardonic music teacher, Mr. Shorofsky, suggests with some irony: "I am used to feeling important- but on the other side of the camera." He is, after all, a Tony Award-winning composer for the Broadway show "Redhead," and composer of "Plain and Fancy" and that show's now-standard song "Young and Foolish." He even wrote the music for three songs in "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" for television. "My friends and various people in show business knew about that. But cars didn't honk at me, like now," says Hague. "Suddenly, after all my fame, I'm on Johnny Carson because I'm a teacher on television. An overnight sensation." Neither Hague nor his younger costars appear, however, to have let their overnight stardom go to their heads. Says Carlo Imperato, who plays Fame's comic-inresidence Danny Amatullo: "I'm just a kid from the Bronx who works in Hollywood on television." And yet for others in the cast (and even, one suspects, Imperato, too), their roles clearly mean more to them than just employment. "I'm a loner," says Lee Curreri, ignoring the high-school-cafeteria air of the MGM commissary during a lunch break. Curreri originated the role of the serious, moody, electronic-music composer Bruno Martelli in the movie and is reprising the role for TV. He is "very much like Bruno ... or," he is quick to add, " I was when I was 15. 1 thought I was the only person who had the feelings I had. I'd always felt isolated and alienated from people and escaped into my music. Then I'm in a movie and a TV series and I find out the character is me because people all over are saying and writing, 'I really identify with you.' I'm amazed how widespread those feelings are. "A lot of this is deja vu," he goes on. "The whole struggle with the teachers. Their wanting me to do everything classical and my wanting to stretch out and do other things. That's Bruno and that's me." Valerie Landsburg also has a close connection with her Fame character, aspiring actress Doris Schwartz. "It's weird sometimes about Doris," Landsburg says, deeply serious. "It's like living a part of me all over again. Like this week, for instance. I feel real fat. Real fat and pimply and I don't like the way any of my clothes fit. It's Doris taking over. I'm feeling like I'm 15 again." Valerie, daughter of TV producer Alan Landsburg, dropped out of Beverly Hills High School just weeks away from graduation rather than complete a physical education course she hated ("They were invented by the Nazis," she says). She sees that maverick part of herself also living in Doris. Landsburg, meanwhile, is living in a house in Venice, Cal., just a few miles from MGM, with some others in the Fame cast. Who are they? Valerie is asked, but it's Doris Schwartz who answers, smiling: "I don't think it's any one's business who lives together." For at least one cast member, however, there's no drifting in and out of character: the actor is the character. Leroy Johnson, Fame's resident street kid, the one with the chip on his shoulder and the rockets on his feet that enable him to steal the show with aeronautical displays of dancing, is simply Gene Anthony Ray playing himself. Like Leroy, Gene grew up in Central Harlem. "If you wanna learn how to fight," says Ray, "just try walkin' by the corner in my neighborhood wearin' tights." Later, at the end of a particularly demanding production number at the end of a long day, Ray is sifting in tears just off the set. Everyone else is looking for away to occupy a reporter who is waiting to finish an interview. Like kids distracting a neighbor from a family argument, the Fame students have mobilized to give their Leroy some protection from the outside world. After a few minutes, Ray is back talking about himself. He's unashamed of the tears. "I gotta let down somehow," he says matter-of-factly. About his cast-mates' protective screen, he's most emphatic. "Yeah, well, we do take care of each other," he says. He acknowledges the difficult transition from street life to the discipline and commitment demanded of a performer. But it's not all that different, he says. "It's hard work to survive where I come from. Hard work every day. Don't let no one tell you it's easy. "One thing for sure is different now," he adds, then pauses as if to consider what he's about to say. "I can't be wild in the streets. I have to think about how people see me and the responsibility I have to young black performers still- in school and coming up. There's something really scary about that. And making real decisions, molding my own life, where on the streets it was up for grabs. Not being a kid any more." He pulls his knees up to his chest, sitting on a bench in the P.A. dance classroom. "It's time for more serious things," he says. Erica Gimpel would appear to agree with that. Gimpel, who plays the engaging young dancer Coco on Fame, also happened to be a student at the real School of Performing Arts. So when a visitor to the set was told that Erica was back in New York City completing her requirements for graduation before returning to the show this season, he wasn't surprised. Nor was he surprised to learn that Gimpel was, at the school's request, "unavailable for comment." NBC executives however, were upset to hear that, and according to Fame production people, thought it was all some kind of negotiating ploy-- the usual "give me more money and a bigger trailer" gambit. Maybe if they'd watched Fame more closely, they'd know that Erica was merely being young and idealistic Iike her character Coco, who, in an episode last season, almost had to choose between P.A. and an audition for a Broadway show. The script strongly hinted that, had push come to shove, Coco would have stayed in school. Erica, too, seems to have her priorities in order. She was graduated from P.A. last June. But its Albert Hague who, perhaps owing to his years of experience in show business, seems to have the clearest perspective of all. Along with Gene Anthony Ray, Lee Curreri and Debbie Allen, Hague made the transition from the film to the series; and of the Fame phenomenon and what it's done to his life, he says: "I think it's funny. There's so much tragedy and so much tension and craziness that if you don't have a sense of humor, you're not having a good time. And my ambition is to enjoy all this until it's over."

This interview was provided to me by Timothy Newton.

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