Debbie Allen, founder and artistic director of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Baldwin Hills, is probably best known for her role as no-nonsense dance instructor Lydia Grant in the 1980 movie “Fame,” a smash hit that spawned a 1982-87 TV series of the same name (as well as a less successful 2009 movie remake).
In the TV series, Allen’s Grant was fond of offering this tough-minded advice to her students: “You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying in sweat.”
During an eclectic career that spans four decades, Allen, who is the younger sister of actress Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”), seems to have followed Grant’s advice, paying in sweat to make her name as an actress, dancer, choreographer, director, writer and producer for film, television and the stage.
The stage came first: Allen made her Broadway debut in 1970 the chorus of “Purlie” and created the role of Beneatha in the Tony Award-winning 1973 musical “Raisin.” In 1980, Allen portrayed Anita in the Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” winning a Tony Award. She received a Tony nomination in 1986 for her performance in the title role in Bob Fosse’s “Sweet Charity.”
In television, Allen appeared in the landmark 1979 miniseries “Roots” and served as choreographer for 10 Academy Awards shows. She was producer/director of the series “A Different World,” a “Cosby Show” spinoff set in an historically black college, and has been credited with pushing the series to address tough issues of race and class that were rarely explored in the sunny “Cosby Show.” She also has served as a judge on TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”
In 2008, Allen returned to her theatrical roots by directing a Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with an all black cast that included James Earl Jones and sister Rashad. In 2009, the production moved on to London.
Allen is married to former NBA player Norm Nixon. They are the parents of dancer Vivian Nichole Nixon and basketball player Norman Ellard Nixon Jr.