Debbie Allen Reflects on Storied Career, Being the First Black Female Recipient of the Governors Award
When Debbie Allen received a call from Television Academy chairman and CEO Frank Scherma saying she’d been selected to receive the 2021 Governors Award, the entertainer was totally shocked.
“It took my breath away a bit,” Allen tells Variety.
Over the course of her illustrious four-decade career as an actor, dancer, choreographer, director and producer, Allen has earned a boatload of awards, including five Emmys — two for “Fame” and another for “Motown 30: What’s Goin’ On!” and two more won Sunday for “Christmas on the Square.” But Allen considers the Governors Award to be particularly meaningful — signaling that her body of work has resonated with the world community of television.
“To see that the value of your work stands tall says that I have to keep doing it. Time is what I’m up against. I have so much to do. It’s not a moment to rest on laurels. [This award] means I have to keep my hands on the plow, as I always say.”
First presented in 1978, the Governors Award honors individuals or organizations for making an impact beyond the scope of the competitive Emmy categories. Last year’s award went to Tyler Perry, with previous honorees including Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite.
Given Allen’s efforts to blaze a trail both in front of and behind the camera — with particular emphasis on spotlighting Black people in such shows as “A Different World” — perhaps it’s only fitting that she is the first Black woman to receive the honor. When Variety shared that factoid, Allen was surprised, replying with a laugh, “No pressure, I can handle it. I can be a good guide for some other very talented young ladies coming down the pipe, as I have been for a long time.”
Allen is somehow busier than ever. Off screen, Allen is focused on the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, setting plans (and backup plans) for her annual “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” performance and weighing how COVID-19 will affect the production for the second year running. The company is also preparing for a move into the Rhimes Performing Arts Center. “
This is going to be a cultural oasis for the west coast, and an institution that is built on connection with the community through inspiration, programming, and opportunity,” she says.
As far as television goes, Allen is prepping for the start of production on “Grey’s Anatomy” Season 18, where she stars as Dr. Catherine Avery and serves as a director and executive producer. She also recently finished writing a Christmas movie and is in development on at least three new projects, including a secret collaboration with Lena Waithe. Of her incredible productivity, Allen quips: “I’m in the kitchen cooking, is what I’m doing. I’m cooking and it’s hot in there; it’s good.”
Allen fell in love with television as a youngster growing up in Houston. “I was 4 years old, watching Ruby Keeler, the Nicholas brothers, Lena Horne and Fred Astaire,” she recalls. “And I wanted to replace Shirley Temple.”
After breaking big on Broadway, her television debut came on “Captain Kangaroo” (“He had me singing and dancing and being a show girl; I was so excited to be there,” she says.) followed by “3 Girls 3” in 1977. “I knew then that I was going to make it for real,” she says. “There was a big crane that started on my face, and pulled all the way back. It was my dream of myself as a kid.”
Her first real acting role was on “Good Times” in 1976 and with her iconic portrayal of Lydia Grant on “Fame” from 1982-87, her career took off like a rocket.
“I’ve done so much television over the years,” Allen remarks. “I’m so glad it’s all on film, because I could still go back and look at it.”
Allen has spent quite a bit of time looking back on her career this year. The Emmys come just three months after she was feted during the Kennedy Center Honors, alongside Dick Van Dyke, Joan Baez, Midori and Garth Brooks. Allen had no idea what was in store for her during that event, and she hopes to be just as surprised during the Emmys. In fact, the icon doesn’t plan on writing a speech ahead of the Sept. 19 ceremony.
“I believe in being very expressionistic and in the moment,” she says.
But Allen is looking forward to sharing the honor with those collaborators and supporters who she’s worked with along the way, too. “There’s just a lot of people that are part of my family that make it work. It’s never just me,” Allen says, adding that she’s proud of those whose talent she’s had the opportunity to foster along the way. “I have found myself in a position to bring other great people along, because you’re only as great as the people that you’re working with.”
In addition to accepting the Governors Award, Allen won two other Emmys this year — both for “Christmas on the Square,” the Dolly Parton-starrer she executive produced and directed. The Netflix project earned the television movie prize and Allen’s fourth win (in 10 nominations) for choreography. The holiday flick also marked a full-circle moment, since her first agent, Sam Haskell, wrangled her services for the production.
“It’s just exciting to be the little engine that could,” she says.
Allen compares creating to making a cake, with the Emmys as the icing: “I love the work, and once it’s done it’s done. I baked it, I tasted it, it was good. Now what’s next?”
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