Debbie Allen's most memorable TV projects
Debbie Allen has been making history for five decades, dancing her way into our hearts through our televisions.
Whether she's performing, directing, choreographing, or producing, Allen has had her fingers on some of the most formative and groundbreaking entertainment of the last 40 years.
In that time, she's received 20 Emmy nominations and nabbed 5, including three just this year. She is also being honored with the Television Academy's 2021 Governors Award in recognition of her achievements on screen and off.
But first, let's take a look back at some of her most memorable roles.
Choreographer, 34th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards
Allen has long made a name for herself as a choreographer, and her time at the Emmys started all the way back in 1982 — not as a nominee but as the choreographer for the show. Coming off a spate of success on Broadway, it seemed a natural fit.
Diana Buchanan, Good Times
Allen made her television debut in this Norman Lear sitcom, which marked TV's first African-American two-parent sitcom. She appeared in a memorable two-part episode in the show's third season as J.J's (Jimmie Walker) drug-addicted fiancée, Diana.
Nan Branch Haley, Roots: The Next Generations
This mini-series marked a big step for Allen's television career. Roots: The Next Generations is a follow-up to the original 1977 Roots mini-series, following the lives of Kunta Kinte's descendants in Tennessee from 1882 to 1967. Allen portrayed Nan Branch Haley, the wife of Roots author, Alex Haley.
Perhaps Allen's most famous role is her portrayal of tough love dance instructor Lydia Grant on Fame. She first played the role in a relatively small iteration in the 1980 film, but she became a central figure in the television series which ran from 1982 to 1987. Allen was nominated for Best Actress at the Emmys four times during the run of the show. She also earned nods for her work as a choreographer on the series, winning two Emmys for Outstanding Choreography.
Dr. Langhorne, A Different World
Allen left an indelible mark on this Cosby Show spin-off, taking over as producer and director after the show's first season. The series centered on the life of students at a historically black college, and Allen also appeared on the series as therapist Dr. Langhorne. But more importantly, she directed 83 of 144 episodes and is credited with transforming the series from a mere bland spin-off into something more socially-conscious and engrossing.
Choreography for Motown 30: What's Goin' on!
Allen played a key role in this 1990 television special, commemorating 30 years of Motown Records. She served as one of the choreographers for the event, which featured performances from a slew of iconic Motown artists. She won an Emmy for her work on the "African American Odyssey" number.
The Academy Awards
Debbie Allen has choreographed the Oscars a record ten times, bringing her prowess and vision to Hollywood's biggest night. She did the gig consecutively from 1991 to 1994, including overseeing a 1992 segment featuring Patrick Swayze and a special dance number set to the tune of the Best Original Score nominees. Her work earned her multiple Emmy nominations across various years.
Jackie Warren, In the House
Allen returned to performing on television in a more major way on this NBC sitcom, which she appeared on for two seasons from 1995 to 1996. She starred as newly divorced single mom Jackie Warren, who moves into the house of former professional football player, Marion Hill (LL Cool J), with her two children when he's forced to rent rooms for money.
C-Bear and Jamal
Allen lent both her vocal and directing prowess to this 1990s animated kids show about an elementary school kid named Jamal and his companion, "C Bear," a rapping hip-hop teddy bear. She both offered a vocal performance and voice directed the entire series for Fox Kids for its two season run from 1996 to 1997.
All of Us
Allen directed half of the episodes of this four-season sitcom, which ran on UPN and The CW from 2003 to 2007. Loosely inspired by Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith's blended family, the series follows a divorced television entertainment report, his young son, and his fiancée, a kindergarten teacher who helped him through the end of his first marriage. Allen helmed a whopping 44 episodes.
Everybody Hates Chris
Allen pulled double duty on this UPN/CW sitcom inspired by comedian Chris Rock's childhood. She guest starred in two episodes, but she directed ten, once again proving her affinity for directing comedy and drama in equal measure.
So You Think You Can Dance
Allen has always been dedicated to helping the next generation of dancers find their footing. She founded the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in 2000 with exactly that purpose in mind. But she took it to the next level appearing as a judge on Fox reality series So You Think You Can Dance from 2007 to 2014. Allen even had to recuse herself from a season when one of her former dancers, Will, made it into the top 20.
Dr. Catherine Avery/Fox, Grey's Anatomy
Allen started her career on long-running ABC medical soap Grey's Anatomy as a director, but she quickly became an integral part of the Seattle Grace (now Grey Sloan) family, joining the cast as Dr. Catherine Avery, mother to Jackson (Jesse Williams) and a formidable doctor and surgeon in her own right, overseeing the prestigious Harper Avery award. She's now become a huge part of the series and is even married to beloved former chief Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.). Allen has appeared on 72 episodes of the series, as well as directed 28 and has served as an executive producer on it since 2015. This cemented her relationship with the Shondaland family, and she's also directed episodes of series Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.
Charice Harrelson, S.W.A.T.
Allen has appeared on 10 episodes of this ongoing CBS drama about Sergeant Daniel "Hondo" Harrelson (Shemar Moore) and his Special Weapons and Tactics Unit. Allen features as his mother, Charice Harrelson. The series has garnered attention for the way it approaches the Hondo's conflicted relationship between his role as a police officer and the communities they serve.
Christmas on the Square
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Allen directed, choreographed, and produced this original Netflix holiday musical, which stars Dolly Parton and features 14 original songs by the musical superstar. The Christmas confection has proved a winning project for Allen, earning her two Emmys for choreography and Best Television Movie this year.
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