On this blistering summer day, the sun is shriveling the spirits of the TV cast laboring on a Pasadena street. One of the stars has a walloping migraine and can barely turn her head. Another actress is twisting uncomfortably in her itchy wool suit. The extras are drooping, the crew is listless. But director Debbie Allen is keeping her cool. Cheery and energetic, she zips around, soothing the actors, getting them into place. “Let’s go, everyone,” she says. Amid the grumbling, she’s a real Pollyanna.
Which is perfectly appropriate, since Debbie Allen, 39, the dynamic dance teacher on Fame, is directing and choreographing a jazzed-up, two-hour musical remake of the 1960 Disney film Pollyanna, about the irrepressible “glad girl” who spreads goodwill through her cranky town. Like Disney’s version with Hayley Mills, and Mary Pick-ford’s 1920 silent-screen portrayal, the new TV movie retells Eleanor Porter’s children’s classic, with one notable difference: This time, Pollyanna is black.
Scheduled to air in November on NBC’s The Magical World of Disney, the new film, called Polly!, will evoke the magnolia-lined streets of the 1950s South, embellished with the strains of black gospel and blues. Explaining the switch in setting from the previous version’s turn-of-the-century New England, executive producer Bill Blinn says, “If you are going to remake a picture and just do what they did before, I see no reason to remake it. We decided to make it at a time when black confidence started to come into greater visibility.”
Blinn, who had worked with Allen when she directed several episodes of Fame, selected her as “the first and only candidate” for the Polly! job. When she read the script, Allen recalls, “I was so moved by it—I laughed, I cried.” As for the decision to use black actors, she says simply, “Why not?” With Cosby kid Keshia Knight Pulliam, 10, in the title role, Allen’s all-star, three-generation cast includes her older sister and Cosby mom, Phylicia Rashad, 40, as starchy Aunt Polly, Butterfly McQueen, Brock Peters, Dorian Harewood and—one of the movie’s few white performers—Celeste Holm.
On the California set, which passes today for Alabama, vintage cars line the driveway and actors in ’50s garb fan themselves under an old oak tree. “At first I wondered why we couldn’t do it in the ’80s with the new music,” says Allen, who produced and directed A Different World last season. “But I think placing it in the 1950s allows it to keep a certain charm in terms of the wholesomeness of the piece. If you did it today, you would have to get into a lot more serious issues, like drugs.”
Taking an occasional swig of Evian during breaks, Allen says the music has given the production a spiritual momentum. “Some scenes have been so moving: the gospel scene at the church where the townspeople are reunited with their true feelings about themselves; a scene where three men sing the blues and in musical terms redefine the problems in the town. That scene had so much joy and character.”
Today’s excruciating heat has melted some of the joy, but Allen keeps cooking. Among the challenges at hand is the eccentric Butterfly McQueen, now 78, who still has the same wide-eyed gaze and little-girl chirp she had 50 years ago, playing the flighty maid Prissy in Gone with the Wind. “Dealing with Butterfly,” Allen says, “is like handling a very delicate piece of china. You have to be very careful.”
The skittish actress has an aversion to physical contact, but for one emotional scene, Allen wants McQueen, as the church pianist Miss Priss, to cup Keshia’s face in her hands. “I can’t touch her skin,” the actress nervously protests. Sympathetic but determined, Allen offers her a pair of white cotton gloves. McQueen accepts, and with her covered hands trembling, she manages the caress. Grateful for the compromise, she tells Allen, “Bless your heart. That’s the way I wanted to play it all along.”
As the sunny Polly, who maintains her bright outlook even after her legs are crippled in an accident, Keshia feels more comfortable than with her character Rudy on Cosby. “Rudy is devious,” she explains. “Polly is always glad. Rudy does little things I would never do. If I did, I wouldn’t have my head right now,” she says, glancing sweetly at her father, James, who is her manager and an associate producer of the film.
Despite her unusually mature demeanor (“She is an actress in a child’s body,” says Rashad, her TV mom), Keshia relishes the chance to cut loose in the dance numbers like any other kid. During one segment, she recalls, “I was off day-dreaming in never-never land, and I started doing my own dance. When their hands were up, mine were down. When mine were down, theirs were up. At the end I dropped down on the floor and started laughing.” Rather than scolding her, Keshia adds, “Debbie started laughing too.”
Allen’s good humor also aids Rashad, who has been nursing a migraine all day. Allen tries to ease her sister’s pain, rubbing her neck and holding her hand. The two are thoroughly professional on the set, but family concerns sometimes intrude. Once, says Rashad, musical conductor Harold Wheeler wanted to ask Allen a question, but “Debbie and I were in a very intense discussion. He decided to back off, because it was a very serious discussion. Then he caught a bit of our conversation: ‘So, you want to make the potato salad, or shall I?’ And that’s about as serious as we get,” she says, laughing loudly.
“Directing my sister is easy,” says Allen. “She tells me I bossed her all her life, so this is nothing new.” Kidding aside, Rashad has serious praise for Sis. “It doesn’t bother me that she’s my little sister, telling me what to do. I’ve worked with the best directors in the business, and she is right with them.”
Sororal compliments might ordinarily be suspect, but Allen gets high marks from the rest of the cast, especially Keshia, who says, “When we aren’t working, she gives us hot dogs.” While Allen plugs away, her husband, former L.A. Clippers guard Norman Nixon, helps watch their two children at home, occasionally bringing Norman Jr. and Vivian to visit the set.
When Polly! is finished, Allen hopes the movie will be “a musical that touches people and makes them feel something about themselves. What ultimately is important in life is not money, not position, not your car. It’s people.” Spoken like a true you-know-who.
—Jeannie Park, Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles