Director Debbie Allen scans the set of A Different World. There’s Kadeem Hardison, tossing a football with a stage manager. There’s Jasmine Guy, sifting through some mail. And there’s Allen’s 4-year-old daughter, Vivian, who’s spending the day on the Hollywood soundstage. “Hi, Vivian. Mommy sees you!” Allen coos into her body mike before yelping, “Oooeee!” and running across the set to scoop her daughter into her arms. A moment later Vivian is once again earthbound and Allen, with her 1-year-old son, Norman, straddling her hip, is back at her post, directing her cast.
Over the past several years, the student dubbed Miss Versatile by her 1968 high school class has handled career changes with equal aplomb. The Fame-ous actress-dancer-singer-choreographer was barely surprised when Bill Cosby asked her to produce and direct the second season of A Different World, the spin-off of his No. 1-rated sitcom, The Cosby Show. “He wanted someone who knows cinematography and production and comes from a black university,” Allen says. “Someone who can bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the show.” Not to mention confidence.
Allen, 38, replaces producer Anne Beatts, 40, who quit last March at the end of World’s first season. Tabloid headlines blared that Beatts and the cast, particularly Lisa Bonet (a/k/a Denise Huxtable, around whose college experience the show revolved), were at war. “I can’t talk about those problems, because I wasn’t there,” Allen says. “But I think there was a major lack of communication with other people in the cast as well. Lisa shouldn’t carry the responsibility [for the feuds] alone. She has needed someone, a woman especially, whom she can respect, to help guide her.”
Allen’s personal approach has created a different world on the series’ set. Last year, says Guy, 24, who plays Bonet’s Southern debutante roommate, “we didn’t have much input. Basically it was ‘Do as you’re told because we know what’s best.’ We trust Debbie. It’s not a battle of egos with her.” Allen agrees—almost. “I’m a pussycat,” she says, “with big claws.”
She is not, in other words, a pushover. Raised in Houston, the daughter of a dentist and an artist who divorced when she was 4, Allen dreamed of becoming a ballerina and took up to 10 classes a week. She went on to study Greek at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and in 1972 joined her sister, Phylicia Rashad, 39, Cosby’s TV wife, in New York. Allen won a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination in 1980 for her performance as the lead, Anita, in a Broadway revival of West Side Story and that same year landed the role of the demanding dance teacher in the film Fame. In 1982 she began a six-year reprise of the part for TV. She directed 11 episodes of the show and won two Emmys for her choreography. When Cosby tried to hire Allen for the premiere season of A Different World, she turned him down. No time. She had just finished starring in Broadway’s Sweet Charity and was off to London to choreograph the musical of Stephen King’s Carrie. The show opened in New York to a scathing review in the New York Times. “That wasn’t a critique,” says Allen, “that was a blowtorch.” After the show closed, Cosby repeated his offer. “My agent said the producers wanted to have a meeting. I said ‘About what?’ Tell them to make me an offer and let’s go to work.”
Allen did, diving into the hornet’s nest of A Different World, which, though second in the ratings, was reviled by critics, split by internal bickering and abuzz with rumors (Was Bonet pregnant? Would she return to the series that spawned her, The Cosby Show? Would A Different World die?). The answers: yes, yes and no. Bonet, aided by strategically placed scenery to hide her pregnancy, will continue on Cosby until the end of November and is expected to return to World soon after her baby, due late this month, is born.
Meanwhile, Allen is updating World. “The stories they did last year—I mean the show could have been in high school,” she says. “They did an episode about an egg. The show’s about college students—there has to be some social significance. We will not be doing any shows about eggs.”
Allen’s feisty, sunnyside-up disposition is coddled by a stable home life. She lives in an airy house with Brobdingnagian furniture in Santa Monica, Calif., with her husband of four years, Norman Nixon, 32, an L.A. Clippers guard. “The chairs are for my husband’s long-legged friends,” she explains to a visitor seated at the dining room table whose feet don’t touch the floor. The couple met in 1978 when he played himself and she was cast as a cheerleader in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.
Up at 6, home between 5 and midnight, Allen saves weekends for her family. “I have everything I need here,” she says. “I never have to leave. Last weekend I was sitting in the pool drinking champagne.”
The 5’2″ medley of talent has a lot to toast this fall: the new series; an ABC TV special she directed and starred in featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Richard Pryor; and a debut album due out in January. To get ready for the inevitable scrutiny of the public spotlight, Allen spends an hour a day in her home exercise studio. “I’ve got to keep it all hot, honey,” she says with a laugh, “so when Eddie Murphy calls, I’ll be a real woman, not a fat executive.”
—John Stark, and Mike Alexander in Santa Monica