Fame was a TV phenomenon back in the 1980s. The small-screen spinoff of the Alan Parker movie about students at New York performing arts high school struck a particular chord in the UK where the cast also became pop stars when songs from the show scaled the charts.
Plans for two reunion concerts and a new single were recently announced, prompting a wave of nostalgia for leg warmers and leotards from fans of a certain age. The event will be the first time the original cast have performed together in the UK for 35 years, and has been organised by super fan Sue Hinds in aid of Liverpool’s Claire House Children’s Hospice.
Valerie Landsburg, fondly remembered as goofy girl next door Doris Schwartz, is one of eight Fame alumni taking part in the concerts on 5 and 6 May in the Auditorium of the Liverpool Echo Arena, with others including Erica Gimpel (Coco), Cynthia Gibb (Holly) and Lee Curreri (Bruno). We caught up the actress turned director on a recent visit to London to discuss the legacy – and possible future – of the all-singing, all-dancing drama.
How does it feel to be reunited with your Fame colleagues again? It’s wonderful and feels like we’ve never been away. We’ve come back together every so often over the years but the first big concert like this we did was in 2015 in Italy for a charity gig. I was in touch with lots of the cast, Cynthia, Lee and Erica the most. We’re a family. Just like siblings you have fights but nothing that isn’t resolved, but we worked 16 hour days, we were all young and we bonded forever.
What was the reaction like in the UK at the time? It was much bigger here than in the States than we realised. I was the first to come over for publicity to do High Fidelity on Top of the Pops in 1982 and kids were chasing us down the street. It wasn’t like that in America! You still only had three channels here so families would watch it together. It was also big in Italy and in Israel we were like the Beatles, it was unbelievable!
Did you have obsessive fans? Not stalkers or anything, mainly people who felt like I was their sister or best friend. Doris was very relatable, she had her body image issues which were things I had personal experience of. When I started directing the show it was about Cynthia’s character Holly’s anorexia, it’s one of the things I’m still proudest of as a director.
What are your memories of being on tour?
I was doing promotion in Australia so only joined the European tour right at the end, after Lori Singer (Julie) left to shoot the movie Footlose. I remember performing in Portsmouth and the driver took me past Stone Henge! The schedule was exhausting, around that time I was asked to open for this new group in Antwerp just to do High Fidelity but I had been touring and wanted to go home. The group was the Eurythmics! I should’ve said yes…
Were there professional rivalries among the cast, then or now? No because we were all so different. Although I recall being very jealous of Erica and Cynthia, both of whom I love dearly, as they were so beautiful and I didn’t feel like I was. That was down to my own self-image at the time. Things are better for character actresses of that age these days which is great, if it was now I could’ve had Amy Schumer’s career!
Was Debbie Allen as formidable off camera as she was as the school’s teacher, Lydia? Debbie is still a formidable presence! It feels different when we do anything without her, like the kids have grown up and there’s no boss around. She’s amazing and is now a producer/director on shows like Grey’s Anatomy, but back then if you stepped out of line she’d call you out. Erica and I had a disagreement with her once, and for the musical number in that episode ‘Sing For You America’, Eric was made to wear a frogman costume and I was in a space suit – we always laugh that was our punishment for arguing with Debbie!
Was it difficult being thrust into the limelight? I had grown up in the industry (her father Alan was a successful producer) and was actually one of the oldest in the cast, and had worked quite a lot already so perhaps I was more equipped. But I was already a high-functioning alcoholic by then, although I never drank while I was working. I’ve been sober 33 years and actually stopped drinking the year I left Fame. When I speak to my Fame colleagues now, especially the women, everyone says they wished they’d not been so hard on themselves or so critical back then, and enjoyed the experience a bit more.
Is it hard performing without the late Gene Anthony Ray (aka Leroy, who died in 2003)? Always. He was the most brilliantly talented person. We’ve mentioned him on stage in other performances, I’m not sure how he’ll be acknowledged next year. He was the kind of guy you couldn’t help but love, when I was directing an episode he didn’t show up for work – I wanted to be mad with him but you just couldn’t! He lived with HIV for a long time. The BBC did a Fame documentary a few years before he died which Gene took part in, and you could see how different he was. He had bounced back from illness but by then he was on borrowed time.
Would you be open to Fame being revived for TV? If it was the right script we’d all be there. I actually wrote a version myself 15 years ago and talked to a few people about it. I had Doris as a therapist and in a relationship with a woman, and asking Danny Amatullo to be their sperm donor. Coco and Bruno were the ones who made it in showbusiness! If you did it now you could have it start with everyone gathering for Leroy’s funeral…
Why is Fame still so fondly remembered after all these years? Honesty. Even though it’s dated wardrobe-wise, what the show talks about is real and still relevant. That’s why the original audience shows it to their kids. It’s timeless. If there had been internet in 1982 then Fame would still be going, we’d all be on it with our grandkids!