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Perhaps second only to Oprah Winfrey, Suzanne de Passe ranks as one of the most prominent and important African-American women working in television. Her background reads like the history of Motown, the company where she rose through the ranks. Dropping out of college in 1967, she shocked her parents by becoming the talent coordinator at the Cheetah Club on Manhattan's East Side, a club that would later become a prime purveyor of the Latin Hustle. The next year, 1968, she met Berry Gordy, the founder and president of then Detroit-based record label Motown who hired her as his creative assistant. Over the course of the next decade, de Passe was instrumental in numerous recording careers, guiding Lionel Richie to a solo career after he left the Commodores, launching Rick James and the funk era, and perhaps most importantly, shaping a group of singing brothers from Gary, Indiana into The Jackson Five, one of the most heralded singing groups of all time.
Throughout her years at Motown, de Passe was involved in virtually ever facet of the company's expanding empire, even contributing to the Oscar-nominated screenplay for its first feature film, "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) which starred Diana Ross as Billie Holliday. Nearly a decade later, in 1981, Gordy appointed her as president of Motown Productions, when the company began its big push into TV production. Its first success was the stunning Emmy-winning variety special "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever" (NBC, 1983), a salute to the quarter century of the record label which reunited The Supremes and showcased Michael Jackson's ability to "moonwalk." For much of the remainder of the decade, de Passe and Motown mined its rich history for a series of miniseries and specials ranging from the summer variety program "Motown Revue" (NBC, 1985) hosted by Smokey Robinson to the Emmy-winning "Motown Returns to the Apollo" (NBC, 1985) to the long-running "Motown on Showtime" (1986-90).
De Passe expanded Motown beyond its musical boundaries with a series of dramatic specials including the 1983 CBS drama "Happy Endings" which teamed John Schneider and Catherine Hicks. After Berry Gordy sold Motown, she entered into a producing partnership with the mogul and among their first projects was the Emmy-nominated 1989 CBS Western "Lonesome Dove." Adapted from the novel by Larry McMurtry, the program proved a surprising success, leading to several sequels (i.e., "Return to Lonesome Dove" CBS 1993; "Larry McMurtry's Street of Laredo" CBS 1995) and a syndicated series ("Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years/Lonesome Dove: The Early Years" 1994-96).
Now firmly entrenched as one of the medium's most successful female producers, de Passe oversaw such diverse shows as the roller derby update "Rollergames" (syndicated, 1989) and the based-on-fact miniseries "Small Sacrifices" (ABC, 1989), starring Farrah Fawcett as a woman who attempted to kill her own children. In 1991, Berry Gordy withdrew from production and allowed de Passe to take a majority control of the properties in their joint company to her own de Passe Entertainment, with Suzanne Costin as her second-in-command. Although often called methodical in the development process, de Passe picked up the pace of production. In 1992 came "Liberators," a PBS project about the African American troops who liberated concentration camps during World War II, as well as the Emmy-nominated ABC biographical miniseries "The Jacksons: An American Dream." Working from McMurtry's novels, she executive produced both "Buffalo Girls" (CBS, 1995) and "Larry McMurtry's Dead Man's Walk" (ABC, 1996). Moving into weekly series, de Passe Entertainment launched the sitcom "Sister, Sister" (ABC, 1994-95; The WB, 1995-99), which starred Tia and Tamara Mowry as twins literally separated at birth. The sitcom "On Our Own" (ABC, 1994-95) starred the Smolletts, a family of six performing siblings who bore more than a passing resemblance to the Jacksons while "Smart Guy" (The WB, 1997-99) starred the Mowreys younger brother Tahj as a boy genius. Although she has long created an image larger than her Motown fame, de Passe nevertheless has roots in that history. She served as executive producer of the Emmy-nominated NBC biopic "The Temptations" (1998) and her company was developing similarly-themed projects on singers Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, as well as one on the life of Elaine Brown, the leading Black Panther who was also a Motown recording artist in the early 70s.
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