“People come to me and say, you saved my life” – how we created the TV series Fame | Culture

Lee Curreri (Bruno Martelli)

I didn’t really want fame. It was never about ego for me, just music. I wanted to be Lalo Schifrin, who wrote the theme for Mission: Impossible. I was this little misfit Italian kid who went to a Catholic school in the Bronx and had special interests. When I watched the Carol Burnett Show on TV, for example, I watched because I loved the way bandleader Peter Matz orchestrates music.

When Alan Parker was casting the movie Fame, he was looking for real people rather than actors for most of the roles. He wanted a real keyboard prodigy, shy but sensitive. I auditioned six times. They would say, “Say these lines. Now play the piano. Now play the piano and say the lines”. I was playing tarantellas for Italian vacationers in the Catskills when I found out I had gotten the role of Bruno. I left this concert. I was 19 years old.

I loved going on set when I wasn’t filming. I remember a scene in an old abandoned high school in New York, the late afternoon sun streaming through the windows, and the ballerina Hilary, played by the ballerina Antonia Franceschi, dancing with Leroy. It was the most beautiful thing.

When the spin-off television series aired, television was then not very popular, so many of those who had been in the film did not come to the show. I did it, because I had a plan. I was writing songs and developing my musical skills. Being in front of the camera has never been the thing for me. We worked hard but we didn’t pay very much. It wasn’t Dickensian, but most of us were young kids who needed better representation. I know I needed someone in my corner and I really didn’t have anyone, especially when we moved production to Los Angeles from New York.

We started each day at 7 a.m. and finished at 7 p.m. Much was waiting for the plans to be put in place. I was writing songs at 2:00 in the morning. At that time, drum machines, sampling and synths were really taking off so I had the idea to learn as much as I could about it all, and I became a one-man band, writing drums, bass, timpani, brass, all orchestra. In addition to writing songs for Fame, I was asked to write music for NBC’s Saturday morning cartoon shows. I sent them a demo, and who should show up to orchestrate it if not Peter Matz? He took my crummy little demo and orchestrated it for a live orchestra at NBC studios. I was in heaven.

I was 23 when I left the show. At the time, the network decided to stop syndicating it in the US, but it did so well in the UK and Italy that they continued to manufacture it for export. I had a gig to write music for a TV movie with Mickey Rooney. That was the start and I really took off from there – working in music for TV shows and movies the way I wanted.

Valerie Landsburg (Doris Schwartz)

I was studying on Broadway when the movie came out in 1980 and went to a midnight screening. I remember seeing Lee onscreen and thinking, “I’ll be friends with this guy someday.” Two years later, I get a call – they’re doing the TV series. I ended up getting the role of Doris Schwartz. I was 23 and had been in movies, and I was the oldest on the show. Sure enough, Lee and I became friends. We even shared an apartment and went to work together.

Valérie Landsburg in the role of Doris in 1983. Photography: Beverly Goodway/Shutterstock

Doris was basically the girl who did the show. She was not the star. I was like the leader’s friend. I was the person who said “I feel so bad for you” or “Is there more pizza?” Lots of guys my age who knew they were gay but thought they couldn’t tell anyone they identified with Doris because she didn’t have a boyfriend. There were also Doris girls. I cried with people who came up to me and said, “You saved my life. Because you were doing what you were doing, I didn’t jump off a bridge. One day I was the last person on a plane and the woman stamping the tickets put her hand on mine and said, “I love you.

We have worked very hard. If you weren’t playing you were rehearsing the dance numbers and if you weren’t doing that you were doing a demo recording of the big number you were going to sing at the end of the set.

If you read the old reviews for the show, no one talks about race. Nobody really talked about the fact that Leroy was black. The truth was that we were one tribe; young people who wanted to become performers. It was a family. I loved the whole experience. Lee wrote music for it, I wrote an episode of the show. It was like having the best performing arts and film school you could ever have.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the TV series Fame, the original cast perform three reunion concerts on September 8, 9 and 10 at Birmingham Town Hall.

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