An oral history of Fame: ‘In between takes it was pretty wild’

Four decades later, cast and crew recall the fun and the fights on set of late Alan Parker’s enduring hit

Forty years ago, Alan Parker’s musical about a group of teenagers at the New York High School for the Performing Arts was released.

Originally titled Hot Lunch after one of the composer Christopher Hope’s key numbers, the film is a crowd-pleaser with a heart of ice. For all the fun and legwarmers, this isn’t some starry-eyed fantasy. Rather, its edge and pessimism make it a remarkably responsible piece of film-making, with a conclusion about the wisdom of pursuing a career in the arts that is ambivalent at best.

But the legacy of the movie, spawning countless official and unofficial spin-offs, means such scepticism can come as a surprise to a generation accustomed to more upbeat takes on “making it”.

Parker was 34 when he shot the film, having established himself as an ad director in his native UK, before winning acclaim with the pre-teen gangster romp Bugsy Malone (1976) and the drug-smuggling drama Midnight Express (1978).


After his death last month, we look back at the production, reception and afterlife of a film that became his most enduring hit – Parker’s biggest box office success save for Evita – and for many defined not only his career, but also what stardom, success and failure look like.

Auditions for the main roles took place during spring 1979, mostly in New York, where Parker had moved for the duration.

Lee Curreri (Bruno): The casting person hated everything I did. But someone else said: "Show him to Alan anyway." At the end, he put his arm around me and said: "Really, really excellent." I thought: "Oh, I have this!" I was 18 and I had no idea how difficult it was to even get called back. By the sixth time I read, they'd narrowed it down to me and someone else.

Antonia Franceschi (Hilary): They handed me the crying scene. I did it for one of the casting people and she put me directly into Alan's office. I did the same for him while he filmed me. And that was it. He was just: "Can you come?"

Joanna Merlin (Miss Berg, the dance teacher): They couldn't find a dancer who could act. So they decided to audition actors who didn't dance. I made them promise that I wouldn't have to.

Jim Moody (Mr Farrell, the drama teacher): I was a teacher at Performing Arts and one day Alan came into my drama class and watched me teach. Then he said: "I've got a project you might be interested in," and asked me to play the drama teacher. I thought: well, I'm doing it anyway …

Maureen Teefy (Doris): I was in Los Angeles and I met Alan and he just talked to me and filmed it. There was no script. I didn't have to act. Two months later, we had dinner. I remember he commented that I had a vulnerability, but it was all kinda mysterious.

Meg Tilly (principal dancer): I was at ballet school and movies to dancers were big money because you got paid. It seemed like untold riches. They auditioned around 6,000 dancers and I was one of around 56 they kept.

Isaac Mizrahi (Touchstone): I was in the graduating class of the real Performing Arts school in New York. Two people I knew got big parts: Laura Dean (Lisa) and Gene Anthony Ray (Leroy). I read for Montgomery. I walked in and said to Alan: "Okay, so Montgomery is a skinny, awkward redhead – that's none for three. Why am I here?" And he laughed. I felt so happy he was so engaged.

Paul McCrane (Montgomery): My audition was very pleasant. I played the song Is It OK If I Call You Mine?, which I'd written for my girlfriend at the time. Next thing I knew, I got an offer and very flatteringly my lyrics were in the script. And that was it. We were off to the races!

Lee Curreri: The cast met in a van when Alan drove us round the locations. Antonia was exactly like her character: quiet and in her own world; a great person, but back then this really serious ballet dancer. Paul was this super-affable, beautiful guy, sweet and gentle. Gene was absolutely out-of-his-mind funny, smart and crazy. Irene [Cara, who played Coco] had already been a child star. She was singing her brains out. She was a triple threat – could dance, could act, could play music. And she would let you know.

Antonia Franceschi: Alan turned to us and said: "Can you think of another title? We've got to come up with something else in two days." It turned out there was a porno movie on release also called Hot Lunch [the term is New York slang for oral sex].

Production on the movie, now titled Fame, began in July 1979. The first scenes shot were the opening scenes of the film: auditions for entry to the school.

Paul McCrane: I remember so vividly the camera being very close. It was one of the most terrifying days of my life and I imagine this was entirely intentional.

Jim Moody: At the end of the first day, I thought I was gonna die. The lights were so hot and Alan made me say a line about a hundred different times. I thought: this guy is trying to kill me. I said: "Wait a minute. The camera's not on. Why am I saying this line?" Alan said: "Jim, you just gave us a hundred different readings of one line. You're going to be okay." Then his sound man came up; he was Italian, couldn't speak English. And he just said: "Very formidable. You do good."

Maureen Teefy: Doris was originally supposed to be a Barbra Streisand-like character: a great singer and Jewish and from Brooklyn. The very first thing we taped was the vocals for The Way We Were [Doris's audition] in a recording studio on Broadway. Alan came up to me and said: "Maureen, she'd never get in the school singing like that. Just talk it." Suddenly that whole scene became very different.

Lee Curreri: His choice of actors was really very intuitive and instinctive. I don't think there was any talk of motivation.

Jim Moody: I was myself. My students would go: "Yeah, that's the way he is in class. He could be mean. Mr Moody doesn't play, you know?"

Paul McCrane: Alan knew what he wanted and he didn't fool around. The primary direction I remember was: "Feel your pain, Paul, feel your pain." He wasn't what you'd call an actor's director and I don't mean that as a slam.

Antonia Franceschi: I really liked Alan. I thought he was really deep and perceptive. Even when you're young, you immediately know when you meet someone amazing. I was really non-verbal back then; Alan just got the layers and his way was really non-invasive. He made you really comfortable and let you be yourself. He just gently nuzzled you in the right direction.

Lee Curreri: He was a very product-oriented director. In the scene in which I'm playing the violin badly and the teacher tells me to hold the bow with respect, "like my dick", there's a girl next to me who giggles. Alan read off 15 different words for "penis" to get a reaction out of her and used the best take.

Maureen Teefy: He definitely knew what he wanted and he was going to get it from you. I didn't mind it because I was used to taking direction and I was 25. But if you were a person who maybe wanted a little more autonomy, it could have been challenging. He could be abrupt. One time, it was the end of the day and they had to do a close-up in which I was supposed to be laughing. I might have been tired. He was like: "You're a f**king actress! Laugh."

Parker’s crew included two people working on their first major movie: the costume designer Kristi Zea and the second assistant director Ray Greenfield.

Kristi Zea: Just after Alan hired me, he said: "Just don't f**k up." That was his typical style. But he was very courageous to take me on. I was not a member of any NY union, so there was a wildcat strike.

Ray Greenfield: I think Alan was really an angry person, very much aware of class. He was very condescending to people; somewhat a misanthrope. I liked him a lot to begin with. And he was hands-down the best technical craftsman of film I'd ever worked with.

Kristi Zea: He was very superstitious. When we'd watch the dailies, he wanted everyone to sit in the exact same seats each time. He had four lucky shirts which were very, very important. We would keep repairing them with different pieces of material that had to do with that particular film. They looked like patchwork quilts.

He hated primary colours. All the costumes had to be washed to death and look kind of dusty. Every dancer had to keep their clothes in a bag. Nothing could be hung up. At that time, dancewear wasn’t sexy or exciting. Dancers would cut through the seams so that they had more legs showing. So we did that, too: made legwarmers, used safety pins, cut the collars out of shirts and holes in the crotch of a pair of tights and then you’d put it over your head like a cropped shirt. We just made these really fabulous combinations.

Also on board was Michael Seresin, Parker’s long-time cinematographer.

Michael Seresin: Alan and I were a constant in each other's lives. We had nicknames for one another: Chucky and Bucky, then Fred and Ginger. We had a shared aesthetic and sense of fun. I'm a year-and-a-half older. We had wives and kids and a social life together, too.

Ray Greenfield: I was a smaller, newer planet orbiting the sun king and I didn't particularly bond with Michael. He also had a certain arrogance to him, but I really came to appreciate how good a DP [director of photography] he was.

Meg Tilly: They were older than us, but there was this energy to them, this kind of excitement and freshness, like: the world's wide open. I remember them like that, frozen in time.

Michael Seresin: We were a maximum of 15 years older. We were all in it together, but we were the bosses.

Meg Tilly: They were both very, very sweet. Once I was in the lunchroom and Alan came in and we were all like: "Oh, the director's here." He said to me: "Come with me," and I didn't know why; I wondered if I was in trouble. We went down these halls and up this stairway and there was a classroom where Michael was asleep on a desk. Alan whispered to me: "Wake him up." I was like: "What?" I didn't know what to do, I didn't want to touch him and so I nudged his shoulder. And I remember seeing Michael's eyes open and they were sleepy and they looked confused … then he looked embarrassed and he sat up. He said: "Hello." And I said: "Hello." And then I said to Alan: "Is that all?" and he said: "Yeah," and I went back.

It was a hot summer.

Joanna Merlin: There was no air conditioning. They brought in these big fans between takes, but the makeup would melt. These poor dancers were wearing woollen tights because it was supposed to be the fall.

Lee Curreri: Costume people like layers. Everyone had their coat on. It was definitely too much.

Maureen Teefy: Paul and I shot one scene where we're rehearsing Chekhov and it was supposed to be winter but it was about 90 degrees [Fahrenheit].

Paul McCrane: It was 102 [38C]. We were constantly running indoors to try and wipe down the sweat.

Ray Greenfield: I remember the plastic bank card in my pocket melted.

Isaac Mizrahi: We were all entranced that they had to smoke the set before every interior shoot.

Michael Seresin: We'd use those things for smoking out beehives. You put in charcoal burners, sprinkle incense on top and puff it round the room. It was a similar weight to air, so it just hung. The woman who played the schoolteacher [Anne Meara] was going round with a jam jar trying to capture it to send it off to be analysed. And if it was carcinogenic, she said: "I'll sue the s**t out of you guys." The funny thing was she was a chain-smoker. We looked at her and said: "Really? What about the ciggies?" and she said: 'Well, that's what I do to myself." She had an answer for everything.

The atmosphere on set could get heated, too.

Joanna Merlin: Fifty kids in a room dancing and watching each other. In between takes it was pretty wild.

Lee Curreri: It was just like the movie all the time. Constant music and dancing and having fun.

Antonia Franceschi: It was insane. Tons of kids doing what they do: messing around, maybe flirting and maybe people slept with other people.

Isaac Mizrahi: I know there was a lot of sex going on. I wasn't having sex, because I was afraid of sex because I was gay and I was trying to navigate all of that.

Michael Seresin: I don't think I've ever before or since had such incredible energy: physical, mental, emotional. Just working with those kids was phenomenal. They had a drive we'd never seen before.

Ray Greenfield: Fame was the most fun I've ever had on a set. It was electric. It was unavoidable. I'm an introvert, but I enjoyed it totally.

Lee Curreri: It got really competitive once the camera was on. In the Hot Lunch scene, there was a big element of the dancers trying to get in the lens for real.

Meg Tilly: Sometimes it was really scary. One time somebody was pulled out and I was put into a scene and it made me a target for a group of dancers.

The sequence in which the students stream out of school to the title song and dance all over 46th Street took three days to shoot. On the first day, Seresin turned cameraman after an operator went Awol, to the displeasure of the union.

Michael Seresin: All of a sudden, this agent turns up and says: "Hey, you can't operate." We were like: "We can't stall. We got half of central Manhattan closed up." He said: "Well, I'll give you two hours." Of course there's a lot of effing and blinding, Alan saying: "I'm not going to f**king be told what to do by some f**king business rep."

Lee Curreri: Filming in NY with the very powerful unions was like octopus-wrestling. It was a real work of determination to get it done.

Kristi Zea: Alan saw what Louis Falco had choreographed for that scene and said: "Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. This is way too considered. I just want these kids to burst out of there. I don't want to use anything that you've done." Poor, poor Falco. So I said: "Just tell the kids to get out there as fast as possible and take over the street."

Ray Greenfield: Everyone danced to Hot Stuff, because we didn't have the actual music at that point.

Lee Curreri: The dancers unionised because they were just getting paid as extras, despite doing Louis's amazing choreography and very physical stuff, dancing on the top of cars.

Meg Tilly: And then the cars started driving and we all hit the roof! No way! They said they thought it would be cool if they were trying to drive through traffic. I remember how dented the tops of the cars got.

The script, which Parker rewrote with the original writer, Christopher Gore, doesn't shy away from showing the seedier side for those hoping to break into showbiz.

Antonia Franceschi: Alan was not into bulls**t. He could read what was real and not real in a second.

Isaac Mizrahi: As graduates of the school we were like: "Yeah? Really? Oh, come on." And then years later you look back on it, it's like: "Oh my God, it's exactly what it was like. He really did capture the kind of gritty, slummy aspect of New York at that time.

Antonia Franceschi: The scene with Coco and the pornographer; that s**t went on all the time. You got followed home, you got bothered. Day in and day out, because the school was right by the red light district.

Isaac Mizrahi: Everybody is much more protected now from reality, much more medicated and balanced and considered. Parenting was just a different thing. I don't exactly think of my parents as having been neglectful, but they didn't really pay attention too much. We were in very big trouble a lot of the time; we were dancing on the edge of something really dangerous. The area itself was the epicentre of porn and filth and somehow we were dancing on cars. And some of us succumbed. Girls got pregnant and didn't know what to do. People were on drugs. That was the dark side. And that really wasn't in the movie.

Jim Moody: The dark side is growing up. That's just a piece of the pie. One of the ingredients – that's all.

The shoot had its hiccups. The relationship between Parker and Barry Miller, who played Ralph, became fractious.

Lee Curreri: Barry is a pretty damn good actor. But he has his own ideas about how he gets there, while Alan would just say: "Cut the bulls**t, get on with it, say your lines, in the right order, keep your mark, stop screwing around."

Maureen Teefy: We were both young and scared. I do remember some kind of definite power struggle between Alan and Barry shooting the scene in Montgomery's apartment where Barry breaks down and then I go and comfort him. We were there like a few nights all night long.

Lee Curreri: There were a few monumental moments where Barry was crying in a scene, and that was after Alan smacked him. Barry and he were having a real conflict.

Maureen Teefy: I don't remember Alan doing that.

Meg Tilly: It's hard when young people get a first taste of fame – it can mess you up sometimes.

Michael Seresin: He just had to go through this whole method thing. He thought he was Pacino or De Niro. He made our life a bit tough. But in the end, I quite like that, too. It makes you think harder about stuff and accommodate them a little bit.

Gene Anthony Ray, who died aged 41 in 2003, also presented challenges.

Joanna Merlin: In Leroy's audition scene, the two people to my left were actual teachers at Performing Arts who were horrified when Gene got this big part, as he'd been expelled. They couldn't bear to watch, they were so furious. I didn't know at the time, but I believe he'd slapped a teacher.

Jim Moody: I didn't know that. Hey, well, that'll get you out. You don't take the passion that far. But I'm glad Gene was able to do the film because it was really rough in the city back then, especially for African-Americans. And today the same stuff is going on. We still have a lot of work to do. I hope we can do more singing and dancing and less throwing firebombs.

Antonia Franceschi: Gene was raw, baby. He was the real thing. Alan was, if I'm honest, a tiny bit afraid of him. With good reason. He's a street kid from Harlem. That s**t was real. He would go off. I was close to him. Sometimes Alan was like: "Can you talk to him?" And I'm like: "Yeah, not a problem."

Lee Curreri: Between takes, Gene would walk in with a tutu and umbrella and do a complete Shirley Temple number for everyone.

Debbie Allen (Lydia): I remember putting ice packs on his neck. He was such a diamond in the rough. I said: "You're going to have to do this all day. You need to calm down between takes."

Meg Tilly: Gene wanted everybody to come to his birthday party in Harlem because nobody in his neighbourhood believed he was in this movie. I was like: "Oh, we gotta go." But the people I was kind of hanging with said: "No, you can't, it's too scary." I felt bad. He wanted to show everybody and people didn't show up.

Shooting finally wrapped after 91 days, but not before there were other upsets.

Debbie Allen: I had a big song I was supposed to do, but Alan called me in one day and told me: "Debbie, I've got a 10-hour movie already and I'm not sure where I'm going to put all of it. I love you, but we're not gonna shoot your number. I'm like: "I'm okay. Can I keep the dress?" It was a red dress that was really nice.

Michael Seresin: Meg was hired as a minor dancer, but she had a really bad fall. I think a guy was meant to catch her in ballet rehearsals. She was beautiful. She was very, very naive. I remember that.

Meg Tilly: I fractured my back, so I had to quit dancing. I didn't know what I was going to do. But they had me come back and loop a few lines, which gave me my Equity card. That was your golden ticket: I didn't know until I got to LA with my sister that you needed one in order to be able to audition as an actor. So that was an enormous kindness and I wasn't even aware of how valuable it was.

The film opened in May 1980, taking $42 million from a production budget of $8.5 million.

Antonia Franceschi: I did my graduating performance at the American Ballet Theatre School then went to the film's premiere. It was insane. I got offered Hollywood contracts. But I had my dream job already [at the New York City Ballet]. Plus, I was a teenager. I had pimples, I didn't have big tits. I had no confidence. When I'd get recognised I'd just say: "It's not me." I just didn't want the attention. There's no guidebook on how to manage that. Once this woman got in my face and she was like: "I hated your ass." And I was like: "Oh, man, that's a compliment."

Maureen Teefy: Oh my God, it was so different than what I thought it would be. I'd wanted to be an actress since I was a teenager. I was very committed and dedicated. But then when I was in something that was a huge success, I felt completely scared to death and exposed. I wanted to run away and hide. I went and lived in the maid's room of my agent friend's apartment. I was supposed to have a lead in this Amy Heckerling film and then the actors' strike happened. It did interfere with my career and I didn't even care.

Debbie Allen: We won the Oscar for best music, and I think Fame was the first movie when score sales outdistanced takings for the film.

Kristi Zea: In production, the executives said they wanted us to recreate the success of Saturday Night Fever, after which JCPenney sold that white suit 100,000 times over. They said: "We want people to go into stores and buy the clothing from Fame." And we did all this spectacular, cut-up dance wear. But, at the end, they said: "There's no stars in this film, so we're not going to make a line of clothes." I said: "Are you guys crazy? People are going to want this stuff." They'd have made a lot of money, but they were way too conservative. Then Jane Fonda took the idea and ran with it with her line of exercise wear. And, a few years later, Dirty Dancing did the same thing.

Paul McCrane: Reaction in the gay community was primarily very positive. Sometimes people still come up and say: "I was really young and very uncomfortable with my sexuality and it helped me to see a character who was gay in a film." But it's not like there's a gay romance. You never see anything.

I think some folks would like to have seen someone who more fully championed his own sexuality. When I was 18, someone in an interview told me it angered him that, given there were so few gay characters in film, Montgomery was presented as so fragile. He took great offence to a line about how never being happy doesn’t mean being unhappy, and the inference being gay meant one would never be happy. I’m not at all sure that that was the intent, but he has every right to have been angered. The gay community was very protective, and they should have been. There are still plenty of people who are homophobic. Before I unlisted my phone number, I got some very strange calls: death threats, homophobic slurs. Enough times to scare me.

Isaac Mizrahi: It's a pretty classic gay character: not really knowing where to turn or what to do and kind of descending deeper and deeper into depression. But also now we look back and go like: "Well, all Montgomery needed was a little Prozac."

In 1982, a spin-off TV show started production in LA featuring some of the same cast, including Allen, Curreri and Ray as Lydia, Bruno and Leroy. It ran until 1987. A 2009 remake of the film earned poor reviews.

Debbie Allen: There were enough of the same characters to make it feel seamless. You couldn't be as edgy as film – some of the topics in the movie made some people shudder: homosexuality, suicide, a young girl being potentially molested by a shyster. But we told some incredible stories.

Lee Curreri: I walked into a Hallmark card. I was sort of a problem, because I was always trying to make it grittier. All the clothes were pressed and fresh off the peg and I used to drag my jacket through the dirt before shooting. For the film, they'd ended up dressing me in the clothes I had in my apartment: flannel shirts my mother had bought me years before from the discount store. They were also used on the TV show. So for many years I was wearing the same clothes I wore when I was 13.

Antonia Franceschi: The TV show got so packaged. I think Alan was really uncomfortable with that.

Ray Greenfield: I did the last year of Fame on TV, which was much more pedestrian and kind of formulaic.

Maureen Teefy: I saw the movie remake, but it was so bad that me and my daughter left at half-time. I never really watched the TV series. The film is a very different entity.

Debbie Allen: Making the TV show, I didn't ever have a day off. The young 'uns were a wild bunch, finding their way in Hollywood. I was their mother, their father, their psychiatrist, their choreographer, their teacher. I was rehearsing every day. We went to London and Japan and to the Middle East and Israel and people loved us. I directed and choreographed the world tour. I'll never forget Princess Di coming to see us at the Royal Albert Hall. My greatest fan is a woman named Carolyn who lives in the UK. I get a card from her every birthday or any event in my life. I feel like I know her. It's one of the most loving relationships anyone could ask for.

Some feel the cautionary nature of the film has been forgotten.

Lee Curreri: The moment you hear those lyrics ["Fame! I'm gonna live for ever/I'm gonna learn how to fly"] you know they're set up to be disappointed. As energetic as the song is, you know it's tongue in cheek.

Paul McCrane: The film does emphasise the struggle. You don't walk out the door and become famous. It's not about the Kardashians or the Paris Hiltons. Nothing against them, they're cultural phenomenons, but it's not in any sense earned. We could use a little bit more grounding in the idea that productive, hard work is how one achieves success.

Isaac Mizrahi: The way you make it now is on Instagram or reality television. Same with design; it's not about deep artistic merit so much as social media. In those days, it was raw. Every other day we would go to school and they would tell us: "The odds are really terrible that you people are going to make it. You might want to consider not doing this." I was not a beautiful child and many of my classmates were gorgeous. So I thought: "Better throw in the towel."

Debbie Allen: Now you can get famous eating a frog on a game show or losing weight or doing a sex tape. But there are still those who've worked hard to become who they are: the Misty Copelands of the world, the Denzel Washingtons.

Joanna Merlin: You can't turn a young person away from acting if they really want to do it; it's impossible. You say: "You're going to have to work in day jobs for years," but they each think that they're different.

The legacy of the film, including for those who made it, remains immense.

Meg Tilly: Sometimes these experiences change the trajectory of your life. And that movie is part of my DNA. I remember being on the freeway in LA a few years after making it and I heard this voice yelling: "Meg!" There was this guy standing up in a car and waving, and it was Gene and he was like: "Hiiiiii!" The wind was blowing and I was thrown back for a moment into the hot summer days in the studio, flinging our bodies about, the best and the worst of times.

Jim Moody: After Fame, I was making a film almost every year for a while. I have less hair now. But people recognise me. They say: "You're that actor guy." For me, that's a better accolade than being recognised for one performance.

Paul McCrane: I'm recognised for Fame shockingly often. I'm 59 and haven't had a full head of hair for 35 years.

Isaac Mizrahi: For my generation at the school, it was as if Alan had immortalised us. It was like destiny. It meant it wasn't all just a pipe dream. And for a lot of my classmates, the film was enough. That was living for ever. Like: "I went to that school and now I could be, like, a computer programmer for the rest of my life and I'm really happy to do so because I touched greatness."

Lee Curreri: I was really lucky to be have been in such a cool thing. I could have played a murderer or rapist; instead I was a synth player. As an electronics geek, I was an outcast as a kid. After the film, I had fathers coming up to me asking advice about what kind of keyboard to get their kid. Wow! I wish I had that when I was growing up.

Maureen Teefy: I feel very proud to have it in my history, because it was part of the zeitgeist. People tell me what a deep experience it was for them, and they feel an intense connection. And I like that; I'm not a chit-chat person. I'm now in a master's programme for clinical psychology and planning on becoming a marriage and family therapist. Making Fame was a very potent time in my life, but there were many potent times and there's probably more to come.

Isaac Mizrahi: For me, the film was a nice bang to go out on, because being at that school was the greatest experience so far. I have never enjoyed myself in the way I did then. I just went mad with happiness. But when I watch the film now, I think about laying down my dreams of show business and how sad that was for me at the time. One of the main objectives of my early life was making enough money to get far away, and to be able to be an artist and to be gay. So I did the mercenary thing, which was going into fashion. I thought it was going to be easier and I wasn't wrong. It's funny that you would think of fashion as a more friendly way to make a buck – and it's all a nightmare – but for some reason it was more tangible. Plus, I wasn't being told I was fat or ugly or that I'd always be one of the friends or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Because everybody wants to be Hamlet. – Guardian