When it comes to creating great movies and TV shows that showcase diversity, Brooklyn native, Doreen Spicer-Dannelly has the gift. Through her unique screenwriting talents and success in the tween/teens TV market, she has proven her worth in Hollywood. Here, we learn about her triumphs and struggles as a woman in Hollywood.
What was it like for you in the very beginning of your career?
In the beginning, I was an intern. Kids who are interested in breaking into this business have to have some kind of mentor or alumni who is willing to take them under their wing. I actually had alumni, Samm-Art Williams, who was co-executive producer on “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.” He was also a producer on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” That was my entre into the business, as an intern.
I got my first real job when some other kid got fired. The late 90’s was a wonderful time because there were lots of (TV) shows that were based on African-American characters, so black writers were working. But then, suddenly those shows disappeared or got marginalized, and you didn’t see very many of them anymore. That’s when I discovered that an African-American female writer in Hollywood was not the “norm.”
Let’s be honest, executive producers and show runners want to be comfortable and be able to say whatever they want so, they’re going to be less likely to hire someone who may be offended by what they say. That left a lot of black writers out of work so, I actually had to struggle. I signed onto a temp agency and worked as a receptionist for a commercial company, working my way up to executive assistant. During that same time, I did a speaking engagement at Lincoln University because this kid there wanted some people from Hollywood to come and speak to the students. While at Lincoln University, the school told me that Bruce Smith was there and he was actually looking for a writer. They suggested that I hook up with him when I get back to LA, and that’s what I did. So, essentially, I went to Lincoln to make a connection with a person in Hollywood; but it was because I stayed proactive.
How did you wind up working with Disney on “The Proud Family”?
After I got back from the Lincoln University panel, I was still temping. I made the connection with Bruce Smith and he sat me down and showed me some art drawings of these character he came up with. He told me the story and I was so excited. The original Penny Proud character Bruce drew looked so much like me, and I was really shocked because I had never seen a light-skinned black character being set up for animation. It just showed me that hanging in there has it’s perks, and it eventually pays off.
His production company took my spec script and hired me. They gave me two weeks, but I wrote it in two hours and waited a week to show them. I didn’t want to come off as being too excited; I wanted to play it cool. [laughs] I sent it back to them and it took two years before “The Proud Family” actually got picked up. That’s why I stayed in LA temping and holding on for it to get picked up. I actually went home to visit my parents and told them that I have to move back because I didn’t know how I could survive any longer in LA. Temping was too inconsistent. Ironically, about 20 minutes after talking to my parents, I get a call from Bruce Smith and he says, “We got picked up by Disney for 26 episodes!” [laughs] It’s crazy, but that’s how it happened.
You incorporate diversity into your work a lot; was that something you always wanted to do?
Absolutely! As a child, when I looked at television, I realized there wasn’t enough that spoke to me. The shows that I grew up on were shows like, “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family”. But, my favorite shows were “Different Strokes” and “Facts of Life” because I saw at least some representation of myself in these shows. I also watched “The Jackson 5” and “Fat Albert” cartoons because that was all there was for black kids to identify with on TV. Not that I didn’t enjoy shows where there were no black characters; it’s just that my viewpoint was from a kid who was growing up half Puerto Rican and half African-American in the projects in Brooklyn. My world wasn’t just one race of people. I grew up around Italians, Indians, Asians, and Jews too. I witnessed so many different cultures and television didn’t reflect my reality.
I had a love for the arts and I wanted to see some changes, but what got me thinking was the show, “Benson” (Robert Guillaume). Benson was the butler to a governor and he asked the little girl, Katie (Missy Gold), what she wanted to be when she grew up. I don’t think anyone had ever asked me that so, that question stayed in my mind. I’ve always wanted to create shows that gave kids of all races a character they could identify with. Do I understand the politics and the control of it all? Absolutely! Am I afraid of it? No!
What advice would you like to share with women who are trying to make it in TV & Film?
Don’t look at the obstacles because, if you do you’ll be discouraged. Just do whatever you do to the best of your ability. It’s not enough to just be good, you have to be excellent at it. The only way to do that is to continue to sharpen your skills, and quite frankly, do it. You cannot sit around and wait for people to give you an opportunity these days. When I see statistics that say there were 250 top grossing films made and only 18% were dominated or held by women, it forces me to focus on the vision that I have in front of me and go for it. If you get bogged down with the obstacles that you are facing you will never get out of your seat. Just turn a blind eye to the obstacles and keep pressing forward