It’s a long way from the Motown hit factory to the dusty trails of Lonesome Dove (1989), but Suzanne de Passe made that journey, achieving staggering success in the worlds of pop music, film, and television along the way. De Passe’s career began auspiciously in the late 1960s when she discovered and developed the legendary Jackson 5 while a young executive at Motown Records. In 1981, de Passe was named president of Motown Productions, where she focused on television production with a series of high-profile, critically lauded, and award-winning specials such as Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (1983) and Motown Returns to the Apollo (1985). Then in 1989, a particularly daring production from de Passe looked beyond the storied history of Motown records to a then-unpublished manuscript by Larry McMurtry in the unfashionable western genre: Lonesome Dove. The miniseries was a triumph, winning Emmy, Golden Globe, and Peabody Awards. In 1992, de Passe founded her own production company, de Passe Entertainment. Firmly established as one of the leading entertainment executives—her career is the subject of two case studies taught at the Harvard Business School—de Passe is frankly outspoken about her frustrations with the status quo, noting, “I find that what’s between me and my audience…is a white guy in a suit!”
Suzanne de Passe was born in Harlem, New York, to a schoolteacher and an executive with Seagrams, Inc. She attended the progressive New Lincoln School, which she credits for her assertive, self-assured approach to business. De Passe joined Motown in 1968 after being introduced to founder Berry Gordy by Cindy Birdsong, a singer with the label’s Supremes. It was in her capacity as “creative assistant” to Gordy that she became aware of the Jackson 5, a fledgling singing group distinguished by the soaring tenor of its nine-year-old front man, Michael. De Passe sold Gordy on the group after watching them perform in an acquaintance’s apartment. Charged with developing the group, de Passe shepherded the five brothers to worldwide fame. It was in this period that de Passe cowrote the screenplay for Lady Sings the Blues, the 1972 film treatment of the life of Billie Holiday, for which she earned an Academy Award nomination.
Gordy sold Motown Records in 1988, planning to focus on Motown Productions in an effort to expand into film and television production. De Passe was named president, and Time magazine inaugurated her as “one of the most promising new mini-moguls in Hollywood.” That promise was soon fulfilled, as de Passe came away from a chance meeting with author Larry McMurtry with the rights to Lonesome Dove. De Passe later recalled the meeting: “I asked him what he had kicking around the old trunk that hadn’t been produced on film. He told me he had a book coming out in June but didn’t think I’d be interested because it was a western. I told him on the contrary that I would be very interested. I love westerns and have been a horsewoman for a long time.” McMurtry was unable to interest any studios in making the project, but de Passe’s uncanny instinct for recognizing quality remained intact. Lonesome Dove became a landmark miniseries, critically acclaimed and award-laden. The production attracted such luminaries as Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Anjelica Huston and revived a moribund genre, inspiring several sequels. De Passe also produced a number of television specials honoring the Motown legacy, including the above-mentioned Motown 25 and Motown Returns to the Apollo, both winners of Emmy and NAACP Image Awards. De Passe personally won Emmy Awards for these two events, which were both culturally significant and tremendously entertaining programs. She also executive produced Small Sacrifices, a Peabody Award–winning miniseries adaptation of the much-admired book by Ann Rule.
De Passe formed her own production company, de Passe Entertainment, in 1992. Among her productions in this period were the situation comedies Sister, Sister and Smart Guy and the miniseries The Temptations (NAACP Image Award winner) and The Jacksons: An American Dream. In the Jacksons project, de Passe had the unusual experience of casting an actor to play herself. She chose the glamorous Vanessa Williams, noting, “I took no little amount of heat from my friends, like really Miss Thing!”
De Passe’s extraordinary career has been recognized with an American Women in Radio and Television Silver Satellite Award and her induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, among many other honors. She teaches at Howard University, where she holds the Time Warner Endowed Chair in Media, and continues to be an active presence in entertainment media.
Interview with Reel Images magazine