How Motown Corraled ‘Lonesome Dove’ : Executive Suzanne de Passe cut the others off at the pass

Before the premiere of the CBS miniseries “Lonesome Dove,” the question Motown Productions President Suzanne de Passe found herself answering most was: “Why is Motown making a Western?”

Now, a week after the critically acclaimed adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel scored a coup for the No. 3 network as the highest-rated miniseries of the past five years, a more likely question might be: “How fast can Motown make another Western?”

Before “Lonesome Dove,” the miniseries form was considered nearly dead--particularly after last November’s lackluster ratings for the first half of ABC’s 32-hour, $110-million epic “War and Remembrance.” The Western genre was in even further disrepair: CBS’ own effort to bring it back this season with the low-rated family series “Paradise” proved once again that reviving the TV Western is beating a dead horse and buggy.

Besides, wasn’t Motown a black record company--best known for launching such stars as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and the Four Tops? Isn’t it the company that began a slow financial decline following its move from Detroit to Los Angeles, finally leading to the sale of the Motown Records Corp. to MCA Inc. for $60 million last year?


And isn’t Motown Productions the weakest arm of a weak company, which cashes in on its musical roots with a few music specials such as “Motown Review” and “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever,” some failed TV movies and maybe an occasional lousy feature film such as the 1985 karate love story “The Last Dragon”?

De Passe, who joined Motown in 1968 as the 21-year-old protege of company patriarch Berry Gordy, is tired of answering the question “Why did Motown make a Western?"--but she hopes the success of “Lonesome Dove” will help prove that the other assumptions about Motown are untrue, including the assumption that Motown has some obligation to concentrate solely on black projects.

“I try to be patient with that, because I’m a realist--I know the culture we live in requires that question be answered,” said De Passe, 42, in a conversation at Motown Productions offices in Beverly Hills. Along with the reporter, De Passe pulled out a tape recorder for the interview--she is collecting material for an autobiography she will write someday.

De Passe wearily anticipated the question “Why did Motown make a Western?” answering it before it was asked following weeks of quizzing prior to the debut of “Lonesome Dove” about whether producing a TV miniseries with a predominantly-white cast--and no music, except in the background--changes Motown’s image for better or worse.

“I don’t think we’ve broken the (Motown) mold; I think we’ve expanded it,” she said. “I think people should be free to do and create anything that turns them on, and I think Motown Productions would be accomplishing a great deal if what our mold became was great entertainment.

“What I think is interesting,” De Passe continued, “is why no one asks Carsey/Werner (the white producers of NBC’s top-rated “The Cosby Show”) why they’re in business with Cosby, and nobody asks Simpson and Bruckheimer (the white producers of the “Beverly Hills Cop” films) why they’re in business with Eddie Murphy. It’s very interesting that I have to answer for the black company that does projects (starring white actors).

“I guess it’s because the people who are asking me the questions are more fascinated with what appears to be an encroachment on what has heretofore been pretty much their domain--rather than in any way to think they may have encroached on someone else’s domain.”

Added De Passe brightly: “I say let’s forget all the boundaries and let’s just go for it.”

And Motown intends to do just that, she maintains, without worrying that the company might be criticized for having surrendered its social conscience by breaking into the mainstream. “I think, at some level, if we concentrate on problems as opposed to solutions, then you just create more problems,” she said. “It’s not smart for me, Suzanne, to get vested in what’s wrong with something to the point where I can’t remember why I got into it in the first place.”

De Passe said she’s discovered that the bottom line in show business has more to do with money than racism. “I’ve always said that the greatest racism in Hollywood has to do with what color ink you produce: Black or red,” she said. “It’s one time that black is considered very good.”

De Passe hopes “Lonesome Dove” will help convince Hollywood that Motown Production’s ink is definitely the color of money. “I’ve already gotten some lovely calls from people who say, ‘I want to be in business with you,’ ” she said. “I’m hoping . . . more great material will find its way to us or we’ll find our way to it , now that we have more credibility established.”

Credibility was definitely not yet established when De Passe first asked author Larry McMurtry if he had any available manuscripts--just before “Lonesome Dove” was published. “We were sort of the last-chance saloon,” she said, laughing. “Motown was hardly the first place the manuscript was sent.”

McMurtry told her he had a book--but that she wouldn’t like it because it was a Western. “I told him I did like Westerns, and I do,” De Passe said. “He said, ‘You’re welcome to read it--call (McMurtry’s agent) Irving Lazar. And I did--and the next day, the mailroom wheeled in a dolly truck of the (2,000-page) double-spaced manuscript of ‘Lonesome Dove.’ ”

Although the book had already been rejected by major studios all over town--after all, it was a Western, and even worse, a long Western--De Passe loved it. And because no one else wanted the lonesome book, De Passe optioned it for $50,000 in the spring of 1985. When the book netted the Pulitzer for fiction the following spring, its value increased to such a degree that Motown was able to garner a whopping $16 million from CBS for the right to telecast the story. De Passe was the co-executive producer of “Lonesome Dove” with Bill Wittliff, who wrote the screenplay.

De Passe also sold a 50% profit interest in the project to Qintex Entertainment in exchange for a $1 million fee, plus an agreement to provide the other $4 million needed to produce the $20-million film for CBS, given in exchange for a percentage of eventual profits from cable, home video and foreign sales.

Just as De Passe plucked “Lonesome Dove” out of a sea of possible investments, so Berry Gordy picked 21-year-old New Yorker Suzanne de Passe out of total obscurity.

In 1966, at the age of 19, she had dropped out of Manhattan Community College to work as talent coordinator for a New York night club, called the Cheetah. As part of her job, De Passe became friends with former Supreme singer Cindy Birdsong, a contact that later led her to Gordy; she became an unofficial New York escort for the Motown entourage.

“I would take them out, and they would pick up the check--it was a very good system,” she said. “Berry Gordy and Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong and some of their entourage, and sometimes Mary Wilson. I would walk into places I used to go and have the Supremes with me--it was unbelievable.”

Gordy got to know De Passe. He decided she was smart. He hired her to work for Motown. Two months later, she was still sitting in New York, getting paychecks from Motown, but not doing anything. She timidly called Detroit to ask if Gordy had forgotten her.

“What do you think I am, stupid?” Gordy growled. “You think you’re not worth waiting for? When I have something for you to do, I’ll let you know.”

Finally, Gordy called. De Passe’s first assignment: Watch Smokey Robinson and the Miracles perform and critique their act.

“I said that some of it was quite corny,” she said. “One day, I was standing on line at (New York’s) Apollo Theatre waiting to see the Motown Revue, and the next day I’m telling Smokey Robinson what’s wrong with his show.”

From there, De Passe headed for Detroit, where she “cried all the time” as she tried to fit into the Gordy family’s clannish business. “He would say to me: ‘This will either make you or break you,’ and sometimes I was convinced it was going to break me,” she said.

Having risen through the ranks from wide-eyed creative assistant to vice president to president of Motown Productions--along the way netting an Academy Award nomination for co-writing the 1972 Diana Ross vehicler “Lady Sings The Blues,” plus multiple Emmys for producing Motown TV specials--De Passe still says the now-reclusive Gordy is just as difficult to work with as he was in 1968. She said Gordy moved deliberately out of the spotlight after the company’s move to Los Angeles, where De Passe now resides with her husband, actor Paul Le Mat.

“I think Berry Gordy is a genius, I really do, and it’s not a word I throw around lightly,” she said. “But with all that comes the idiosyncratic behavior of a self-made, talented, creative person, and that’s not easy to come up against. Plus, he’s very strong and dogmatic about what he believes--it’s not like he would never listen, but he was kind of like a bear coming through the woods, crash, crash, crash.

“So I consider myself a product of Berry Gordy, but not a clone. . . . He and I are always friends and colleagues and I will always revere him as a mentor and boss. Though, of course, I’m always struggling for more equal footing,” she added with a smile.

De Passe’s success with “Lonesome Dove” can’t help but make her footing just a little more equal to the illustrious Gordy’s.

De Passe said that, although last summer’s writers’ strike slowed Motown Productions’ aggressive effort to acquire new scripts, the company has several new projects in the works, including “Heat-wave,” a movie about growing up in Harlem, as De Passe did, in conjunction with Warner Bros.;"Bridesmaids,” a CBS-TV movie starring Shelley Hack and Brooke Adams (which airs Tuesday), and the ABC miniseries “Sacrifices,” based on the true story of an Oregon woman who murders her children.

“There are many, many great projects left to be done--and projects that don’t come up to greatness,” De Passe mused. “We cannot do projects that are our major contribution to the planet every time out.

“What I think happened (with the success of ‘Dove’), I feel, is that a lot of value was placed . . . on the audience’s appetite for quality. I think what ‘Lonesome Dove’ has done, or I hope it has done, is to say: ‘Look, you can get the audience if you aim high enough. Not low enough--high enough.”