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De Passe, Suzanne

De Passe, Suzanne


The entertainment executive Suzanne de Passe grew up in Harlem. She guards her private life carefully, and as a result little is known about her early life and career. De Passe apparently was working as a booking agent at the Cheetah Disco in New York when she met Berry Gordy, then the head of Motown Records. Her strong criticisms of Motown's business operations, delivered directly to Gordy, earned her a position as his creative assistant. Until 1972 she served as road manager, costume designer, and choreographer for the Jackson Five, then Motown's newest sensation. She was also responsible for signing the Commodores, who went on to become one of Motown's most popular singing groups during the 1970s.

In the 1970s de Passe became increasingly involved with Motown's theater, television, and film productions. In 1971 she helped write Diana, the first production by Motown's television and theatrical division. That project was so successful that the next year Gordy named de Passe corporate director of Motown's Creative Production division and vice president of Motown's parent corporation, positions that allowed her to work almost exclusively in television and film. De Passe was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing the Motown-produced film Lady Sings the Blues (1972).

In the late 1970s Gordy began to entrust de Passe with the fastest-growing and most profitable divisions of Motown. In 1977 she was promoted to vice president of Motown Industries, another television and film subsidiary, and in 1981 she was named president of Motown Productions. Under de Passe, the budget for the company grew from $12 million in 1980 to $65 million in 1989. She won Emmy Awards for Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (19821983) and Motown Returns to the Apollo (19841985).

By the early 1980s de Passe was considered one of the rising black female Hollywood executives. In 1985 her reputation soared further after she paid $50,000 for the rights to Lonesome Dove, the Larry McMurtry novel about a nineteenth-century cattle drive. The project had been rejected by every major Hollywood studio. De Passe sold the telecast rights for Lonesome Dove to CBS for $16 million, and by 1989 she had produced an eight-hour program that won seven Emmy Awards and drew one of the largest audiences ever for a television miniseries. In 1990 de Passe produced Motown 30: What's Goin' On.

In the early 1990s de Passe started a new company, de Passe Entertainment, and produced the five-hour miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992). During the same period she also served as co-executive producer of the film Class Act. Scoring another hit, she joined with Hallmark Entertainment in 1998 to produce the well-received four-hour miniseries "The Temptations." In 2004 de Passe announced plans for another such effort, to be produced jointly with NBC. Based on Berry Gordy's autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, the docudrama will relate the phenomenon of Motown from the perspective of its founder.

Considered one of the most powerful black female executives in Hollywood, de Passe won a 1989 Essence Award, and was inducted into the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame in 1990. That same year, de Passe received a Micheaux Award for her contributions to the entertainment industry.

See also Gordy, Berry; Jackson Family; Recording Industry


"Motown Executive Brings Western to TV." Afro-American (February 4, 1989): 3.

Mussari, Mark. Suzanne de Passe: Motown's Boss Lady. Ada, Okla.: Garrett Educational, 1992.

jonathan gill (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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De Passe, Suzanne 1948(?)–

Suzanne de Passe 1948(?)

Music and television executive

Booked Talent for Disco

Scripted Bittie Holiday Film Bio

Grabbed Rights to McMurtiy Novet


Suzanne de Passe remains remarkably little known in view of her impressive list of accomplishments. As an executive at Motown records during the companys second set of glory years in the 1970s, de Passe nurtured the careers of some of the greatest entertainers of the modern era, including Michael Jackson and Commodoress lead vocalist Lionel Richie. As one of Hollywoods hardest working and most respected independent television producers, she brought to fruition one of most-watched and most artistically acclaimed television miniseries of all time, the eight-hour Western epic Lonesome Dove, broadcast in 1989.

Suzanne Celeste de Passe was born around 1948, to West Indian parents in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Her parents divorced when she was three, but her father, a salesman for the Seagram liquor firm, continued to play a strong role in her life after his remarriage six years later. Ambitious from an early age, de Passe attended a private school (the New Lincoln School) in New York, and set her sights on becoming a writer. Majoring in English, she attended Syracuse University, and then transferred to Manhattan Community College.

Booked Talent for Disco

She had talents outside of school, though, and these grew so fast that they ultimately took precedence over the completion of her college education. While still in school, she had held down a job at New Yorks fashionable Cheetah Disco; there her ear for new music and musicians impressed the management so much that she was hired as talent coordinator, a position that gave her invaluable experience in both mechanics and the artistic side of the music business. From the Cheetah Disco, de Passe moved on to New Yorks Howard Stein talent agency, and at a party she met Berry Gordy, who would become her mentor and the most important inspiration behind her own creative career.

Gordy at the time was riding high as the founder and chairman of Motown Records, the pioneering Detroit label that brought black popular music to a level of nationwide success that it had never before achieved. After hiring de Passe in 1968 and bringing her to the companys new headquarters in Los Angeles, Gordy groomed her in the creative side of the business. Though known as a stern taskmaster, he was patient

At a Glance

Born 1948 in New York, NY; raised in Harlem neighborhood; of West Indian descent: married actor Paul Le Mat, 1978. Education: Attended Manhattan Community College.

Carreer : Music, television, and film executive. Became assistant to Motown Recordsfounder Berry Gordy, 1968; began to work in talent acquisition for Motown, 1970s; became director of West Coast creative division of Motown, 1970s; became vice president of Motown-Industries, 1970s; became president of Motown Productions, 1981; produced award-winning CBS-TV miniseries Lonesome Dove, 1989; founded de Passe Entertainment 1992.

Addresses: Office President, De Passe Entertainment, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Ste 640, Los Angeles, CA 900363697.

with his new charge. Gordy let me mess up a lot of things ]and] spend a lot of his money, de Passe told Forbes magazine.

Not far into her twenties, de Passe worked to develop new talent as the vice president of Motowns West Coast creative division. One day she encountered a unique act consisting of five singing brothersthe Jackson Fiveheaded by an incredibly energetic youngster. I was just knocked out, de Passe told People. There was this little guy ]Michael Jackson] attacking some of the most mature R&B material that existed. De Passe honed her management skills as she supervised the Jackson Fives music and choreography, and must be given considerable credit for the initial flowering of Michael Jacksons mercurial career.

Scripted Bittie Holiday Film Bio

The multitalented de Passe put her writing skills to work on another major project for Motown: she was the co-writer for the 1972 Billie Holiday film biography Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross. She rose through the ranks at Motown, becoming vice president of Motowns West Coast division, and then vice president of Motown Industries as a whole. Some of the work was rewarding and glamorous, but some was less so: in the 1970s, one of de Passes duties was to act as go-between for Gordy and vocal diva Diana Ross, then a much-publicized show-business pairing. It was a highly combustible situation, de Passe recalled in a People interview. Despite the touchiness of the duty, Ross and de Passe became good friends; the singer served as matron of honor at de Passes 1978 wedding to actor Paul Le Mat.

Lending her writing and production abilities to two other Motown-generated stage productions, Mahogany and The Wiz, de Passe was rewarded for her ability to realize so many complex projects when she was named president of Motown Productions in 1981. This new division of the company was intended to broaden the music-oriented companys reach into television and movies. Starting modestly with several television movies, de Passe gained recognition for producing the Motown retrospective Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, the first in an ongoing series of Motown television specials that continued to bring the company revenue through associated music album releases. Even after leaving Motown, de Passe produced specials recognizing the companys 30- and 40-year landmarks.

In 1989, de Passe raised eyebrows with a daring move: she produced a CBS television network miniseries of Larry McMurtrys sprawling Western novel, Lonesome Dove. The odds seemed stacked heavily against the seriess success: most observers thought that in those early days of video and cable competition for television, a four-night, eight-hour presentation was doomed to failure. It also seemed that de Passe, an urban-raised woman who had devoted her life to African American culture, might have been an unlikely choice to helm a project steeped in the lore of the old West.

Grabbed Rights to McMurtiy Novet

But de Passe had read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in manuscript even before it reached publication, and, according to Forbes, instantly saw in it a modern-day classic. While other studios held back, discouraged by the books length, de Passe had cannily snapped up the television and movie rights to the book for a mere 50,000 in 1985. Her judgment was vindicated when Lonesome Dove won rave reviews, top ratings, and Peabody, Golden Globe, and Emmy awards. The one event that marred de Passes triumph was the bankruptcy of a company associated with the making of the film; de Passes own fee was among the casualties.

Yet de Passe has been known to sacrifice part of her own pay at times, in order to help bring success to projects she is committed to. There is a streak of creative idealism in de Passes character: a writer herself, she has done what it takes to bring projects to completion, even with uncertain financial underpinnings. In this business, if you believe in something enough, sometimes it requires a gesture to get other people involved, she told Newsweek.

She founded her own company, de Passe Entertainment, in 1992, but continued a close association with Motown, She produced other successful programs based on McMurtrys novels, branched out into weekly programming with the ABC network series Sister, Sister, and continued to created and produce projects that told parts of the always compelling Motown story. One of these, a two-part 1998 program on the career of the Motown vocal group the Temptations, had a budget of over 16 million.

A true leader, de Passe has been the focus of two studies of her personal management style, conducted by the Harvard Business School. Compared with other influential entertainment-industry figures who find their lives made the stuff of gossip columns, de Passe has gained less recognition and perhaps less remuneration. Ive made a lot more money for others than for myself, she admitted to Newsweek in 1998. I cant retire. American entertainment, however, has been all the richer for her contributions.



Henderson, Ashyia N., and Shirelle Phelps, eds., Whos Who Among African Americans. 12th ed. Gale, 1999.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book IL Gale, 1996.


Forbes, January 23, 1989, p. 58.

Newsweek, November 2, 1998, p. 48.

People, March 22, 1991, p. 64.

Time, January 30, 1989, p. 51.

James M. Manheim

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