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Rhimes, Shonda Lynn

Shonda Lynn Rhimes

1970—

Writer, producer, director

Shonda Rhimes is an award-winning film and television writer, director, and executive producer who is best known as the creator of the popular television drama Grey's Anatomy. At the age of four, Rhimes was already inventing stories and reciting them into a tape recorder for her mother to write down. By the time she was thirty-five, Rhimes had become one of the hottest writers in Hollywood, with several films and a top-ranked television series to her credit. However, as the first African-American woman to create and produce a top-ten series on network television, Rhimes made a much greater contribution to the entertainment industry than simply sharing her childhood flair for invention and drama. Grey's Anatomy introduced a level of casting diversity that had been previously unknown on prime-time television. Peopled with complex women and men from a variety of cultural backgrounds, the series drew a dedicated audience of nearly twenty million viewers.

Shonda Lynn Rhimes was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 13, 1970, the youngest of six children. Her father worked as a university administrator, and her mother worked at home caring for her family until her children were grown. She then returned to school, earned a doctoral degree in education and began work as a university professor. When Rhimes was three years old, her family left the city of Chicago and moved to the nearby suburb of Park Forest South (now University Park). Rhimes attended public school there until fourth grade, when she entered Catholic school, first at St. Mary's, then at Marian Catholic High School.

Rhimes's whole family loved telling stories, and she soon became an avid reader and an even more passionate storyteller, spinning her yarns into a tape recorder before she could write them down herself. In high school she volunteered to work as a candy striper at a nearby hospital, delivering flowers and food to patients and helping care for the newborn babies, always interested in the stories of human lives.

During the late 1980s Rhimes entered Dartmouth, a respected Ivy League college in New Hampshire. There, she continued to develop her creativity, writing fiction and graduating in 1991 with a degree in English literature. Upon her graduation, her parents, supportive of their daughter's talent, but concerned that she would never be able to earn a living by writing, began encouraging her to seek a "real" job. She decided to give it a try, and moved to San Francisco, where she took a job writing copy for an advertising agency. However, she found that she hated writing advertisements, chiefly because she believed that most people viewed commercials as something to avoid. Still drawn to telling stories, she decided to return to school and study writing for films and television. In 1994 she graduated from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television with a master's degree in fine arts.

Began Working in Film Industry

Even with her degree in hand, it took time for Rhimes to find work in the entertainment industry. She took a job as director of research for the 1995 film Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, while working constantly on her own writing. In 1996 she sold her first script, a lively pilot for a series about female war correspondents, to the Disney production company Touchstone Pictures, but it was never produced. Her second break came in 1999, when she was hired to write an HBO movie about Dorothy Dandridge, an African-American singer and actor who appeared on stage and in films from the 1930s through the 1960s. Rhimes's script, titled Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, was produced by HBO and won critical acclaim as well as a number of awards, including an NAACP Image Award for outstanding television movie in 2000.

After her success with Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Rhimes began receiving job offers. In 2001 she was hired to write a film for the pop singer Britney Spears. The resulting lighthearted road film, Crossroads, did not please critics, but did give Rhimes insight into the world of teenage pop culture. Next, Rhimes worked with musical film icon Julie Andrews on the film Princess Diaries II: Royal Engagement. As in Crossroads, Rhimes sought to add depth even to a lightweight film by focusing on the empowerment of her female characters.

As Rhimes began to achieve success in her writing career, she realized that in addition to professional success she also wanted a family. In 2002 she adopted a baby girl, whom she named Harper after the novelist Harper Lee. Staying home in the evenings to care for her daughter, Rhimes watched a lot of television. She appreciated the tight, sharp writing required for the medium, and she began to think that she could write a different kind of television show. She loved many of the popular shows, such as Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which explored the complexities of modern relationships, but she thought that most television shows were both too limited in their portrayals of women, and too white. With Harper on her lap, she sat at her computer and began to write a script.

Created Grey's Anatomy

Rhimes had long been a fan of medical shows, even watching real surgery performed on documentary or reality series, so it was perhaps natural that she set her new show in a hospital, with the goal of delving into the lives and minds of the doctors, exposing their humanity and their heroism. For her characters, she turned to the women she knew, using her strong mother as inspiration for tough, no-nonsense Miranda Bailey, and herself as a model for earnest, insecure Meredith Grey. The resulting show, Grey's Anatomy, about the romantic and professional predicaments of the doctors at Seattle Grace Memorial Hospital, was bought by ABC for production in 2005.

At a Glance …

Born January 13, 1970, in Chicago, IL; daughter of a university administrator (father) and a university professor (mother); children: Harper. Education: Dartmouth, BA in English literature, 1991; University of Southern California, School of Cinema-Television, MFA, 1994.

Career: Film and television researcher, writer, and director, 1995—; television series creator and executive producer 2005—.

Memberships: Writers Guild of America.

Awards: Best New Series, Writers Guild of America, 2006, Lucy Award for excellence in television, Women in Film, 2007, NAACP Image Award for outstanding writing in a dramatic series, 2007, and Television Producer of the Year in episodic series, Producers Guild, 2007, all for Grey's Anatomy; Time Magazine, 100 Most Influential People in the World, 2007.

Addresses: Office—Shondaland, 4151 Prospect Ave., Los Feliz Tower, 4th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90027; c/o ABC TV, 500 South Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91521; Agent—International Creative Management, 10250 Constellation Way, Los Angeles, CA 90067.

In a highly unusual move, Rhimes did not write race into any of her characters. When ABC picked up her script, hiring Rhimes as executive producer, she began to cast the parts, looking, not for actors of a particular ethnicity, but for the actor that best fit the part. "I just wanted a world that looked like the one I know," she told Oprah Winfrey in an interview in O, The Oprah Magazine. The resulting show featured the most diverse cast on network television and created a realistic world where African Americans, Asians, Latinas, and whites worked together with respect and friendship. Not content with mere diversity, Rhimes also had strict rules about racial stereotyping. In early writers' meetings, she announced that she would never allow scripts to include black drug dealers, prostitutes, or pimps.

Grey's Anatomy became an instant hit with audiences, attracting almost twenty million viewers, two-thirds of them women, who loved the multifaceted humanity of Rhimes's female characters as well as their open and independent attitude toward romantic relationships. During its first four seasons it ranked among the top ten most-watched television programs and won a number of awards, including an NAACP Image Award, a Producers Guild Award, and a Writers Guild of America Award for best new series.

Following the success of Grey's Anatomy, Rhimes continued to work on new projects in her campaign to broaden images of women and people of color on television. In 2007 she launched Private Practice, a spin-off of Grey's Anatomy, and she signed a contract with Disney to develop three movies. While Rhimes's approach to creating realistic works was well received by viewers and critics, colleagues such as Krista Vernoff, a supervising producer on Grey's Anatomy, believed that she deserved even wider recognition. Vernoff told Pamela K. Johnson in Written By that "What Shonda has done in terms of race on ABC … is revolutionary. With three black series regulars and an Asian patient, there might be no white people in a scene. That's quietly revolutionary. And she does this in such an unassuming way. Not coming in to scream and change the world but coming in to reflect the world as [she lives] it. That's going to have far-reaching ramifications."

Selected works

Films

Research director, Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, 1995.

Director, Blossoms and Veils, 1998.

Writer, Crossroads, 2001.

Writer (with Gina Wendkos), Princess Diaries II: Royal Engagement, 2004.

Television

Writer (with Scott Abbott), Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, 1999.

Creator, executive producer, and writer, Grey's Anatomy, 2005—.

Creator, executive producer, and writer, Private Practice, 2007—.

Sources

Periodicals

Broadcasting & Cable, February 27, 2006, p.5; May 30, 2005, p. 18.

Ebony, October 2005, pp. 204-06.

New York Times, November 7, 2007.

O, The Oprah Magazine, December 2006, pp. 320-28.

Time, May 22, 2006, p. 70.

Online

Johnson, Pamela K., "The Cutting Edge: Shonda Rhimes Dissects Grey's Anatomy," Written By: The Magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West, September 2005, http://www.wga.org/writtenby/writtenbysub.aspx?id=883 (accessed February 28, 2008).

Ryan, Maureen, "The Watcher: Shonda Rhimes, Creator of ‘Grey's Anatomy’ and a Chicagoan of the Year," Chicago Tribune.com, December 21, 2005, http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/entertainment_tv/2005/12/shonda_rhimes_a.html (accessed February 28, 2008).

—Tina Gianoulis

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