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Shonda Rhimes: the force behind Grey's Anatomy.

IN theory, it probably shouldn't even be on television. After all, ER, a longtime ratings winner, has started seeing audience erosion as reality and cable TV medical shows proliferate.

But ABC believed in Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey's Anatomy. That's why the show not only got the green light as a mid-season replacement series last January, but it also became an instant hit.

The show, a medical drama set in a Seattle hospital focuses on the day-to-day struggles associated with those who are trying to become doctors. What sets Grey's Anatomy aside from other medical shows is its mixture of medicine and a large dose of personal relationships. (The show features Isaiah Washington, Patrick Dempsey, Sandra Oh, Justin Chambers, T.R. Knight, Chandra Wilson, James Pickens Jr., Katherine Heigl and Ellen Pompeo.)

"I'm a medical junkie," says Rhimes, who created the series and also serves as writer and executive producer. "I love to watch all those surgeries on the Discovery Channel and TLC (The Learning Channel). And I thought there was something really sexy about surgery in the sense that they're kind of cowboys. It's the only job where you literally hold a beat of a heart in your hands. On a bad day, you'll kill someone, and on a good day you save lives."

Rhimes, a 30something Chicago native, points out that she got a chance to go into hospitals and observe surgeries taking place. "I thought that was thrilling! When you're standing over a table and looking into someone's body, you can be so fascinated by the workings of the human body."

Grey's Anatomy is literally her product from start to finish. She offers that a movie is a director's product for the public. "If you watch a movie that I've written [she's scripted numerous hit movies], chances are it's not what was in my head. It's what's in the director's head. That's not a bad thing, but with this show, every episode is what was in my head. So, I feel very gratified creatively."

Sure, the series is a collaborative effort, but Rhimes still has the ultimate say. She approves the scripts from the writers, participates in the casting and selects all the music used in the show.

And she makes sure the show represents the diversity of her world, pointing out that there can be a Black chief of surgery and numerous women about to become surgeons. "That's the real world," she says. "And with casting, I don't care what color they are. If a Black man comes in and he's great for a part and a White woman comes in and she's great for the part of his wife, well then, suddenly it's an interracial couple. And I don't care. It's about who's the most talented getting the parts."

Rhimes is a polite, low-key professional who loves the collaborative process. However, she does have a steely determination to avoid stereotypes and deliver positive messages. During the early days of the production, she recalls issuing what she called a "mandate."

"I remember everybody in the room looking at me like I was crazy," she says. "But I was like, 'There will never be any Black drug addicts on our show. There will never be any Black hookers on our show. There will never be Black pimps on our show.' A lot of shows feel the need and enjoy stereotyping, and we're going the other way. [Perpetuating stereotypes] isn't something I'm interested in promoting."

What she is interested in promoting is good writing and good, motivational stories. Writing has been her world since growing up in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest South. She utilized her love for the written word at Dartmouth College, where she wrote fiction. After graduating, she says she was in a quandary. "I got out of college and my mother, who is a university professor, and my father, who is a university administrator, were like, 'Please do something with your life other than starve as a writer,'" she remembers.

So she moved to San Francisco, where an older sister lived (she is the youngest in a family with three older sisters and two older brothers) and took a job in advertising. It paid money, and she got a chance to write, but the problem was she hated it. "I was basically writing stuff that people turn away from," she says. "So ! thought I'd apply to film school. I applied and got into USC and really loved it."

She recalls it was an exciting time when Spike Lee was making well-received movies, Whoopi Goldberg was a hit on Broadway, and Bill Cosby was television's biggest star.

However, success didn't embrace her overnight. Sure, she had an agent after graduating, but little else. She worked as an administrator and later at a center that taught mentally ill and homeless people job skills. The latter job was rewarding and offered her enough flexibility to contemplate writing. However, she says, it was across the street from a crack cocaine house.

Luckily, her writing skills soon began impressing the powers-that-be in Hollywood. "I wrote a script and it went on the market in the morning, and I thought if it didn't sell by the afternoon I was going to leave Los Angeles and do something else. I was tired of being hungry, tired of starving. At the end of the day, it sold."

Rhimes wrote a script for the NBC sitcom Scrubs. Soon afterwards, she hit paydirt when she was selected to pen the script for the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge with Halle Berry.

In addition to writing, Rhimes got a chance to immerse herself in information while researching the life of one of Hollywood's most enduring legends. "It was a wonderful experience. I traveled to meet all these people in Dorothy's life," she says. "I learned a ton about Black Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s and how Hattie McDaniel and all these people would have wonderful parties and all of them would hang together. And Halle was fabulous."

Both parties, she says, were totally committed to the project. "Halle said to me, 'Make Dorothy who Dorothy should be and I will do my best to become who Dorothy was.' I thought she was amazing."

Since Dorothy Dandridge, her writing has really been in demand. Soon afterwards, she was approached to write a movie for a teen idol whose name and music were totally alien to her. That idol was Britney Spears. Rhimes flew to Chicago to meet with Spears and toured with her before writing the script for the film Crossroads, about youngsters on a road trip chasing dreams. "It was fun to see what it was like to live like a superstar," she says.

Rhimes also got a chance to work with a superstar she had admired all of her life, Julie Andrews, when she wrote the script for the hit film Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.

Beyond writing for such a legendary actress, Rhimes was impressed with the message the film's producers were trying to convey. "It was fun sending out a message that I thought was really great, a message that you don't need a man to run a country, or run a business, or run your life."

Empowering girls and women while not bashing men is another focus of her efforts. This is her take: "It's fabulous to have a partner. But if you don't, you're going to be fine. I think a lot of women spend a lot of time waiting to have a life until they have a man. Twenty years ago, women waited to buy real furniture until they had a man. That doesn't happen anymore. I'm absolutely not anti-men."

But Rhimes is a doting mother of a 3-year-old adopted daughter, who is the focus of 100 percent of her time away from the studio. The studio, however, requires more and more of her time. She currently has a three-picture deal with Disney Studios as well as an arrangement with Touchstone to develop other television shows.

Those kinds of challenges are time-consuming, but the writing projects are a warm and constant reminder that she is, on a daily basis, embracing so many of the dreams she conjured up as a child.
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Author:Collier, Aldore
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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