It’s easy to remember when Shonda first came on my radar — it was the same time she came on the whole country’s radar as the creative force behind Grey’s Anatomy. Right off the bat, it was clear that someone extraordinary had arrived on the television scene. Grey’s Anatomy, of course, would go on to become one of the most resounding successes in TV history, and Shonda became a major Hollywood figure in her own right. She did in my book.
Shonda’s a powerhouse. She didn’t waste any time expanding her repertoire. She spun off Private Practice, and you could see it shared a similar vision with Grey’s. She has a distinctive voice and perspective, and she knows how to tell a story. Both shows featured strong, conflicted women who were good at their jobs, loved what they did, and struggled to balance work, love and business. She was also tackling the issue of women’s empowerment. Shonda is a very serious woman with a lot on her mind, a lot of attitude, and a lot to say — and she does it absolutely brilliantly.
I was fortunate enough to meet Shonda a couple of times at television conferences and spend some time with her. What impressed me about her the most was how seriously she takes her job. I take the medium very seriously — I believe in how powerful it is. Shonda understands that as well, and uses it to address all sorts of important issues, including diversity and inclusion.
She’s also a truly lovely person. There is a smile on her face all the time. That may read to some people as 180 degrees from serious, but I see her as serious with a smiling heart and face.
Shonda has kept growing her empire, and as a result, she definitely has a lot on her plate running multiple shows, and she has a well-earned reputation for doing that incredibly well. From my own experience, I know that it is incredibly stressful. But there’s such a thing as good stress, and I imagine Shonda feels the same.
Over the years, I followed her career, read everything about her, and watched all her shows. Then it occurred to me — wow, this was someone who was always doing something interesting, and wouldn’t it be great to sit down and talk with her about the next great thing she could do? I reached out and set up a meeting over breakfast, and out of that came the idea of what we could do together.
Coincidentally with that came the call for America Divided. It would be a documentary series investigating all the issues dividing the country, like race and economic inequality. Before we knew it, the project came together. It would have a 60 Minutes format, but instead of investigative journalists, I would be one of eight celebrity correspondents covering a particular issue, with the idea we could use our celebrity as a platform to draw more attention and get more eyes on these important problems.
I also signed on as an executive producer, but I was the only one and we needed another. It didn’t take long to realize that Shonda, who was already addressing some of these issues in her shows, would be perfect, and she came on board. It all happened quite fortuitously.
If I had to sum her up in one sentence, I’d say that Shonda cares about the things that matter. I’d like to think I do as well. There’s a real heart and soul connection there.
Shonda Rhimes is a prolific television producer, screenwriter and author, best known as the creator, head writer, executive producer and showrunner of the ABC series Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. In addition to creating the Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Private Practice, she is an executive producer of ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, and served in the same capacity for the ABC series The Catch and Still Star-Crossed. Rhimes, who founded her own production company, ShondaLand, in 2005, announced earlier this year that she is embarking on a multiyear production deal with Netflix. She received the Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television from the Producers Guild of America in 2016.
Norman Lear, a writer and producer whose groundbreaking TV series include All in the Family, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time and Maude, worked with Rhimes when they both served as executive producers for the 2016 Epix docu-series America Divided.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Shonda Rhimes's induction in 2017.