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With ‘Abbott Elementary,’ Sheryl Lee Ralph is finally getting her flowers

Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, 65, said her Emmy nomination for “Abbott Elementary” was meant “to happen right here, right now, at this time.” (Sean Black)
9 min

Sheryl Lee Ralph didn’t plan on preaching today. But how else can you describe what the veteran actress is doing from her Southern California backyard via Zoom? Sure, Ralph is just talking, peeling back the layers of her decades-long career and delighting in her first Emmy nomination at 65 for her role in “Abbott Elementary.” But she does not simply speak. She emotes. She inspires. She preaches.

“I’m here to enjoy my life. I am here to respect the journey,” said the actress, looking prototypically regal in athleisure and a ball cap emblazoned with the Jamaican flag. “When people say, ‘Oh, this whole Emmy [nomination] should have happened much earlier’? No, it was supposed to happen right here, right now, at this time,” she added, slapping her patio table as if it were a pulpit.

“As far as I can see, the sky is the limit,” she continued. “Better days are ahead, and everything will work out for me just the way they are supposed to. Because nothing that is for you will miss you. It just will not.”

For those who’ve been captivated by Ralph since her 1981 Tony-nominated Broadway debut in the musical “Dreamgirls,” gobbling up her steady work in television (“Designing Women,” “Moesha,” “Ray Donovan”) and film (“The Distinguished Gentleman,” “Sister Act 2”), it’s hard not to imagine Ralph with a different career — one marked with little golden statues and the phrase EGOT (an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner) trailing her name. But the actress banishes that type of thinking.

“That doesn’t enter the chat. If I was supposed to be EGOT, I would have been. And just because I’m not EGOT now doesn’t mean I won’t be later,” she said.

Awards are nice but not the point. And yet when the news of her Emmy nomination came last month — delivered while she was on vacation in her late mother’s native Jamaica — “all of a sudden, my whole career shot in front of me,” Ralph said.

With more than 100 credits to her name, a handful of roles stand out.

Barbara Howard is the one you’re probably most familiar with. The queenly kindergarten teacher played with Ralph’s signature diva-come-down-to-earth aplomb on “Abbott Elementary” seems tailor-made for the actress, but it wasn’t.

Quinta Brunson, creator and star of the hit ABC mockumentary, said she knew she wanted an actress who had the feeling of “requiring respect that wasn’t mean or harsh,” someone who simply got what they deserved.

‘Abbott Elementary’ could make Quinta Brunson a household name

“I needed the essence first,” Brunson said. “Sheryl had that, and on top of that she’s a fantastic actress. That’s something I felt like the world had forgotten. She’s beloved, and she’s in our hearts — and she’s also a fire-a-- actor.”

Which is why Ralph’s genuine disbelief when receiving accolades for best supporting actress for the role was both gratifying and grating; it was a career milestone that was both well deserved and long overdue for an actress with her experience and reputation.

“I am the performer that can tell you about an actor’s true journey. What it is like to hold on to my peace. What it is like to hold on to my confidence. What it is like to come up the rough side of the mountain and know that better days are still ahead. Oh, yeah,” she said with the timbre of a minister.

Ralph’s fans in the industry said her legacy, despite still being very much in progress, is one of staying power.

“Sheryl makes her opportunities,” said Sara Finney Johnson, co-creator of the ’90s sitcom “Moesha,” which co-starred Ralph. “It wasn’t about awards, it was about the work. She should have had all these things long ago, but I don’t think that was her concern — it was just keep grinding. She deserves every flower and that Emmy.”

The role she considers “one of the greatest” of her career came 45 years ago. It was the mid-’70s, and Sidney Poitier cast a 20-year-old Ralph in his buddy comedy “A Piece of the Action,” co-starring Bill Cosby. In her first movie, Ralph plays Barbara Hanley, a disaffected teen living in a rough part of Chicago who has had, in the character’s own words, enough with all the “bourgeoisie bulls---.” Barbara delivers a scathing monologue midway through the film that wannabe actors still perform.

“That was a performance I didn’t know that I had, and it showed me that I could do this,” she said. “My father saw it and said, ‘I know you’re an actress because I don’t know who that little girl is.’ ”

It was a watershed moment. But the advice Poitier gave the budding star after the project wrapped could have easily made her quit the business: “I am so sorry this industry has nothing more to offer you, because you deserve it.”

The Oscar winner knew Hollywood wouldn’t be a hospitable place for a girl like Ralph — young, Black and talented. But instead of letting that deflate her, she used it as fuel.

“My mother and my father were very instrumental in preparing me for life,” she said. “They were always letting me know that there are hurdles, and you’ve got to be ready to jump. Just because ‘no’ is no today doesn’t mean it won’t be ‘yes’ tomorrow. Going to Hollywood, I was just like, wow, now I see what this was all for. It was rough.”

Robert De Niro would echo the same sentiment 15 years later on the set of the 1992 comedy “Mistress,” about a screenwriter forced to put his financiers’ girlfriends in his picture. Ralph plays De Niro’s girl, Beverly, an actress with actual talent. By then, Ralph had already experienced the whiplash of being the toast of Broadway and being told by La La Land casting directors that she was either too Black or not Black enough. The actors were in between takes when the “Raging Bull” star turned to her and said, “You are good. You’re like, really, really good. You better climb that mountain and wave the red flag because they are not looking for you. They are not looking for the Black girl, and you should be seen.”

She never switched to the white flag of surrender. Ralph became known for playing women with a distinct type of dignity: Barbaras and Beverlys who were poised no matter what happened around them — crumbling schools, unruly stepchildren, wizened gangsters — delivering an “above-it-all” air minus the disdain.

“It’s rare when an actor knows how to both be a diva and also play against that and normalize herself,” explained David Hollander, showrunner for the Showtime series “Ray Donovan.” Ralph starred in several episodes as Claudette, the longtime love of “retired” gangster Mickey Donovan (played by Jon Voight). “What makes Sheryl so compelling to watch, in my opinion, is that she can walk that line between her power and formality.”

Hollander was looking for a “funny, powerful, alluring” actress to play Claudette. “We also needed an actor who could be raw, believably hold the history of her own complicated backstory, and who had the talent to come and play with Jon Voight and the rest of the spectacular cast,” he said. “So, Sheryl Lee Ralph.”

“So, Sheryl Lee Ralph”: the increasingly obvious answer to the question of who can play a layered character with equal parts authenticity and aspiration.

“I don’t think people in positions — I don’t think their eyes were open enough to be able to see you, much less see your talent or see what it is you have to offer to the industry,” Ralph said of the Hollywood bigwigs who were gatekeeping when she first arrived. “Now I guess people have awakened to being able to see Black people, and that’s a shift in the industry, a good one.”

The actress could barely keep count of the number of successful projects she appeared in that were promptly dismissed as “flukes.” “No, it wasn’t a fluke,” she said. “It was success, it was excellence, it was talent. But people just could not see it.”

Now, thanks to “Abbott Elementary,” people finally are.

“No matter what, I thought she deserved Emmy-worthy television material,” said writer-producer Brunson. “It made me really confident in myself for being able to deliver on something I said I would do. It made me trust myself.”

Brunson herself is part of the legacy that Ralph, who has a track record of working with young Black women on the rise (Brandy in “Moesha,” Lauryn Hill in “Sister Act 2”), is actively building. If she’d quit all those years ago, then where would they be?

“I was never going to give up because somebody was trying to tell me how valuable I was not,” Ralph said of her early years. “Obviously they did not know me and they didn’t know my people and they didn’t know where I come from. So they got it all wrong.”

Ralph, who didn’t come here to preach today, is preaching again nonetheless. “Give up? Are you kidding me? They might not get it now, but they will see. Oh, yeah, they will see. I always believed that. Always.”


A photo caption in a previous version of this article misspelled Deborah Burrell's name as Debra. This article has been corrected.