In 2022, Sheryl Lee Ralph made history for winning the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her work as the graceful kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard in Abbott Elementary—making her the second Black woman to do so after Jackée Harry won in 1987, for 227. She subsequently stunned the world with her speech. Overcome with emotion, Ralph belted out a verse from Dianne Reeves’s 1994 song “Endangered Species,” singing to the crowd of Hollywood elites while clutching her trophy. The moment was a high point in the 66-year-old showbiz veteran’s career, which began with a role in the 1977 comedy A Piece of the Action, with Sidney Poitier, and includes a Tony nomination for her performance as Deena Jones in the 1981 Broadway production of Dreamgirls. Despite a general lack of roles—and appreciation—for Black female actors, Ralph has not only carved out an enduring legacy as a dramatic, musical, and comedic talent, but also maintained her optimism and determination through every up and down along the way.
This interview was conducted prior to the start of the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike.
How did Abbott Elementary come into your life?
Abbott Elementary came into my life quite by surprise. My daughter and I were crossing the campus of CBS Studios, and she was like, “Oh, that’s Quinta Brunson. You’ve got to meet her.” [Quinta] had just sold her first show. A few years later, she and I did A Black Lady Sketch Show together, and I was like, this wonderful young human being. Two or three years later, I get a call and she says, “Miss Ralph, I’ve got a brand-new show, and you are going to be perfect for it.” She was right.
Your Emmys speech was one of the greatest moments in the awards’ history. What was going through your mind at that moment?
It’s so interesting. September 12, 2022, I walked into that space a grateful and thankful Emmy nominee, and had I walked out of that space an Emmy nominee, I would’ve been very happy. But when Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers got up and said, “And the winner is: Sheryl Lee Ralph,” I lost my mind. I was in such a state of disbelief, so much so I don’t even remember how I got to the stage. To hear that thunderous applause all around me, I had to center myself. The only way I could really do that was to take myself right back home, which was the stage, the theater, and so I sang, “I am an endangered species, but I sing no victim’s song. I am a woman. I am an artist, and I know where my voice belongs.” Thank you, Dianne Reeves.
And your life changed in that moment.
I say to everybody, it took me 40 years to become an overnight sensation. The year that I have been having has been such an outpouring of love from people all over the world. Every artist should have a time like the one that I’m having. I’m happy it’s happened at this point in my career, because it is so much more meaningful to me right now.
But it must have been a big deal when you were on Broadway in Dreamgirls. You were nominated for a Tony.
Let me tell you, everything was a very big deal. Even at 24, I understood what it meant for people to show you that kind of wow, loving what it is you had created. For me, Dreamgirls was very special because Loretta Devine and myself were there with the project from day one, when there was no script, when it was just a seed of an idea. To have people come from all around the world because they just had to see your performance, it was just amazing. If I’d only had that in my career, but to now be able to bookend it with Abbott Elementary?
I don’t think it’s a bookend. It’s more like the middle of the shelf. You’re not done.
I thank you very much for that, because in my mind, there is more. This is just the beginning of the next phase, but I’m enjoying the phase I’m in.
Was there a television show that you loved when you were growing up?
I always loved Tinker Bell. Tinker Bell would rise up out of the screen, those little 12 inches, every Sunday night during TheWonderful World of Disney. In my mind, she was like this chocolate princess or something. But then I got a little bit older, and on the screen came this beautiful woman, Diahann Carroll, in a series called Julia. I was like, Wow, that is everything I want to be. Plus, Julia was my grandmother’s name.
Did you have any television or cinematic crushes?
So many. I loved Mr. Poitier. I loved Mr. Belafonte. There was this man called Efrem Zimbalist Jr. He was on one of those private detective shows. I just thought he was wonderful.
What was the first job you booked?
Right out of college, a Skippy Peanut Butter commercial. I always keep peanut butter in my cabinet to this day, because the choice was: go to graduation from Rutgers or shoot Skippy Peanut Butter. I made $30,000 from that first job. I put it in the bank, and because of that, I never had to do anything but hone my craft and work on building my career. Thank you, peanut butter and George Washington Carver.
You also met Sidney Poitier when you were very young.
Yes, I did. I was in Mr. Poitier’s company often. The very first time I met him, I was absolutely starstruck. My mother loved and adored him. My father loved to tell the story about how he missed his chance in show business to be the understudy of Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. Mr. Poitier was one of those people who, as good as he looked on camera, wow, he was just gorgeous off camera. Mr. Belafonte, the same thing—just a beautiful, wonderful human being.
Did they give you advice?
Mr. Belafonte I knew personally at different points in my life and career. Mr. Poitier, the same thing. I just didn’t see him as often. But [while] leaving the set of A Piece of the Action, my first film under the direction of Mr. Poitier, he said, “I am so sorry that the industry doesn’t have any more to give you, because you deserve it.” In many ways, I think I understood exactly what he meant. But he gave me this black box that I have to this day, with everything I was going to need from the makeup and hair department. He said, “Once you leave this space, there will never be that many people who are knowledgeable to give you what it is you need, so you better learn how to do it yourself.” I was like, Wow, you know what it takes to empower young people. What it took from him to pour into me as a 19-year-old, just starting off, encouraging me to take the climb in an industry that he believed I deserved to be in.
Hair by Carla Clarkson for HONEYBLOWOUT; makeup by Susie Sobol at PM Artists for Sobol Inc; manicure by Honey at Exposure NY for NAVYA Nail Lacquer; Set Design by Spencer Vrooman.
Produced by AP Studio, Inc.; Executive Producer: Alexis Piqueras; Producer: Anneliese Kristedja; Production Managers: Anna Blundell, David Duque-Estrada; Production Coordinator: Ellen Kozarits; Photo Assistants: Matt Yoscary, Josua Jimenez; Retouching: Matty So; Fashion Assistants: Tori López, Tyler VanVranken, India Reed, Tori Leung; Production Assistants: Linette Estrella, Ariana Kristedja, Alan Bell, Nico Marti, Ryan Qiu; Makeup Assistants: Tanya Marques, Riccardo Delgado; Manicure Assistant: Shani Newsome; Tailor: Lindsay Wright; Set Design Assistants: Will Cragoe, Christina O’Neil, Joseph Ahern.