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‘Abbott Elementary’ Star Sheryl Lee Ralph at 66: ‘My Life Has Been About Preparing For Longevity’

From youthful stardom on Broadway to her Emmy at 65, she has been sharing her wisdom — and crafting a life of joy

spinner image actress sheryl lee ralph photographed for a a r p
Photo by Emily Shur

Sheryl Lee Ralph’s career may be on fire right now, but the flame has been burning for more than 40 years.

“I’ve been at this since I was 19,” says the actress, 66. “That’s a whole lot of years.”

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Sitting in a vintage wooden classroom chair at the historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, Ralph radiates a disarming blend of self-confidence and warmth. And she comes by her confidence honestly. After becoming the youngest woman ever to graduate from Rutgers University, at age 19, Ralph won her first feature film role, beating out the director’s own daughter. That director? Sidney Poitier. TV parts followed — as did, in 1981, a starring role in the original cast of Broadway’s multiple-Tony-winning musical Dreamgirls. Since then, Ralph has starred opposite Denzel Washington in The Mighty Quinn, stepmothered Brandy for six seasons on Moesha and emerged as Jon Voight’s ex on Ray Donovan.

VIDEO: Emmy Winner Was Once Fired for Not Being ‘Black Enough’

Despite all that, it is her role as kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard, the prim voice of reason on ABC’s Abbott Elementary — renewed for a third season — that finally garnered Ralph her first Emmy, among a clutch of other awards, and introduced her to a much wider audience. (As have other gigs: You may have heard her perform “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” on the field before this year’s Super Bowl.)

What that wider audience is discovering is what longtime fans have known for years: Ralph is a veritable font of positivity and wisdom. She recently took time out from her schedule to talk to us about her philosophy, her long-dis­tance marriage and kids, and the long journey to her current success.

Q. How did you get involved with Abbott Elementary?

I knew the creator, Quinta Brunson, who plays a young teacher on the show. She’s just a genius to me. She has alchemy. I had worked with her on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, and she wanted me for the pilot of Abbott.

Then I read the script and loved that it was shining a light on educators. My husband, Vincent Hughes, is a state senator in Pennsylvania, and he has been talking about education for years. Why is it we don’t realize that all children in America deserve a great education? Their zip code should not determine whether they get that or not. And here comes this little show, focusing on teachers who make a daily sacrifice for children in a Philadelphia public school. I said, “Even if this is just a pilot, this is a pilot I want to do.”

spinner image sheryl lee ralph plays a respected educator on abbot elementary
Sheryl Lee Ralph earned an Emmy Award for best supporting actress in a comedy series for her role as kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard in "Abbott Elementary."

Q. How do you think comedy works to approach a serious subject like the problems in city schools?

You can tell the audience something very, very difficult and then make them laugh about it. After they laugh, they start to think. Once my character had a line about staying true to your principles despite criticism: “People have thrown dirt on my name. Others have given flowers. But it’s all a garden to me.”

Q. Quinta Brunson, the showrunner, is 33 years old. What’s it like to be led by someone that age?

For me, that’s what aging looks like. When I started as an actress, my road really wasn’t there. I had to bust rocks to create my road. And now that road is there for my kids and other people’s kids to travel. They might look at those broken rocks by the side of the road and say, “Wait a minute. If we melt that rock, we’ll have four more lanes.” That doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the fact that you busted those rocks. But this is their journey, too, now. You’ve got to celebrate that. Then you’ve got to get yourself a new car, so that you can ride on that smooth new road that they’re creating.

spinner image actress sheryl lee ralph wearing a blazer and slacks in a classroom
Photo by Emily Shur

Q. What rocks did you have to bust?

One thing I tried to do was challenge people’s assumptions about what a Black actress should look like. I remember one time in the ’70s, I had my hair braided and a director said, “Can’t you find a more natural hairstyle?” I had to ask him, “More natural for whom?” It’s hard to imagine today.

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I also sought roles that hadn’t been thought of — but should have been. In the early ’90s, Designing Women was a hit, but it was a show about Southern women with no Black women in it. I met Designing producer Harry Thomason at an event, walked right up to him and said, “You need a Black woman on your show.” The next day, he hired me.

When I was young, a lot of talented actresses inspired me: Virginia Capers, who won a Tony for the musical Raisin; Rosalind Cash from The Omega Man; Beverly Todd, whose films include Brother John and Lean on Me; Denise Nicholas from Room 222 — all of those Black women showed me that there was a chance for me. And I wanted to take that chance and do as much as I could with it.

Q. With the #MeToo movement, a lot came to light about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. Is that something you had to endure?

I have dealt with my share. Early on, I was being schooled and protected. But once, I was physically accosted, and it was horrible. It made me feel disgusting for quite some time. Even now when I think about it, it haunts me. And there were other times when things were expected. On a trip to Vegas with a producer, I was supposed to have my own room, but there was no room for me — just one room, just one bed. And he said, “This is all you have to do.” Oh, that’s all? Really? No thanks.

You have to know your bottom line. What are you willing to give up? If you turn down a proposition, sometimes they never call you again. That’s how it goes.

Q. You were raised in the Northeast but spent summers in your mother’s home country, Jamaica. How did that affect you?

In the United States when I was a child, they wanted to tell you about what you could and could not do as a Black person. My response was: You all need to travel more. Because in Jamaica I’d seen the Black doctor, the Black lawyer, the Black prime minister. I’d seen that the pilot on the plane is Black, just like me. That Black people are doing and have been doing great things. Sorry that you don’t know it.

Q. You credit your father for motivating you to take care of your health. ​What was his advice?

My father used to tell me, “You’re going to live a long time, so you’ve got to take care of yourself. Eat properly. Exercise.” My life has been about preparing for longevity. Finding my joy, making great choices for me, understanding that life is not always fair. Sometimes it’s your day. Sometimes it’s not your day. But if it’s a good day or a bad day, you’ve got to thank God because you got a day.

spinner image from left to right etienne maurice sheryl lee ralph vincent hughes ivy victoria maurice
Ralph with her son Etienne Maurice (left), husband Vincent Hughes (second to right) and daughter Ivy Coco Maurice (right).
Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Q. Tell me about your two children.

Children are my greatest gift. I knew I was going to be somebody’s mother. When I met their father, my first husband, I could see my children just as clearly as they are in life right now, and I said, “Oh, I know the assignment right here.” We got married and had our son, Etienne, and our daughter, Coco. The marriage lasted almost 10 years. If I had a regret in life, it would be that I didn’t have more children. But I have two beautiful children.

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Q. Your daughter now works as your stylist. How did that happen?

She majored in economics at Syracuse, and I thought she was going to go to Wall Street — she certainly had that skill. But she had always loved fashion. My mother was a fashion designer, and Coco was very influenced by her. When Coco told us she was going to be an influencer on social media after graduation, I thought I had wasted my money on tuition. But now, almost 10 years later, her career path is working for her. This has been a breakout year for both of us.

Q. You’ve had some scary moments as a mom, though. Can you talk about that?

When Etienne was in college, he had a car accident and suffered a concussion. It changed his whole brain. Then he got mugged, and they shot him three times. He woke up in the hospital with two bullets in his leg and a wound in his forehead where a bullet had grazed him. When I heard he’d been shot, I collapsed and dropped the phone. I didn’t even listen to the rest. But they didn’t kill him, thank God. Now he runs his own production company and nonprofit, WalkGoodLA, which is centered around healing, mental health and overall well-being.

spinner image sheryl lee ralph smiling and laughing in a peach sequined jumpsuit
Photo by Emily Shur

Sheryl’s Sage Sayings

  • “Live your life like you’re happy to be alive, because there is an alternative.”
  • “If something is meant for you, it will not miss you.”
  • “You have a voice, but if you don’t use it, you will lose it.”
  • “People don’t have to love you. But when you look in the mirror, you’d better love what you see.”
  • “You are wonderful just the way you are.”
  • “If you are given the gift of growing older, accept it with grace, because not everybody gets it.”
  • “Don’t you ever, ever give up on you.”

Q. You’ve been in a bicoastal marriage for nearly 18 years, with your husband’s home in Philadelphia and yours in L.A. How do you make that work?

You have to have an incredible amount of trust in that other person. We spend a lot of time talking to each other. But if he doesn’t see me every two weeks, he gets a little nervous. I married the man who has become my best friend.

When we met, I had these young children, and I appreciated that he did not try to insert himself as their father. He had his own children. My kids stayed close to their father, but they also had a friend they could talk to and confide in, and that was Vincent.

At the beginning, some people said, “Well, that’ll never last. These two, they’re nothing alike.” Almost 20 years later, guess what? Those people are not together. Us? We’ve got no problems. If you can get through the first 20 years, you will probably be OK.

Q. Have you ever lived in the same place?

Yes, during the pandemic. We were together 24/7, and it was absolutely great. I thought, Wow, I like this man.

Q. Do you ever envision living together full-time?

What do they say? People make plans, but God has the plan. We’ll just have to see.

Q. In the past year, you won your first Emmy, Screen Actors Guild Award and Critics Choice Award, among others. How does it feel to be recognized this way at this point in your life?

This has been an amazing year. I never keep a bucket list, but every time another award came through, my friends would say, “You checked another one off the list.” It just shows that if you really have a dream, you can make it come true.

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