Sheryl Lee Ralph Recalls Her ‘Rough’ Journey To Success

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Sheryl Lee Ralph says her love of acting started at a young age.

During a Feb. 25 appearance on “Sunday Sitdown With Willie Geist,” Ralph said she started to love acting after she participated in a Christmas concert at her junior high school.

“I sang ‘O Holy Night.’ I got the solo. And when I heard that applause, oh my goodness gracious,” she said. “It was like, mainline, mainline. Oh my God, I got to have it. Applause.”

Although Ralph loved being on stage, she knew her parents might feel differently about it if she told them that’s what she wanted to do as a career.

“My mother immigrated from Jamaica. And my mother would say, ‘Be a doctor. Be a lawyer. And if you can’t do that, then marry one,'” Ralph laughed while imitating her mother in a Jamaican accent.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God. I will never be a doctor. I will never be a lawyer. This is not happening in my life,” she said.


Willie Geist and Sheryl Lee Ralph
Willie Geist and Sheryl Lee Ralph.Nathan Congleton / TODAY

Thankfully, Ralph listened to her heart and decided to pursue acting. Throughout her career, Ralph has landed some big roles like playing Brandy’s mom in “Moesha,” Lola Quinn in “The Mighty Quinn” and Florence Watson in “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.”

However, none of those roles earned her an Emmy nod like “Abbott Elementary” did. In 2022, Ralph made history when she became the second Black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series.

“It took me 40 years. 40 years to become an overnight sensation,” she said.

For her acceptance speech, Ralph moved everyone in the audience when she sang Dianne Reeves’ 1993 hit song “Endangered Species.”

“I absolutely was in shock,” Ralph told Geist of the moment.

She added, “I had to center myself, ‘cause I was about ready to lose it and I just sang, you know? I had no idea how much it was going to reach people, you know? I’d never been invited to the Emmys before and the first time I’m invited, I win. I was like, ‘This is showbiz at its best. This is the good movie.'”

In “Abbott Elementary,” Ralph plays Barbara Howard, a beloved, no-nonsense kindergarten teacher.

“I love Barbara Howard, because she just represents so many teachers that I had, so many teachers that really believed in me as a student, who really said, ‘You don’t have them now, but you will have wings, and you must fly,'” she said.

Sheryl Lee Ralph
Sheryl Lee Ralph on “Sunday Sitdown with Willie Geist.”Nathan Congleton / TODAY

“You never forget those teachers,” Ralph added.However, it wasn’t only Ralph’s teachers who kept pushing her to succeed. The “Claws” star said she also got some inspirational advice from Robert De Niro.

“Robert De Niro and I, we were doing a movie together called ‘Mistress.’ And he said to me, ‘You’re a damn good actress, and that’s too bad because Hollywood is not looking for the Black girl. So you better climb that mountain and wave the red flag and let them know that you are there,’” Ralph recalled.

While Ralph admits her journey to success has been “rough,” she says she’s happy that she finally reached the top of the mountain.

“It’s like ride the wave, baby. All I have to do is be good, and more good just comes to me,” she said. “I know what lightning in a bottle is and I get to hold it in my hands. I’m blessed.”

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