'Abbott Elementary' 's Sheryl Lee Ralph Says She Was Fired From a TV Pilot for Not Being 'Black Enough'

The star reveals what happened, and the "horrible" way it made her feel, in the new issue of PEOPLE

Sheryl Lee Ralph
Photo: Jeremy David

Sheryl Lee Ralph is currently riding high as part of the ensemble cast in ABC's hit sitcom Abbott Elementary, but there was also a time she was dropped from a TV pilot because a producer told her she wasn't "Black enough."

The 65-year-old actress opens up about the painful memory in this week's issue of PEOPLE, as she recounts the highs and lows of her 45-year career.

Reflecting on trying to make a name for herself in 1980s Hollywood, Ralph says, "People's thinking was not very inclusive. You [had] directors who were still trying to tell you how to be Black."

"I was fired from a pilot because the producer told me I was 'not Black enough,'" she recalls. "Those were his words. It was horrible. I can still remember the way I felt."

Despite the painful comment, the actress says she remained positive. "It's all about the lens that you see through," notes Ralph, who plays Abbott Elementary's firm but loving kindergarten teacher, Barbara Howard.

Sheryl Lee Ralph
Sheryl Lee Ralph with her Abbott Elementary costars, Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams. Gilles Mingasson/abc

Ralph's comment comes a month after she told the co-hosts of The View that a casting director once questioned if she was capable of being a romantic lead opposite a major movie star like Tom Cruise.

"[I] had a memorable audition with a big casting director who looked at me and said, 'Everybody knows you're a beautiful, talented, Black girl. But what do I do with a beautiful, talented, Black girl? Do I put you in a movie with Tom Cruise? Do you kiss? Who goes to see that movie?'" she said during her March 4 appearance.

When asked to reveal the name of the casting director, Ralph declined.

"Why bother? Look at me now," she said, before adding, "But I left that audition with some of the best ammunition. Everybody knew I was a beautiful, talented, Black girl and I should be in the movies with the likes of a 'Tom Cruise', and he should kiss me."

Ralph's attempt to break into Hollywood came after her Broadway success as one of the original cast members of the musical Dreamgirls, for which she received a Lead Actress Tony nomination in 1982. (She played Deena Jones, who was portrayed by Beyoncé in the 2006 movie version.)

In the 1990s, she became a series regular on the teen sitcom Moesha, playing Dee Mitchell, Brandy's stepmom. However, she left the show after five years, following a dramatic plot twist that saw her onscreen husband Frank (played by William Allen Young) reveal that he secretly had a son, Dorian.

For years, Frank had lied to his family, telling even his own children that the teen (played by Brandy's real-life brother Ray J) was his nephew.

"I didn't understand why anybody felt it was necessary to destroy the family," Ralph says of the show's storyline.

Sheryl Lee Ralph
Brandy and Sheryl Lee Ralph in the teen sitcom, Moesha. Paramount Television/Courtesy Everett Collection

These days the actress — who has two adult children, Etienne, 30, and Ivy-Victoria, 27 — is loving being part of the Abbott Elementary family as they tell the story of an underfunded Philadelphia school and its devoted teachers.

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"We fit together like a zipper," Ralph says of her colleagues, which include costar and show creator Quinta Brunson. "We just lock perfectly together, and it is a dream come true for all of us."

Abbott Elementary airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC.

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