Original "Dreamgirl" and Uniondale native Sheryl Lee Ralph has returned to television in CBS's new series "Fam," which also stars another Broadway veteran, Brian Stokes Mitchell. In a stage and screen career spanning 40 years, Ralph, 63, has more than a new sitcom to talk about, including a 2017 run as Madame Morrible in "Wicked," at the Gershwin. She was the first African-American to play Morrible, nefarious headmistress of Crage Hall, over "Wicked's" 15-year run.
Quickly, here's the Ralph backgrounder: Born in Connecticut and raised in Uniondale, from Uniondale High School she went on to Rutgers and from there to "Dreamgirls" as Deena Jones — Deena Jones and the Dreamettes from "Dreamgirls" were roughly based on Diana Ross and the Supremes. A long run in movies followed ("The Perfect Gentleman") and a longer one in TV. Her best known role over that run, undoubtedly, was Dee Mitchell, the mom in "Moesha," from the late '90s, earning her the moniker "Moesha's momma." Since then, Ralph has made a specialty of moms (see: "Fam").
A longtime AIDS activist, she's married to a state senator from Pennsylvania, Vincent Hughes. Also this: The thoroughly modern Ralph has launched her own talk show podcast, "Diva Defined with Sheryl Lee Ralph" (you can get it on iTunes). Recent guests include Chandra Wilson of "Grey's Anatomy."
Now, "Fam" (CBS/2, Thursdays, 9:30): It's about a recently married couple (Nina Dobrev, Tone Bell), a teen half-sister (Odessa Adlon), and the husband's parents (Ralph and Mitchell) and the wife's dad (Gary Cole).
I spoke recently with Ralph about all this and more. An edited version of our chat:
How important was Uniondale in your upbringing?
It was an incredible time in my life. I'm the child of an immigrant — my mother is Jamaican — so I was always back and forth, going from one island to another just about the same size.
It's unusual enough when primetime has one seasoned Broadway musical star, exceedingly rare when there are two in one series. Can viewers expect a duet at some point?
One of the executive producers had no idea [both were stage veterans]! Didn't have a clue! (Laughs) But who knows [about that duet]?
Since before and after "Moesha," I'm guessing your TV career has had something like 30 credits, most of them fleeting. What's your philosophy about TV?
I've always loved the magic of being on stage [but] after "Dreamgirls" (1981-85) it seemed so long — like two years — before the next project came up that anyone would even consider casting someone like me — that's why "Wicked" was so exciting to me, to know that a show like that would be so open-minded in terms of casting. You go back 30 years, you didn't even see Asian people playing Asian characters in 'Miss Saigon.' You see how rigid the thinking was back then. There was nothing for me, nothing for a young black girl, then I got a call from a big casting agent at CBS who said 'can you be out here next week?' "
Your favorite series of your career?
The one show I really enjoyed doing was 'Designing Women.' It was a job I went after and literally collared the producer and said to him, 'your show is based in Atlanta, Georgia and you're going to tell me that after all these years, you don't have any black women for these women to meet?!" (Laughs).
There were those old tabloid reports about a "feud" between you and Diana Ross. True or bogus?
Let me tell you something — sometimes people create something that is not there. I never had a feud with Diana Ross. Never, never, never. What happened is what I said (Ross turned her back on her in a restaurant). I met her on a bad day. That's it [but] it still comes up. It's like me and Beyoncé. I made the mistake of never getting to meet her and talk about making the [2006 Bill Condon-directed adaptation of 'Dreamgirls,' which also starred Jamie Foxx]. Yes, I was disappointed I didn't get to talk to her, but I wouldn't have tried to tell her how to play the role (of Deena) but merely wanted to be able to hand it over...But the next thing you know, I'm 'upset' because I never got to give her direction. I'm like, 'you all, please, she has done very well without any direction from me.'
There's a so-called "diversity push" on in Hollywood at the moment which can scarcely reverse the years — decades — when blacks struggled to get work in front of or behind the camera. How is this New Hollywood working out for you?
I've done so many characters in the last year alone that would never have been offered to me in the past. I had to hang in there and continue working, continue believing that there was a place for me in this industry. Some people said just wait — maybe your time will come, or maybe you should do something else, but the right thing was waiting, and in fighting for times like this, and in speaking up. Thank God I did.