Sheryl Lee Ralph has enjoyed a versatile career in film, on television, and on stage including starring on Broadway in “Dreamgirls” and co-starring with movie icons Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Robert DeNiro, and now she has returned to TV with Tia Mowry-Hardrict in the new sitcom “Instant Mom” which debuted September 29 on Nick at Nite.
Ralph, who portrayed Jennifer Hudson’s mother in “Smash” and Brandy’s mother in “Moesha,” plays the mother of Mowry-Hardrict’s character, party girl Stephanie, whose life is turned upside down when she marries and becomes a stepmom to three children.
“I was born to be a mother,” says Ralph who has two children in college. “My character Maggie is a hurricane in a dress. I’m outrageous.” Looking at her own life she says, “The sad thing is that I only have two kids, but no more. It is so good to have an empty nest.”
Ralph was destined for stardom out of her family nest in Long Island, being named Miss Black Teen-Age New York, and at 19 becoming the youngest woman to graduate from Rutgers University. From college she made her film debut in 1977 opposite Poitier, Cosby and James Earl Jones in “A Piece of the Action.” and Poitier called her “one of the finest young actresses he had ever worked with.” For her role with DeNiro in “Mistress,” he praised her saying, “You really deserve some kind of an award for this performance.”
The former Dreamgirl has starred in numerous TV series including “ER,” “Designing Women,” “Search For Tomorrow,” and “It’s A Living,” She has an equally impressive film resume including “The Mighty Quinn” with Washington and “The Distinguished Gentleman” with Murphy.
Ralph has also distinguished herself as a leader in the fight against AIDS with her DIVA (Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware) Foundation. Numerous stars including Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack, Natalie Cole, Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Holliday, Patti Austin, Faith Evans, and Fergie of The Black Eyed Peas have performed at her Divas Simply Singing AIDS benefit concert. Her 23rd annual event will be held October 12th at Club Nokia in Los Angeles. It is the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the country.
“People still ask me why do you do this?,” says Ralph. “I do it because I saw people suffer and die, get sick and drop dead. I saw what it was like when there was no help to come. I care because I’m a human being.” Ralph, whose mother is Jamaican, is the newly appointed AIDS Ambassador for Jamaica’s Ministry of Health. For her crusade for AIDS awareness, she was honored with the first United Nations Red Ribbon Award. She was also recognized as one of the “Fierce & Fabulous Women in America” by Essence magazine.
Ralph now divides her time between homes in Los Angeles, and Philadelphia where her husband, Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes is based. This summer she appeared in the new Showtime series “Ray Donovan,” and she remembers her husband was not pleased by her steamy kiss with Jon Voight. “He was not happy. He was molded. But give me a break. I was acting. I don’t have feelings for this man. The kiss, no tongue, no open mouth. But I did love my character Claudette in ‘Ray Donovan’ because it was 360 degrees away from my role in ‘Instant Mom.’ Most actors don’t get that opportunity.”
One opportunity Ralph desired but did not receive was a cameo role in the movie version of “Dreamgirls.” She was especially disappointed that she did not meet Beyonce who portrayed the lead role of Deena Jones she originated on Broadway and earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress In A Musical.
“I was hurt,” Ralph admits. “People were doing everything to prevent me from meeting her. Why did they want to keep us apart? It was if they were saying my contribution was not significant. I never met Beyonce. I love Beyonce, She is a Diva fabulous. Her hair gets caught in a fan, she’s calm. She gets slapped her on her butt on stage, she’s calm. I love her.”
As a 36 year veteran of show business, Ralph utilizes every opportunity to pass on her keys to success to young women. “I want to motivate girls,” she states. “I tell them they are smart, beautiful, there’s nothing wrong with you. I ask them to look in the mirror and love what you see.”
Ironically it was one of Beyonce’s co-stars in “Dreamgirls” who has been most inspired by Ralph’s career, Academy Award and Grammy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson. “It was great having the opportunity to play her mom on ‘Smash,'” says Ralph. “She was very kind and gracious. I walked into my trailer that first day of shooting and in the room was a huge arrangement of flowers. It was so big that it was obvious either the flowers had to go or I had to go because we both couldn’t fit in the room together. She was very sweet. She had a note in there that said, “To Ms. Ralph, you are all I aspire to be.”
That bouquet announced that the baton has been passed with “smashing” success from the original Broadway Dreamgirl Sheryl Lee Ralph to movie Dreamgirl Jennifer Hudson.