The late-’90s sitcom classic “Moesha” finally became available on Netflix recently, and for star Sheryl Lee Ralph, who played Dee Mitchell (the title character’s stepmom), it has been a revelation.
“Young people who never saw this show are reaching out to me and telling me they are longing for something like this,” Ralph said. “They want to see themselves. They want to see happy people — they want to see a happy family and a happy Black family, you’d better put respect on that part.”
Ralph’s breakthrough as an actor was on Broadway in the 1981 musical “Dreamgirls,” for which she won a Tony Award, and her career hasn’t stopped since. She’s also an entrepreneur, with her own lipstick line coming out in October, as well as the author of a memoir, “Redefining Diva: Life Lessons From the Original Dreamgirl.”
But there were bumps along the way.
“When I got to Hollywood, I was happy with myself. That’s how I am. I’m happy with my Black self, you know? I’m happy with my hair, I’m happy with the shade of my skin, I’m happy with the size of my lips — I’m happy with myself as a Black woman. Growing up people can be very unkind, telling you you’re this, that or the other.”
She later discovered that it wasn’t just children who would do that. In the mid-’70s, she was hired for a role in a spinoff of “Sanford and Son” called “Sanford Arms.” “And after the first table read, they fired me because I wasn’t Black enough. I have not the slightest idea what they meant, but they said I wasn’t Black enough. They needed someone with more whatever.”
Up to this point, Ralph had been landing only guest roles on TV. To be hired as a cast regular on a new show was a big deal.
“A very big deal! And when they fired me for not being Black enough, I was so choked up. After the table read, I called my agent from a phone booth, and that’s when I got the news. And I remember my heart stopped, and I was sobbing and weeping and trying to be brave.”
The show’s producer was Bud Yorkin, who, in addition to “Sanford and Son,” produced a string of hit shows with Norman Lear, including “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “Good Times.”
“I called Mr. Yorkin and was begging for my job, but he was not hearing it. And Mr. Yorkin was a big shot in Hollywood. It was awful. I was so brokenhearted. My spirit was almost broken.”
But there’s more to the story: Years later, after she had established herself as a star, she was at a Hollywood event where she bumped into Yorkin. When she asked if he remembered her, he said, “I will never forget you. My firing you was one of the worst mistakes of my career, and I’m sorry.”
“So when a big shot tells you, ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake,’ that’s very meaningful. This was a big, white powerful man in Hollywood. A lot of these men don’t tell you sorry for bumping into you, much less I’m sorry for having hurt and devalued you in that way.”
In retrospect, she thinks it made her a better actor as well as a better person. “It has made me stronger. It has made me an empathetic human being because I understand people’s pain and struggle. I’ve been there.”