Sheryl Lee Ralph makes her own roles

January 04, 1993|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- Sheryl Lee Ralph, Eddie Murphy's larcenous cousin in "The Distinguished Gentleman," is described by the movie's director, Jonathan Lynn, as "immensely talented, very inventive and terribly funny."

So why has this 36-year-old actress been teetering on the edge of stardom for more than a decade?

Ms. Ralph answers with a story. When she first arrived in Hollywood, in 1977, a casting agent announced: "You're obviously beautiful and talented, but what do I do with you? Team you up with Tom Cruise? Do you kiss him? And who comes to see this movie?"

As a black actress, Ms. Ralph says, "you've got a choice of hooker, welfare momma, naked or dead.

"Look at all the white actresses who are unquestionably stars," adds Ms. Ralph, seated in the back room of the Ivy restaurant, a movie-industry haunt. "Now you tell me who is black and in that position? There's Whoopi. And only Whoopi."

Ms. Ralph competes with black actresses like Lynn Whitfield, Angela Basset, Alfre Woodard and Tyra Terrel for choice roles. "We're all out there looking for more challenging parts," she says. "When a black novel like 'Waiting to Exhale' gets optioned, we start praying."

The daughter of a Long Island school administrator and a fashion designer, Ms. Ralph came to Hollywood within months of graduating from Rutgers University (at age 19) with a major in English literature and theater arts.

Despite the casting director's warning, she got a role in Sidney Poitier's 1977 film, "A Piece of the Action," and small parts in several sitcoms, including "Sanford Arms." But movie parts were scarce, and when one of the "Sanford Arms" producers told her she was "too real and too serious and not funny enough or black enough," she decided to move back to New York.

There, she auditioned for Michael Bennett's Broadway musical "Dreamgirls," the tale of three young black soul singers, which was then in the early stages of development. "People said, 'Oh, that's about the Supremes,' " she says. But she says the show was improvisational. "Believe me, what's in there is what was in me at the time."

Mr. Bennett, who often criticized her work, "had some demons within himself," she says, "but I'm the better for it. When these film directors want to give attitude, I think, 'I've worked with Michael Bennett, so don't even bother.' "

The Tony Award-winning musical opened in 1981. Ms. Ralph, the lead singer, was hailed as Broadway's answer to Diana Ross and received a Tony nomination. (Jennifer Holliday, another "Dreamgirls" cast member, won.) "We spent all those hours as the toast of the town," she says, "and then, after the curtain, we'd get out on the corner -- and do you think a cab would stop for us?"

Some three seasons later, Ms. Ralph thought it was time to try movies again, but years would pass before she landed a big part in a movie. "The only black woman working in the '80s was Cicely Tyson," she says. "It wasn't that I was losing parts; it was FTC that there were no parts. Inside, I got so angry."

This time she turned her anger into a campaign. "I got in people's faces," she says. She landed her first major role in 1989, in "The Mighty Quinn," in which she played Denzel Washington's wife. In 1991, Ms. Ralph was a real estate agent in "To Sleep With Anger," Danny Glover's story about a black family.

Two years ago she married Eric Maurice, an importer of African art and textiles whom she met at Cannes, and a year ago her son, Etienne, was born. Her breakout leading lady role was supposed to come last year, with a Disney remake of "Mama, There's a Man in My Bed," a 1990 French comedy directed by Colline Serreau about a white executive who falls in love with a black cleaning woman.

Ms. Ralph and Richard Dreyfuss were within six weeks of beginning rehearsal when creative differences between Mr. Dreyfuss and Ms. Serreau halted the project.

Instead, "Mistress," a Hollywood satire that opened last August, gave her the chance to be noticed by the critics.

In it, she portrays an actress who loses roles because she is black and who is the paramour of a movie mogul played by Robert De Niro. "She can be kind of imperious," says Mr. De Niro of Ms. Ralph. "But once you get to know her, there's a softer, sweeter side." Ms. Ralph won raves for the part.

Of "The Distinguished Gentleman," which opened last month, Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that Ms. Ralph is "a joy" as Mr. Murphy's cousin in crime -- a woman who can impersonate a Swedish call girl on the phone or bluff her way through the stuffy bureaucracy of Congress.

Since November, Ms. Ralph has also appeared on CBS's "Designing Women" as the Las Vegas showgirl who lured Sugarbaker's Guy Friday, Anthony, to the altar.

She also runs the annual Los Angeles Children's Toy Drive with Mr. Washington and produces "Divas," a yearly benefit for minorities with AIDS.

In the last month, besides "The Distinguished Gentleman," three movies opened with black women in substantial roles: "Passion Fish," "Malcolm X" and "The Bodyguard." But Ms. Ralph is taking no chances.

She has set up Island Girl Productions, where she is developing a project called "Norah's Ark," a tale of what happens when an angel thinks "Noah" is a typographical error and puts the fate of the world into the hands of a feisty black woman.

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