Abbott Elementary’s Sheryl Lee Ralph Originally Wanted To Play A Different Character, But Quinta Brunson Had Another Idea

Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) on Abbott Elementary
(Image credit: ABC)

After winning her much-deserved Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy, Abbott Elementary’s Sheryl Lee Ralph has been basking in her win. Along with her historic victory, she also Ralph won the night with her powerful acceptance speech. Viewers have loved watching her play as veteran teacher Barbara Howard, and she's clearly great in the role. But it appears the award winner had her eye on a different faculty member at first.

Before scoring gold as Mrs. Howard, the sitcom vet read Quinta Brunson’s pilot script and wanted to play the inept and smart-mouthed principal Ava Coleman. That role eventually went to co-star Janelle James, who scored her first Emmy nom in the same category that Sheryl Lee Ralph was nominated in this year. While Ralph campaigned to play the Abbott Elementary principal, Brunson saw the Hollywood icon as the no-nonsense kindergarten teacher. With that, Ralph revealed to Variety how the series' creator persuaded her to play Barbara:

She was just short of [saying,] ‘Oh, hell no!’ She said, ‘We need a queen for Barbara Howard. And you are that queen!’ And I was just like, ‘Baby, if you put it that way, How do I say no? What else do I need to know about that? I’m going to be the queen. I love it. Yes, I’m ready.’

All Quinta Brunson had to do was flatter the stage and TV veteran into playing Mrs. Howard. Anyone who’s a Sheryl Lee Ralph fan knows she is an elegant and regal performer with an outgoing personality. So on the surface, Ava seemed to fit better with her outgoing nature. But I think it's safe to say that Brunson made the right call in tapping her for Barbara. In all honesty, the role is honestly a natural extension of another character Ralph once played, that of beloved principal and stepmom Dee Mitchell, from classic sitcom Moesha.

Despite her initial apprehension, the Tony nominee called playing Janine’s work mom “an incredible gift.” She further opened up to Variety about how she channels Mrs. Howard is in every episode:

I was like, ‘OK, I’m a very accomplished actress, I can do stuff.’ It’s the strangest thing, [but] it was the absolute perfect direction. I really try to keep that in mind every time Barbara comes to life. Just bring it down. Just deliver it. And so many teachers, oh my god, the way they’ve been responding to the character. They say they feel seen. They feel respected.

Having real-life teachers compliment her portrayal in the hit comedy speaks to Sheryl Lee Ralph's cerebral nature. And as a result of her efforts, Mrs. Howard has become a symbol of everyday teachers along with the rest of Abbott Elementary’s characters. (The comedy series has already paid it forward, too, as Quinta Brunson used the marketing money to help real-life teachers.)

It's great to see that the star's on-screen work has paid off with an Emmy winning. Now, she can place her award by her bed as she shared when asked where she’d put the Emmy, ahead of her win. Her win was also vindication for being told she shouldn’t kiss Tom Cruise in a movie and fired from a TV pilot for not being Black enough. We love a queen, and here's hoping more awards lie ahead in her future for Abbott and more.

Fans will get to see Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Mrs. Howard again when Abbott Elementary Season 2 premieres on September 21 at 9 p.m. EST on ABC. Based on what's been shown thus far, viewers should expect even more quirky and fun adventures from the lovable characters. On that note, you catch up on the first season by getting a Hulu subscription.

Adreon Patterson
News Writer

A boy from Greenwood, South Carolina. CinemaBlend Contributor. An animation enthusiast (anime, US and international films, television). Freelance writer, designer and artist. Lover of music (US and international).