black-ish's Jenifer Lewis Is a Scene Stealing Grandma

Michael Logan
black-ish Jenifer Lewis
ABC

She Plays: Ruby Johnson, the Satan-fearing grandma with a studly young boyfriend on ABC's black-ish. “When I’m Ruby, I’m representing the middle-aged black woman,” Lewis says. “We’re the salt of the earth. We tell it like it is. And some days we’re a hot mess!”

Where You've Seen Her: After an early break as one of Bette Midler’s saucy Harlettes, Lewis was Will Smith’s Aunt Helen on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and did six seasons as Lana Hawkins, the no-baloney receptionist on Strong Medicine. She also played mom to Angela Bassett in the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It?, even though the two actresses are just a year apart in age. “At this point, I’ve played everybody’s mother and that includes Tupac Shakur, Whitney Houston, Taraji P. Henson, Morris Chestnut and Kevin Hart,” says Lewis. “I loved them all and they loved me. When I’d come on set, they’d all part the waters for this old broad. Correction: For this old, sexy broad.” For the record, she’s 59. “And proud of it,” Lewis says. “Next year, when I hit 60, I am gonna blow it out!”

MILES BROWN, JENIFER LEWIS, MARSAI MARTIN, black-ish

Patrick Wymore/ABC

Lewis with her black-ish grandkids, Miles Brown and Marsai Martin

Why We Love Her: This bodacious force of nature zigs when other funny ladies zag, but her unpredictability does cause problems. Says executive producer Kenya Barris: “We fry our brains trying to decide which take to use because Jenifer will give us 10 different choices—each funnier than the other! She is a comedy savant.” But JLew also layers those laughs with a deep, seen-it-all soulfulness that’ll be on full display in the February 24 episode “Hope,” centering on an LAPD police brutality verdict that could trigger race riots. “Ruby does not want the news hidden from her grandkids because people of her generation never thought they’d see race relations this bad again,” Lewis says. “I predict this episode will go down in TV history, right along with the one we did on the N-word.”

Best Bette: Lewis was on the road with the Divine Miss M when the superstar fainted backstage during a concert in Denver. “The altitude got the best of her,” says Lewis, “but I was trained that the show must go on, so I went out and sang ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ and the audience was, like, ‘What the hell? Why is the black lady singing Bette’s song?’ When we got to the next city, Bette came up to me and said, ‘I hear the other girls are calling you Eve Harrington!’ She loved what I’d done! We’ve been great friends ever since.”

Gone Girls: How’s this for a wild show-biz factoid? Lewis was Michael Bennett’s original choice to play Effie White in Dreamgirls and performed the role in the workshop production of the landmark musical. But when the show went to Broadway, Bennett gave the part to Jennifer Holliday, who went on to win the Tony and have a mega-hit with Effie’s anthem “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Did Lewis have a meltdown? Don’t bet on it. “First of all, no one knew at that point that Dreamgirls was going to be big,” Lewis recalls. “To me, it was just another show and I had another job to go to. I was fearless back then. I had hit New York like a meteorite. For my first Broadway audition, I did a back bend while singing an Ethel Merman song and held the note for damn near two minutes. So, no, I didn’t let the Dreamgirls thing get me down. I was unstoppable.”

Open Book: Lewis is busy these days with her memoir, to be published next year by HarperCollins. “I’ve kept a day-to-day journal since the seventh grade, so something in me always knew this day would come,” says the actress, who’ll open up about her impoverished youth and her battle with bipolar disorder. Her life motto? “When the elevator to success is broken, take the stairs, honey!”

black-ishWednesdays, 9:30/8:30c, ABC