"I didn't fully appreciate the scope," says the 'Days of Our Lives' star of winning an Emmy in 1987 for her role on the NBC sitcom '227'
Few people are as well-suited to look back on TV history as Jackée Harry — a woman who has made it.
The iconic actress — renowned for playing Sandra Clark on the '80s sitcom 227 — not only graced our screens for decades with unparalleled talent but also stands tall as the trailblazing first Black actress to clinch an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 1987.
Beating out Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls and Justine Bateman as Mallory Keaton on Family Ties, Harry, now 67, reflects on that evening in September 1987 in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE.
"I wasn’t aware that I could win or would win because I wasn't thinking that way," she says. "I was coming in hot — I knew that! But I didn't fully appreciate the scope. It was happening to me; I was observing it. In retrospect, now I know how important it was, but I didn't see it coming at all — but I did see success."
To this day, only two other Black women have won in the category. Sheryl Lee Ralph was recognized for her portrayal of kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard on Abbott Elementary in 2022 and last month, Ayo Edebiri won for her performance on The Bear.
Sandra Clark — Harry’s vivacious character from 227 and a social media sensation today — was a character she created with inspiration from Lucille Ball, Mae West and a friend with a nasal speaking voice. She admits the role came with its advantages and disadvantages.
"It was a blessing and a curse because people think I talk like that now, but it was formulated," Harry says. "Of course, I got typecast, but it works now."
Airing from 1985 to 1989, with the legendary Marla Gibbs leading the cast in a series set in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood, 227 propelled Harry to household fame during an era when there was a scarcity of television shows portraying Black communities. Looking back, she recalls a whirlwind experience.
"I just took it back then," she says. "It was the ‘80s; it was coming so quickly. I was making so much money. I had a great feeling of great wealth, great success and great accomplishment. I was a history teacher, so I knew it was important — Black history — but I didn't know it would sustain. Definitely, it felt ahead of its time."
227 wasn’t her only groundbreaking work during that time. This March marks the 35th anniversary of the game-changing miniseries The Women of Brewster Place, based on the 1982 novel by Gloria Naylor. Harry shared the screen with the late Cicely Tyson, Robin Givens, Lynn Whitfield and Oprah Winfrey, who also executive-produced the miniseries. The series tackled poverty, misogyny, same-sex relationships and the powerful bond among the Black women living in a tenement building on a street called Brewster Place.
"When you say groundbreaking, The Women of Brewster Place means so much to me," Harry says. "It meant more to me than 227 because I wanted to be a serious actress."
The poignant scene where the women break through a brick wall on Brewster Place holds vivid memories for Harry, who recounts the realness of that moment.
"We worked from the night into dawn," she remembers. "We didn't get off until six in the morning. We started at 10 o'clock that morning, and we worked through the day until the next day. I got sick after that; I got pneumonia. We cried. We laughed. We did it a million times, and the rain was pouring. It was real. It wasn't fake. We were sobbing. It was very stressful, but so satisfying when I saw it.”
After decades of further TV success, from Sister, Sister to Days of Our Lives, Harry is also beloved on social media for her hilarious interviews. Earlier this year, she went viral for her candid remarks on the challenges of dating, describing it as “horrible.”
When asked if things have improved, she quips, "A little bit!" before adding, "Yes, it's gotten better. Yes, keep hope alive!"
In addition to being hopeful in love, the proud mom and grandmother is also grateful for this busy phase in her career, calling it a "miracle." She remains a TV and movie fixture, with recent appearances including a 2021 guest spot on the TV series Pose and the 2023 film A Snowy Day in Oakland.
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“I thought I'd be retired, sitting on a beach in San Diego, having Mai Tais with young boys dancing on the table!” she says.
But that doesn't mean work comes first for Harry. “I'm learning to put my personal happiness in front of my career," she says. "That’s the most important thing that’s happened to me. That's my advice to young people, your personal happiness is important; put it ahead of your career, if you can. But if I had to do it again, I would still do it the same.”
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