ABC had a very different idea of Olivia Pope in mind, y'all.
After Scandal was ordered to series in 2011, creator Shonda Rhimes received a call from an ABC executive about who should play the white hat-wearing fixer. "I got a phone call from somebody who said, 'This would be the perfect show for Connie Britton,'" Rhimes told The Hollywood Reporter for its oral history of the series. "I said, 'It would be, except Olivia Pope is black.'"
Though Rhimes is known for her colorblind casting on her shows, she told THR that it was vital Olivia be black because "nothing felt more important than the sense of outsiderness" on the D.C.-set show. Not to mention the fact that Scandal is inspired by real-life crisis management expert Judy Smith, who is black.
"The network was reading us their top choices, and it was Connie and all white women," casting director Linda Lowy told THR. "I panicked. Somebody finally piped up, 'We're going to have to redo this list.'" Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose were among the actresses who tested for Olivia, but the part was Kerry Washington's "from the moment I took her to meet Shonda," Lowy says.
Washington became the first black actress to headline a prime-time drama series since Teresa Graves on Get Christie Love! in 1974 and only the fifth black woman to receive a drama lead actress Emmy nomination, when she earned her first of two nods in 2013. And who was also nominated that year? Connie Britton for Nashville. "This would have been a great role for Connie Britton!" Washington told THR.
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Olivia's race wasn't the only aspect of the show over which Rhimes clashed with ABC. She also details in the oral history how she pushed back on Olivia and Fitz's (Tony Goldwyn) affair, telling ABC brass: "'In Episode 6 or 7, this woman is going to have sex with the president in the Oval Office on the desk. So if everyone can't get behind that, then we shouldn't make this show.' They all gasped."
And when Standards and Practices wanted to excise Liv's abortion in a 2015 episode, Rhimes was ready to call their bluff. "I said, 'Go ahead, alter the scene. We'll just have a lot of articles about how you altered the scene,'" she said. "We had done an abortion on a military woman who had been raped earlier on, and we were doing nothing different than we did in that scene -- they just didn't like that it was happening to Olivia."
The moral of the story: Never fight Shonda Rhimes.
Scandal airs Thursdays at 10/9c on ABC.