Hollywood executive once suggested Julia Roberts take the role of Harriet Tubman

Nick Allen
The pitch came in 1994 - REUTERS

Hollywood once considered trying to get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman, the 19th Century black anti-slavery crusader, it has emerged.

The idea was floated 25 years ago as studio executives considered making a film about the iconic abolitionist.

A biopic called "Harriet," starring black British actress Cynthia Erivo, was finally released this month. Gregory Allen Howard, screenwriter and producer of the film, said the suggestion of casting Roberts was made to him by a studio executive when he first tried to get the movie made in 1994.

He said: "Picture 1994: 'This is a great script. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,' said the then-president of a studio sublabel.

"Fortunately, there was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman. "The president replied, 'That was so long ago. No one will know that.'”

Mr Howard declined to name the executive, or the studio.

Tubman was born into slavery in the early 1800s in Maryland.

As a young adult, she escaped by running nearly 100 miles through forests and fields.

She then risked her life repeatedly to return to Maryland, and lead slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

Mr Howard said he had never given up efforts to get the film made, and there had been movement after the extraordinary success last year of Black Panther, the first Marvel superhero movie to feature a predominantly black cast.

He said: "It’s no accident that "Harriet" went into production nine months after the release of "Black Panther".

It was not thought Roberts was ever made aware of the idea of her playing Tubman. In 1994 she was one of Hollywood's biggest stars. "Pretty Woman" had been released four years earlier.