TAB 191121 Julia Roberts-1574320750627
FILE PHOTO: 76th Golden Globe Awards - Arrivals - Beverly Hills, California, U.S., January 6, 2019 - Julia Roberts. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo Image Credit: REUTERS

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

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

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

“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.’”

Howard declined to name the executive or the studio.

Tubman was born into slavery in the 1820s in Maryland. As a young adult, she escaped by running nearly 100 miles through forests and fields. She risked her life repeatedly to return to Maryland and lead slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

Howard said he had never given up trying to get the film made, and was boosted after the extraordinary success of ‘Black Panther’, the first Marvel superhero film to feature a predominantly black cast. He said: “It’s no accident Harriet went into production nine months after that release.”

It is thought Roberts was never made aware of the idea of her playing Tubman — in 1994 she was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.