Marla Gibbs had the sort of consecutive-series run that TV actresses dream of, jumping straight from 11 seasons on CBS as wisecracking maid Florence Johnston on The Jeffersons into five seasons on NBC as mother and wife Mary Jenkins on 227. Since then, she has continued to pop up on various other series—including a memorable turn as herself on an episode of Chappelle’s Show—as well as the occasional film role. On the occasion of reuniting with her former 227 costar Regina King for an episode of Southland, Gibbs spoke with The A.V Club, reflecting on her transition from office work to acting, hiding cookies from Isabel Sanford, and starting a supper club to help keep jazz alive.
The A.V. Club: For all your success as an actress, you didn’t really get into the business until you were in your 30s. In fact, you actually started out in business.
Marla Gibbs: That’s right. I went to business school in Chicago. Cortez W. Peters Business School. I don’t think it even exists anymore. [Laughs.]
AVC: You spent time as a receptionist and as a switchboard operator; what led you to make the jump to a career in acting?
MG: Well, I moved out to Los Angeles. My sister moved out here first, actually. She was in business. And I moved out here because I was in an unhappy marriage. So my children and I moved out, along with our dog, and I got involved in acting classes. I was working for United Airlines as a reservations agent on the telephone, but I went to workshops in the evening at the Mafundi Institute, and I got involved in plays and I got some good reviews. We also did the Watts Writers Workshop. Then I went to the Zodiac Theater, where Margaret Avery—the actress from The Color Purple—also had a workshop, which was very good. So I got an opportunity to do two or three plays there. And while I was doing that, my agent at the time got me an audition with The Jeffersons. It wasn’t the pilot, but the first show of the season. But, anyway, I got the job and the rest is, of course, history. Everybody knows the rest. But I stayed with United for the first couple of years while I was doing the show. [Laughs.] The show finally asked me, wasn’t I getting tired and did I still have that job, and I said yes. They said they thought I had to quit it, and I told them, “I need something to make me quit. Do you have anything to tell me?” [Laughs.] So they asked me if I’d take leave if they paid me, and I said, “Sure, if you pay me.” So I took 90 days leave, and by that point, I decided I wanted to just stay with the show.
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AVC: You did at least a couple of films prior to The Jeffersons, like Sweet Jesus, Preacherman.
MG: [Laughs.] Yes, that was before I got The Jeffersons.
AVC: How do you rate that film? Was it just a job for you?
MG: Well, I have to say that I appreciate it, because it was my introduction to film. What happened was that I was at the DMV, and I found out that across the street they were casting for a film. My girlfriend and I had a habit of trying to crash things, [Laughs.] so we went over there and met them and talked to them, ’cause we thought we were big-time actresses in our workshop. We told them we were doing a play, and we wanted them to come down the workshop, so they came down, and… at that time, Roger Moseley [who starred in Sweet Jesus, Preacherman] was having acting classes. Nina Foch and Raymond St. Jacques were the first instructors—Roger was working under him—and Angela and I were over at PASLA, the Performing Arts Society Of Los Angeles. They tore our workshop apart and got rid of the beginning workshop and elevated us up to the advanced workshop, where we didn’t want to be. We liked our workshop.
So we went over to Mafundi, and I guess Nina and Roger had a verbal disagreement, so Nina left and Roger decided he would take over the class. So we stayed and supported him, because he was pretty good. [Laughs.] After a while, I decided I wanted to go over to Zodiac, because they’d just done a play called Does A Tiger Wear A Necktie? and Clint Eastwood had come down to the workshop and picked Margaret Avery right off the stage. They won the theater award that year. So we wanted to know that we were as good as they were, so we went over to the workshop, my daughter and I, and I did four or five plays with them. And then my agent got me the audition with The Jeffersons, and things took off from there.
AVC: What was it like walking into a sitcom that, by virtue of being a spinoff of All In The Family, was instantly high-profile?
MG: I guess it was. But I didn’t know any of that stuff. [Laughs.] I went over to meet with the casting person, and I had been over to their office for an audition before, but it seemed as though she didn’t pay any attention to me, as if I wasn’t even in the room. But this time she paid attention to me, and I think that was because my agent had written an open letter to The Hollywood Reporter, claiming that her clients weren’t being seen. So everybody was trying to make sure that they were seeing them. [Laughs.] So she liked what I did and took me over to the producers, where I did the same thing. And when I got home, I had a call saying that I’d gotten the part. So that was exciting.
AVC: You and Sherman Hemsley had a great chemistry on the show…
MG: Yes, we did. [Laughs.]
AVC: How long did it take to build and hone that chemistry?
MG: That was something that just kind of evolved gradually. Mother Jefferson—Zara Cully—was the nemesis for Isabel [Sanford], so she worked more than I did, because our characters were pretty much the same. But as time went on, my character caught on, and then of course Zara was beginning to age, and as she became ill and declined, so they started using me more and more. It started out that I was in seven out of 13, then 10 out of 13, and then I was doing all the shows. Sherman’s character, actually, was the one who hired me. Not Isabel’s, the way everybody thinks. Mrs. Jefferson did not want me as the maid. She didn’t want a maid at all. She felt it was too pretentious. Mr. Jefferson, of course, wanted a maid because the Willises had a maid. And everything I said, she was trying to say, “No, see there, she won’t do it,” and he was saying, “No, she’s wonderful!” Everybody thinks it was the other way around. But as time went on and the character started to evolve, he began to grow more obnoxious, and I began to put him in his place. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you draw from any particular influences when you were playing the part?
MG: My grandmother and my aunt, and the different people that were around them. Some were maids. And my mother, she wasn’t a maid, she was a cleaning woman, but the way she acted, she acted like it was her house. She got on my nerves, really. [Laughs.] So I took my lead from them.
AVC: Do you have any particular favorite episodes from the series that stand out for you?
MG: Oh, I have too many. [Laughs.] One where Ralph the Doorman—played by Ned Wertimer, who’s still a close friend of mine—and I were playing the Willises, because another interracial couple was coming. Mr. Jefferson had gotten into an argument with the Willises, so he got Ralph and I to pretend we were them because he wanted to impress the couple and make it seem like he was good friends with the Willises. And then, of course, the real Willises come down. [Laughs.] It was a very funny episode.
AVC: Was it ever an issue with the rest of the cast that Florence got so many of the good punchlines?
MG: No. And if it ever threatened to be, I would always defuse it. Isabel would look at me sometimes and say, “Is that what you’re gonna say?” I’d say, “Not if you don’t want me to.” And she’d fall out laughing. Because I was very comfortable with her being the star of the show, and we did not try to usurp her. Everybody called her “Her Liege.” I called her “Her Ledgie.” [Laughs.] It was just such a family. It was just wonderful.
Isabel and Sherman loved to eat, and they’d get little snacks and hide them around the set. And I’d see where they hid them, and I’d go move them. [Laughs.] And then I’d look all innocent. Isabel would be, like, “I had a cookie! I had a cookie right there! Who moved my cookie?” And I just looked at her, and I’d try to help her find it. Sherman would hide his in the kitchen, and when he left, I’d hide them in the drawer. And he’d be reaching through the swing door, trying to grab it between takes, but since I’d moved it, he’d near about fall into the kitchen reaching for it. [Laughs.] We all played jokes like that on each other.
AVC: What are your thoughts on Checking In, where they tried to spin Florence off into her own series?
MG: I never wanted to leave The Jeffersons in the first place. They kept trying to get me to leave, and I just didn’t want to do it. I said, “I’d rather be No. 9 on a hit than No. 1 on a flop.” [Laughs.] And they were trying to tell me how great it would be for Florence to be the head of housekeeping at a hotel, and I said, “I don’t even know who that person is! When I get to a hotel I see the doorman, I see the desk clerk, the cashier, the maid. But I do not see the head of housekeeping. So who is she, and what does she do? I have to go see who she is.” So they said, “Well, we can’t fly you to New York.” I said, “They have hotels in Los Angeles!”
So they sent me to the Ambassador, and I followed their head of housekeeping around. Then they sent me to the Century Plaza, which was one of my favorite hotels, a corporate hotel, and I followed their head of housekeeping around. And finally I said, “Okay.” So then we did the series, and we did absolutely nothing that I saw. [Laughs.] They didn’t want to focus on that. They wanted to construct and develop a relationship like Sherman and I had, and they wanted to do that with the manager of the hotel, who was always trying to fire me but couldn’t, because the owner of the hotel hired me. But they couldn’t build that same relationship like the one I had with Sherman, because if he said certain things, then it’d sound like he was being racist rather than authoritative.
AVC: The spinoff only lasted for four episodes. How did they manage to bring Florence back?
MG: They said the hotel burned down. [Laughs.] And I had it in my contract, since I didn’t want to leave in the first place, that they had to bring me back, they had to pay me my same salary, and they had to pay me for any episodes that I missed while they were trying to bring me back on. So they got me back on in a hurry. [Laughs.] I did that because I remembered that when Whitman Mayo went off to do his spinoff from Sanford And Son [Grady], he told me the horror story about when he came back and the different cuts they wanted to do. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to me!
AVC: When The Jeffersons finally ended, you certainly landed on your feet. What was it, two months between when Jeffersons went off the air and 227 premiered?
MG: Well, first of all, we were doing the play 227 for six months. It was only supposed to run for four weeks.
AVC: Your daughter produced the play, correct?
MG: Yes, she did. She hired me. And now she’s back to hiring me again. [Laughs.] I work for her whenever I can. But while the play was running, it got so popular that different people came down to see us. Scoey Mitchell came down to see it. As did Roy Campanella II, who was interested in getting the rights. My daughter talked me into trying to get the rights, too, so the writer [Christine Houston] split the rights between us. So he wanted me to go over to… Which was the first one? I think it was ABC. So we went over there, but they didn’t want to hire the original writer, and I thought, “Well, she’s the one responsible for the project, we should give her the opportunity to be a writer on the show.” And the one they wanted for the executive producer, they said, “He likes to work alone.” And I said, “Well, he can continue to work alone, because I’m not going over there.” So then he brought Brandon Tartikoff over to see us—I didn’t even know who he was—and I said a real quick “Hi” and left him. I guess he wondered what the heck was wrong with me, but I just didn’t know who he was! [Laughs.] NBC, ABC, CBS… They were all just letters to me!
At any rate, Norman [Lear] approached me on the lot and said, “I hear you have a great play.” I said, “Yeah!” He said, “Well, I want to come and see it.” I said, “Well, you better come tomorrow, ’cause we’re closing!” So he said, “Okay, call my office,” which I did, and he and his wife came, and they had to sit way at the back. At the end, he said, “So what are you doing with it?” I said, “I’m talking to Universal.” “Well, have you signed anything?” “No. They haven’t gotten around to talking about money. They’re too busy talking about everything else.” So he told me to call his office again, and I did, and he and I had a meeting, and he said, “Why don’t you and I do it?” So I said, “Okay.” [Laughs.] And that’s how we started.
But he said, “Well, you know, I have to invite CBS to see it, because that’s where we are. So you have to put the play back up.” I said, “Okay, if you pay for it.” So he paid for it. And I put the play back up. [Laughs.] And we tried to film it, but… The way it’s set, it doesn’t work when you film it. It doesn’t have the same movements. The director was trying to get us to move according to camera, and it just did not come off as well. But we still did it, and then we did some meetings. I saw it as a movie of the week, but Brandon saw it as a TV series, so that’s what we ended up doing. And in the end, Brandon was really the only one who was interested, so that’s why we went with NBC. I loved Brandon. He was such a dear man.
AVC: You’re credited as creative consultant on the show. Did you have a hand in casting the show?
MG: Yes, I was an untitled executive producer. Which was very annoying. [Laughs.] But I did it so I could do the work on the show. My attorney asked, “Do you want it because you want [the credit on] the show, or do you want it because you want to do the work?” I said, “I want it for the work.” I don’t think they really intended for me to do the work, but I did it, anyway. I was in on all the casting. In fact, Jackée didn’t know it, but I was the one who hired her. She came in with this character who was hysterical… And she was hysterical throughout the series. [Laughs.]
AVC: On The Jeffersons, you had a tendency to be a scene-stealer. Jackée kind of took on that role in 227.
MG: She was the scene-stealer. [Laughs.] But they wrote it that way for her, because she was a character that was very easy to write for. And she liked doing all that stuff. She did a Mae West character, which was hysterical in the beginning, because she was overweight and her hair was short rather than long. So she kind of looked ridiculous, and it worked. She grew on you, and she kept growing on you. But then her hair got longer and longer, her clothes got tighter and tighter, she lost weight, and she looked tremendous.
AVC: There’s a great photo in Entertainment Weekly when you guys got back together for the “Reunions” issue.
MG: Oh, yes! That was fun. Regina [King]… I don’t know if you know, but she was actually in the original play of 227. She played the little girl down the street that annoyed the hell out of me. [Laughs.] But on the show she was my daughter, and she was like my daughter. When she sees me now, she still says, “Mommy!” And I say, “My baby!” So she was very happy that I was getting to work with her on Southland.
AVC: Did Regina have a hand in bringing you to the show?
MG: Actually, it was more coincidence. [Laughs.] It was a project that my agent saw and submitted me for, and I went out for the audition and got it. But, of course, I knew she was on the show. We stay in communication.
AVC: So you’re still regularly going out on auditions, then?
MG: Oh, yes, absolutely. Whenever I get the opportunity, I go.
AVC: Would you still be up for a regular series gig if one were available?
MG: I certainly would. If I found one, I’d love to do it. But so far I haven’t been offered one. But I’ll tell you, I’m loving everything Betty White’s doing. She’s 90!
AVC: You’re just a kid compared to her.
MG: That’s what I say! [Laughs.] She’s a lovely woman. I’ve watched her throughout the years, and she’s just so gracious.
AVC: How did you come to be on Chappelle’s Show?
MG: Dave Chappelle asked me to come do his show. I read the script, and I said, “Has he lost his mind?” [Laughs.] So I told my agent no. And they talked to him again, and they promised me, “You’re not in the room where he’s having sex.” But I was. And, of course, it was simulated. They weren’t really having sex. But I was in his dream. Me and Charles Barkley. It was fun. It was really nice meeting Charles Barkley. I really enjoy him, and not just as a person: I’m a basketball fan.
AVC: In addition to your acting, you also owned a jazz supper club in South Central L.A. called Marla’s Memory Lane.
MG: Yes, it came about because, at the time, jazz musicians were telling me that everybody was saying that jazz was dead. And I said, “How can our music be dead?” But a lot of the jazz musicians were not being hired, so I opened a club for them. And a couple of ladies had come over to me in the workshop and come to my office and said, “Ms. Gibbs, there should be a nice restaurant to go to in our neighborhood, and we said, ‘If anybody would know, she would.’” But I didn’t. So I opened one. And I had good food, the setting was very pretty, and everybody loved it. And it took all my money. [Laughs.] But I had almost 20 years of good music. I got Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd… When Jackie McLean and Bobby Hutcherson performed together, the line was around the block. Willie Bobo and O.C. Smith. Ernie Andrews was the mainstay. He was my every-New-Year’s-Eve performer, and played the club a lot.
AVC: You also contributed to a documentary some years ago: Amos ’N’ Andy: Anatomy Of A Controversy.
MG: Oh, yes. I always loved Amos ’N’ Andy, and I was one of the people who was very upset when they took it off the air.
AVC: Do you think we’ll ever see a day when it’s released officially? Do you think it warrants reappraisal?
MG: I don’t know if it’ll ever come out, but I do think it warrants appraisal. It’s not offensive. It’s funny. It’s very funny. The episode with the real-estate deal, when they’re selling the house, and you walk through the front door and you’re outside…? [Laughs.] I’d love to have them on DVD. I thought it was very funny. I think some of the writing could’ve been improved, but… That’s why I’ve always been so defensive of my characters: People don’t say, “The writing isn’t good,” they say, “She can’t act.” And that’s the way it was with Amos ’N’ Andy, in a way. People got upset with the actors, but it wasn’t the actors. They were doing the script they were given, and they were so good at it that you probably thought they were responsible. People kept yelling, “Take that show off,” but, you know, there’s no one show that can really encompass all black people. There are so many diversities among us that there isn’t one show that can reflect them all. Just because Andy was good at playing dumb doesn’t mean they’re saying that all black people are dumb. And Kingfish was so slick. [Laughs.] We all know people like that… and they’re not all black, either.