MARLA GIBBS: A Groundbreaker and A Legend
She broke out as the tart tongued maid on The Jeffersons when few African Americans were on TV.
By Alex Ben Block
For five decades since, she has sustained a memorable career.
Marla Gibbs accepting The Legend award from the L.A. Press Club
In early 1974 Marla Gibbs was working in a United Airlines call center, but her real passion was acting. She had been in low budget movies, taken acting classes and done local theater but big roles eluded her.
That winter she had gone on auditions for “The Jefferson’s,” a new Norman Lear production, that was a twist on a top hit of the era, “All In The Family,” with this bigot a nouveau riche African American.
When she approached those casting the show, she was repeatedly ignored.
Gibbs had recently gotten a New York-based agent, Ernestine McClendon, a former actress, comic and activist, who represented top African American performers, including Morgan Freeman.
“She was upset because none of her actors, which were all black actors, really got work,” recalls Gibbs. “We go in, she said, and ‘it's like a revolving door. They're in and they're out. Nobody takes time with them.’”
So, McClendon wrote an open letter complaining about discrimination to The Hollywood Reporter, which published it.
After that, recalls Gibbs, “Everybody started seeing us. So, when I went into Norman Lear's office this time, they talked to me and I did an interview. And the casting person liked everything I did. So, she took me over to the producers. I did the same thing I did in her office and they liked it. So, by the time I got home, I had the job.”
Gibbs was 41-years-old when she was cast as the Jefferson’s maid, Florence Johnston. She appeared in the first episode as a day player, delivering comedic asides and retorts, mostly to the stuffed shirt lead, George Jefferson, played by Sherman Hemsley.
Gibbs then appeared in the fifth episode and the eighth, before becoming a regular. In her second season, at the insistence of a show producer, she finally quit her job with United Airlines.
Marla Gibbs with key cast members of The Jeffersons
She and the show were a hit, running for 11 seasons through 253 episodes, and in TV syndication forever.
"Marla brought to life one of the funniest characters in television history with her portrayal of Florence Johnston on ‘The Jefferson’s’," says L.A. Press Club President Lisa Richwine. "Her work still makes people laugh decades later. That's a true mark of a legend!”
This article was originally written when Gibbs was honored by the Los Angeles Press Club with The Legend Award at the 15th annual National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards on December 4, 2022. This is an expanded version of that article.
Marla Gibbs receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with actor Billy Dee Williams
Gibbs is now 91-years-old but still working as an actress. She is still best known from “The Jefferson’s” and the comedy series “227,” on which she starred and played an active behind the scenes role.
Gibbs is a pioneer because she came along at a time there were few black faces on American TV. She has never made racial issues a main part of what she stands for but in her own quiet way, she has been a pioneer.
When Gibbs got her first big break “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son” were already on with black casts. However, it was “The Jefferson’s” that was the first to deal with social, political and racial issues, including inter-racial marriage, the KKK, alcoholism, gun control and adult literacy.
“We were the first progressive black cast,” says Gibbs.
Her role was to not be rich. “I was the one that worked for other people. They told me what to do.” says Gibbs adding, “So the masses recognized who I was.”
It launched Gibbs as a much-loved star keeping her working for almost half a century. While raising three children, running a jazz club, a theater and a restaurant, she has remained in demand as an actress even in her 91st year. She recently appeared on a soap opera and is booked for another “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“Everything talks about age and what's too old,” says Gibbs. “So, I decided not to get old because God said we are spiritual beings as well as physical beings. As spiritual beings we have no time and we have no age. I choose to vibrate on 30, because at 30 years we are never talking about what's too late to do. They don't start that mess until they get 40…I said, well I'm not going near 40. It doesn't matter that I started at 44. What matters is that my mindset spiritually is on 30. That's in the universe and the universe keeps sending work. It's done to you as you believe. And since I believe I'm 30, which has nothing to do with looks, the universe keeps sending me work. People are asking for me now. I don't have to try to get it.”
Marla Gibbs and the cast of "227"
It was after “The Jefferson’s” was abruptly cancelled (and a spinoff fizzled) that Gibbs found her second hit sitcom. She was recruited t by her daughter Angela to star in a play called “227” at her Gibbs Crossroads Theater in Los Angeles, where she served as artistic director. The play followed the lives of a group of black women in an apartment building in 1950s Chicago.
At Gibbs request, Lear came to the final performance of the play, leading to a series on NBC. It was reset in contemporary L.A. starring Gibbs as outspoken housewife Mary Jenkins, who had a tart tongue and loved to gossip.
The show almost never got on air. Gibbs had things she wanted in the show, including a character to play her husband; and she did not want to own the 227 building, feeling being the landlord would detract from her every man image.
“I knew I could not be one of the haves,” says Gibbs. “I had to be one of the have nots. I believed that was the key to my career and I was not willing to find out if I was wrong. So that's how I felt. My romance with the people is that I'm one of them. You can't take me and put me over here and own the building. So, no, I will not own the building. I was told the network only wants you to own the building. I said, I don't care who wants me to own the building, I will not own the building.”
When she was told the network insisted, Gibbs walked away from the negotiations: “Well, let me stop talking to them because they're ridiculous. So, I (later) had a meeting with them and Norman, and when I told Norman how I felt, he said, ‘Well, it's clear I should have had you at that meeting.’”
Still that was not the end of it. Gibbs had to battle with the other producers over and over. “So, we had the show and in the first episode we cured the landlord issue, “ she recalls. “ And it was a very funny episode. Then they decided to try to change it and the show went nowhere and nobody liked it. I said, ‘Will you please just kill the landlord first episode, kill the landlord to keep moving.’ So, they did that and we took off.”
Gibbs also wanted to be a producer but Lear said actors couldn’t be producers because of the time involved and because work demands were different. Instead, Gibbs became an uncredited executive producer. She played a key role in casting her then young protege Regina King and discovering Jackée Harry. She helped in punching up jokes and even helped edit the show. King has gone on to have a major career, winning awards including an Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe.
“227” lasted five seasons and continues in reruns.
Gibbs was born June 14, 1931 to Douglas Bradley and Ophelia Kemp in Chicago. Her parents’ marriage broke up when she was four, and she was raised by her father through her teen years.
“My father started his own business,” says Gibbs. “He was an automobile mechanic and became the cheap mechanic in the neighborhood at Bradley's garage. And then he decided to do an ice business and he had three or four ice trucks delivering ice to people.”
Gibbs graduated from Phillips High in 1949 and attended secretarial school. She had a sting of office jobs.
Her father passed away in her teens and she moved to Detroit where he mother lived.
Gibbs recalls that her mother had a “haberdashery (selling men’s clothes) and then she had a restaurant and then she was in the numbers (an underground lottery).”
Then she became a minister and she was known as Princess Kemp and she became quite popular,” adds Gibbs.. “She put most of the churches on the radio and became a person who did the sales for the radio station. And then there was a television station she worked for.”
“Eventually my mother got into real estate,” says Gibbs, recalling that on one occasion her mother gave her a commission she had made. “So, I bought my first house in Detroit and I was very excited because it was a three family and I had two tenants, so that meant we had to pay very little rent.”
One of Gibbs jobs in Detroit was as a switchboard operator for a bus company. While on an leave due to an illness, Gibbs happened by a building in downtown Detroit where all the major airlines had offices. She walked into the United Airlines office and asked about a job. When they asked why she wanted to work there she said it was her favorite airline and that she always flew on it. That was a lie. She got the job.
Gibbs had married at the age of 24 but her husband was unreliable. “He became a terrible husband and he became abusive,” recalls Gibbs, who threatened to leave him. “He used to laugh and say, ‘When are you leaving?’ So, I left him and came to LA and I didn't tell him I was leaving. I left in our station wagon and I took the children and the dog.”
“Everything is good,” says Gibbs, explaining her positive view on life. “We just don't know it. Just like my abusive husband was doing what he was supposed to do. If he had been right, I never would've left Detroit.”
She chose L.A. because her sister Frida lived there and was doing some work in television and movies, mostly as an extra. Gibbs continued working for United Airlines answering calls from customers but soon got into acting.
On “The Jefferson’s” after the first few seasons, the producers allowed the actors to improvise occasionally, and if it was funny, it stayed in the show.
“If it got laugh and if it works they were no dummies” says Gibbs, adding: . “I was always trying to show the authentic way black maids would act.”
She based much of it on memories of her grandmother and an aunt in Chicago. “They were not proficient in the English language,” says Gibbs, “so Florence would not be proficient in the English language.”
One of her closest friends from the show was Roxie Roker, who played Helen Willis, half of the first interracial couple ever shown on American TV. She was also the mother of Lenny Kravitz, who grew up to be a top rock musician, as well as grandmother of actress Zoe Kravitz.
Gibbs celebrated Lear on his 100th birthday TV special, and he repays the compliment: ““Marla Gibbs, the performer and friend, has so delighted and informed me over the years. I am convinced she has added time to my life.”
What is the secret of Gibbs success? She says whether it is acting in comedy or drama, its’ always about finding the truth of the story or the scene.
“If it's about somebody, you can't know the truth cause you don't know them and you don't know their truth,” says Gibbs. “Most of the time it's not about a real person. So, you have to bring the truth of that character. It's whether or not you can feel the character, what the character portrays. That's the truth.”
Her philosophy has earned Gibbs numerous honors, including seven NAACP image awards, five Emmy nominations, and a Golden Globe nomination. Now she has added The Legend Award.
“Every award is appreciated,” says Gibbs. “People don't have to give an award, but the work is its own reward. So, the award is not as important as the work. But I appreciate the award because it means people are saying, ‘We like what you do’ and you can always appreciate that.”
Gibbs will soon share her life and philosophy in her autobiography. It’s called, “It's Never Too Late.” She will simultaneously release a CD in which she sings jazz songs.
Gibbs first recorded the jazz CD about a decade ago but at the time had to shelve it because of an illness. Now she plans to tour and sing at each performance. She has been working with a vocal coach to get ready.
What does she want as her legacy? “A person who loved and recognized that we were all one and loved everybody and acted like they loved everybody.”