Armed with an acid dry wit and a full arsenal of sarcasm and sass, African-American character comedienne Marla Gibbs showed up on 70s TV with a bang in middle age (44). Landing the feisty maid role on the popular ground-breaking CBS comedy, "The Jeffersons" (1975), eventually led to her very own sitcom, "227" (1985), a decade later and international celebrity. A divorced mother with three children (Angela Elayne Gibbs, Dorian, Joseph) at the time of her initial success, it was a job transfer from Detroit to Los Angeles, while working as a United Airlines reservation clerk, that set up this more-than-welcome surprise and change of destiny.
The Chicago native, who was born in 1931 and who married at age 13, was already a single mom before ever entertaining the thought of becoming a professional actress. Following high school, Marla attended Peters Business School (1950-1952) and toiled for a time as a receptionist and switchboard operator in the Detroit area. Eventually, she secured work with United Airlines. After moving to Southern California on a transfer, Marla gave acting a try and initially studied at the Mafundi Institute and Watts Writers Workshop, located in the Watts area of L.A. Bitten hard by the acting bug, she went on to appear in a number of local productions, including "Medea", "The Amen Corner" and "The Gingerbread Lady".
After only a couple of minor film parts, including the "blaxploitation" film, Black Belt Jones (1974), she nabbed the role of "Florence Johnston". The maid was initially set up as a mere one-shot guest part but Marla showed the character's potential. And, so it came to be that "Florence Johnston" became THE scene-stealing foil to Sherman Hemsley's equally mouthy, money-minded "George Jefferson". Until the show became a certified hit, Marla cautiously kept her job with the Airlines. With wisecracks and Emmy nominations (totaling 5) a plenty, however, Marla never had to look back. The role of "Florence" was a natural for a spin-off series and it happened with the sitcom, "Checking In" (1981), in which the character becomes a housekeeper for a very swanky hotel. The show was harmed, however, by a writer's strike before it could gain a core audience. Fortunately for Marla, she was ushered right back into the Jefferson household following its quick demise (four episodes). Two months after the last "Jeffersons" episode aired in July of 1985, "227" was included in that year's fall schedule.
Daughter Angela Elayne Gibbs produced an award-winning play by Christine Houston entitled "227", with Marla as the lead, at Marla's own local Crossroads Theatre, which the actress founded in 1981. The play was a solid hit and Marla wisely purchased the TV rights. Once "The Jeffersons" was over, she pushed for "227" as a sitcom vehicle. Producer Norman Lear gave it the green light and Marla settled right back in for another popular series ride (for NBC), this time as resident gossip "Mary Jenkins", whose demeanor was warmer and more approachable than the feisty "Florence" character. This series, which featured spitfire Jackée Harry as vampish neighbor, "Sandra", ran for five years.
An eight-time NAACP Image Award winner, Marla has received several honors over the years, including Essence Woman of the Year. She has not carried a series since "227", but has been seen from time to time on other popular shows, including "ER" (1994), "Cold Case" (2003), "Chappelle's Show" (2003), "Judging Amy" (1999), "Touched by an Angel" (1994), "The King of Queens" (1998) and "Dawson's Creek" (1998). She has also had recurring roles on daytime ("Passions" (1999)) as well as prime-time ("Pryor's Place" (1984), "The Hughleys" (1998)) and gave a knowing portrayal as Natalie Cole's mother in the heart-warming TV movie, Lily in Winter (1994) (TV).
In later years, Marla turned up again on the big screen with plucky roles in Up Against the Wall (1991), The Meteor Man (1993), Lost & Found (1999/I), Foolish (1999), Border to Border (1998), The Brothers (2001), and standout roles in The Visit (2000/I) and Stanley's Gig (2000).
Elsewhere, Marla's voice has been heard on the animated TV series, "101 Dalmatians: The Series" (1997) and, in addition to acting, sang the theme song to the film, Stanley's Gig (2000), "In the Memory of You", which will be included on a CD, entitled "Scenes In Jazz". Marla owned a jazz club for some time in South Central L.A. called "Marla's Memory Lane, a jazz and supper club that ran from 1981 to 1999. She released her own CD of music, "It's Never Too Late", in May 2006, and co-wrote with Ray Colcord, the theme song to her starring series, "227" (1985).
Marla's older sister, Susie Garrett, who co-starred on the hit sitcom, "Punky Brewster" (1984), died of cancer in 2002. Fully recovered after suffering a small aneurysm and stroke a few years ago, the actress recently performed in the comedy play, "Boeing-Boeing", in Kansas City, a role created on film by the equally sarcastic Thelma Ritter, back in the 1960s.
|Jordan Gibbs||(1956 - 1973) (divorced) 3 children|
Her acid-dry wit
Frequently appearing in African-American sitcoms
Deep sultry voice
Used the word "Child" in sitcoms.
Played the characters that are either sarcastic or tart-tongued in tone.
She used to work for United Airlines, and she continued working there even after she landed a part on "The Jeffersons" (1975). She did not quit until the show became a hit.
Since leaving TV in 1990, Marla has been operating the Vision Theater Complex (which closed in 1997) and Marla's Memory Lane jazz supper club, both in Los Angeles.
Younger sister of Susie Garrett.
Graduated from Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago, Illinois, in 1949.
High school classmate of Sam Cooke.
Married at age 13, she had three children by the time she was 20.
Honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
Mother of Angela, Dorian and Joseph.
Her father, Douglas Bradley, passed away in 1947.
The second of three children.
Friends with: Shirley Jones, Betty White, Bea Arthur, Gavin MacLeod, Ted Lange, Della Reese, Charlotte Rae, Whitman Mayo, Norman Lear, Alaina Reed-Hall, Anna Maria Horsford, Ned Wertimer, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Larry Manetti, Roger E. Mosley, Billy Dee Williams, Lynn Hamilton, Lee Weaver, Isabel Sanford, Sherman Hemsley, Roxie Roker, Franklin Cover, Gary Coleman, Mickey Rooney, Lee Weaver, Beverly Garland, Pat Sajak, Richard Dawson, Joan Rivers and Hal Williams.
Had a crush on William Marshall.
All of her children were born and raised in Detroit, Michigan.
A movie and musical buff.
Didn't start acting until she was 41.
Her parents, Douglas Bradley was a mechanic and Ophelia Kemp worked at a grocery store, before working in a restaurant and later on, a minister.
Of German descent by her grandfather.
Has every episode of "Pryor's Place" (1984), on videotape. She made a guest-appearance on the show.
Suffered a small aneurysm, right at the same time, she had a stroke in 2006.
Her parents got divorced when she was only 4.
Before she was an actress, she did everything from working at a bookbinding company to a mail clerk in the mailroom.
Starred in a Broadway play of "227" (1985), produced by Christine Houston, which led to her starring, producing and writing in the series.
Changed her name from Margaret Bradley to Marla Gibbs, this was because her name was too long. She wanted to go with the ebb and flow of her newly, rechristened name.
Long before she was a successful actress, she used to work at a garment company.
Her favorite scenes on "The Jeffersons" (1975) were the Aunt Jemima episode where her character's boss asked her to play the proper maid, and the one where Billy Dee Williams's character finds her character and comes back.
Composed the "227" (1985) theme song, "There's No Place Like Home".
Her mother, Ophelia Kemp, died in 1967.
Jane Wyman was also said to be another one of her idols.
Is a close friend of Larry Manetti, who was also raised in Chicago like her, who in turn also had lunch with her best friend, Roger E. Mosley. Both Manetti and Mosley co-starred on the popular 1980s drama, "Magnum, P.I." (1980).
Had surgery for her broken foot in 2010.
Was evicted from her grandmother's house, when she was only 18. Her grandmother wouldn't allow her to keep the dog in the house.
Was inducted into The LaFemme Film Festival as Honorary Board Member in Los Angeles, California. [17 October 2010].
Is a Democrat.
Her jazz club closed in 1997.
From an early age, she was a dog lover.
She got the role of Florence Johnston on "The Jeffersons" (1975), because her agent wrote a letter to the Hollywood Reporter.
Enjoys cooking, praying, sewing, reading the Bible, movies, playing tennis, traveling, singing, listening to jazz music, spending time with her family and acting.
Used to be a spokesperson for Accent brand seasoning and Sears Department Stores in the 1980s.
Was a tomboy in high school.
Was reunited with her ex-"227" (1985) co-star, Regina King, on an episode of "Southland" (2009). Gibbs played an unassuming grandmother who had been used by her granddaughter's typical compassionate charm.
Attended the defunct Cortez W. Peters Business School in Chicago, Illinois.
Before she was a successful actress, she worked as a reservations agent on the telephone for United Airlines, from 1963 to 1975.
After her divorce, she moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1973, to become an actress.
Attended the Mafundi Institute in Los Angeles, California, where Roger E. Mosley was her acting coach.
Florence Johnston, her character from "The Jeffersons" (1975), reminded her of both her grandmother and aunt, and the people who were around her.
Is an avid game show watcher.
Had always adored Betty White's work.
Prior to her parents' divorce, her mother moved to Detroit, Michigan, while young Marla stayed with her father and two sisters in Chicago, Illinois.
Her "227" (1985) character was born on June 14, as was Gibbs in real-life.
Like her best friend Charlotte Rae, Gibbs also wanted to be a serious actress, but she eventually wound up being a comedienne.
Is a health enthusiast.
Childhood friend of Della Reese.
Attended the 80th birthday party of her childhood friend Della Reese on 19 August 2011.
Despite being a fan of dance, she cannot participate as a finalist on "Dancing with the Stars" (2005/I), due to her broken foot.
Was named after her aunt Margaret.
After the death of her father, she lived with her grandfather.
She said in an interview, both she along with her ex-"227" (1985) co-star, Jackée Harry, did not feud during production, when it was all about people who wanted to create controversy between the two ladies, hence, Gibbs wasn't a fan of that.
Acting mentor and friend of Jackee Harry.
Her daughter, Angela Elayne Gibbs, along with Marla, herself, had both worked with Carroll O'Connor on a separate episode of "In the Heat of the Night" (1988). At that time, her daughter was married to Charles Mills, the series' cinematographer.
Appeared on the front cover of Jet Magazine five times.
Became best friends with Sherman Hemsley from 1975 until his death in 2012.
Was honored at the Gospel Goes To Hollywood Awards. [22 February 2013].
Attended the 40th Anniversary Reunion of "The Waltons" (1971).
Was one to sign the Hollywood Squares/March of Dimes Celebrity Scrapbook, a collection of more than 100 autographs from top celebrities that was auctioned on eBay to benefit the March of Dimes.
When you're the head of the show, you really have to take care of the other actors, and you really have to do what the producers want, what the network wants, and it was fun for me, because I learned a lot getting an opportunity to do those things.
Nothing is out of our realm, because it has nothing to do with color. As Black people, we're not different from anyone else, other than the exterior.
[In 1985]: As soon as I finish one thing, there's always something else on the horizon I want to do. I don't have any intention of retiring from anything.
[In 1989]: People come up to me all the time, little kids run up to me and identify me for their parents. I say, 'George Jefferson sent you, right?' If I'm going to my car, they walk me to my car, I always keep autographed pictures to hand out, too.
[Of Jackée Harry]: She is hysterically funny. As a matter of fact, she would say some things that were so outrageous or she'd do something and she'd have to stop and laugh herself and it would break me up, so we'd have to stop and go again.
[When Norman Lear liked to turned "The Jeffersons" (1975) stereotype on its ear]: I was a maid, but I wasn't Hattie McDaniel. I was a black maid to a black family. George Jefferson had worked his way out of the ghetto and into New York's East Side, although his prejudices hadn't caught up with him. The last few seasons, we banned all 'honkey' jokes completely.
[Of her Florence Johnston character]: Florence was the person who was not going to take no bull from anybody, no matter how little money she made. Just because you don't have a lot of money does not mean you have to let people walk over you.
[Of her on- and off-screen chemistry with Sherman Hemsley, who played George Jefferson]: Sherman is hilarious. As a matter of fact, he is so creative, our tipples and our rhythms are so much alike that when he says something, sometimes he would say to me, 'You know, Marla, I forgot my lines.' I said, 'I don't know my lines.' He said, 'Yes, you do!' I said, 'Your mind took a picture of them the first time we did.' So stop saying you don't know it, and I said, 'Anyway, you just say something and when your lips stop moving, I'll answer them.' So, once we come out, I was chewing gum and I'm chewing gum, and I'm looking at him, when he was looking at me, he forgot his lines, so I kept on chewing gum and looking at him and he kept looking at me, and the audience went hysterical. They laughed about 2 minutes, and in that time, he thought of his lines.
[As to how hard it was for black actresses to find meaningful roles in Hollywood, who honestly revealed the kind of roles that she like to play]: The kind of roles I would be playing now would be such as Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment (1983). Challenging reaches and stretches where you come out of one character into another.
[on becoming a producer in her own right, prior to becoming an actress]: My role is being part of the decisions made. They feel that I have the focus and that I know what project is. I am part of all the note sessions. But we all have input - not just me.
[Of whom she stressed the importance of jazz in the United States]: Jazz, of course, is our heritage. Jazz is a culture, it's not a fad. It's up to us to see to it that it stays alive.
'Put it in the universe,' was her favorite saying, which I say [means] God said if you make one step, He'll make two. Its the same thing. First, you have to put the idea and the thought of what you want in the universe, then you have to act on it and you have to act on it in faith.
They stopped issuing unlimited passes to the employees. Now you have to go space available and you get bumped, honey. When I get on a plane these days, I go first class.
[Of Regina King]: Regina knows when we're on the set that I'm her mama. If she does something wrong, I'm going to slap her one.
Florence represents the masses and represents what working people feel in subservient roles ... Just because a person is working doesn't make him less of a person. I say what they would like to say to their bosses.
[Who said blacks must take the initiative in the neighborhood's further development]: When someone else comes in, it's going to be redeveloped for their purposes, not for yours, because it's their money.
[Of her father, Bradley Kemp]: He was just wonderful, but it wasn't the same without a mother. I grew up weird-very sensitive and highly inhibited. I felt like I was born in the wrong time zone to the wrong people at the wrong place.
[Of her mother's, Ophelia Kemp's 1967 death]: She lives through me, I mean, if cans can be recycled, why not spirits? She's much more available now than when she was on earth and I couldn't get her on the damn phone. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I see her and start talking to her.
[on the death of "The Jeffersons" (1975), series' lead, Isabel Sanford, in 2004]: Isabel was our queen and that's what we called her on the show. She would come in and just light up the room and start telling stories and having everybody in stitches.
[Who said in 2009 about her real-life best friend's/co-star's, Alaina Reed-Hall's ex-husband, Kevin Peter Hall, who guest starred on "227" (1985)]: It was a wonderful segment because we had [guest star] Luther Vandross, who was also a friend of Alaina's, sing; and we had the same minister who performed the actual wedding.
When I saw people looting. I, like everybody else, said, 'It's like a bunch of mad dogs.'
[In 2009]: That massage was one of the best parts of the trip.
[In 1988]: When you're busy doing, you don't have time to talk. You don't have time to say, 'I can't.' You've got to answer the next phone call!
[In 2008]: I never thought I was a great mom. I always worked. I fell in love with my children as they got older. When they were teenagers, I was the mom for the neighborhood. I realize now I should've been holding them. I didn't feel like they needed me. I felt anybody who gave them a bottle or changed their diapers was fine. But as they got older, I related to them more and they related to me. Then I became the mom who baked the cookies.
[Of her 2006 stroke and aneurysm]: I had a small aneurysm and a stroke as a result of the surgery. Fortunately I can walk and talk and do all those things. God has been really good to me.
[In 1992]: I said, 'Don't let your child see you stealing.' And she said, 'I have enough dignity left to appreciate what you're saying, but I ain't got no food. We ain't got nothing.' I had to stop and think about that.
[In 2010]: You can't ad-lib, because the camera needs to know what you're going to say, so that they can be there, you'll be talking and you'll be on-camera.
[If she and the rest of her "227" (1985) would like to see their own characters differently]: On the show, we like to see done differently, and some we're just fine. But then, it's always something.
[on the cancelation of "227" (1985)]: 227 ended, we did five seasons, of course, you have enough for the reruns and for syndication. We would've gone another season, I think some of the actors were unhappy and I was not able to convince them, and so, I don't think the network would want to keep the show, now that's what I think happened, so, we didn't pick it up.
[Of Sherman Hemsley]: Well, in real-life he was an introvert and on the show he was an extrovert. He was very shy, really sensitive and spiritual. He did not like to call Franklin [Tom Willis] a honky. He finally asked [the producers] to please take that out. He said, 'We're friends now. Why am I still calling him a honky?' So, they finally took that out.
[If she needed to go back to "The Jeffersons" (1975), just in case if "Checking In" (1981) was not a ratings winner, fortunately, she did]: I have in my contract that if anything goes wrong, I will be back. I made sure of that.
[In 1981]: We blacks have a history of confusing service with servitude, primarily because it was the route we had to take rather than elected to take. So, our mothers, when they had children, would try to encourage them to go to school telling them to learn something so they won't be cleaning, scrubbing somebody's floors and cleaning somebody's house.
[on her popularity while playing the fifty-something Mary Jenkins on 227]: What we're coming to is less offensive humor. I call it situation humor rather than written jokes with punchlines of offensive humor. You can't beat life [for providing funny situations]. I'm not a comedian. The more serious I am, the funnier the situation is. If you really deal with truth, you get humor.
[In 1986]: I fell in love with my children as they got older. As they got older, I related to them more and they related to me.
[When asked if there was a backstage feud between her and ex-"227" (1985) co-star, Jackée Harry]: That was never a feud. That's about people wanting to create controversy. I mean people might play that to a little bit, thinking that's the way you build things. I just never was a fan of that approach.
I'd get off from Jefferson's and come right up 6th Street, zoom around the corner, and I'd be sitting at my desk at United Airlines. 'Good Evening, United Airlines, may I help you?' Sometimes people would say, 'your voice sounds familiar.'.... Then I decided that if you only stretch one leg, you can't go very far, you've got to take both legs with you. I decided to give it a shot. And of course, I wasn't sorry.
[on the death of Sherman Hemsley]: Sherman was one of the most generous co-stars I have ever worked with. He happily set me up so that I could slam him, and I did the same for him. I shall miss him deeply.
[after the death of Sherman Hemsley in 2012] Just working with him is a joy. Only he could do the walk that he does, and only he could bring the humor that he brought.
 Everything must change and you do what you can with the changes that are made. You can't stop it. You can't fight it. Everybody tries to go back to yesterday, but you can't go back to yesterday. The only time there is, is now. So you have to stay in the now and you have to not judge so I don't judge it. Somebody's dream is coming true and I applaud them. My dreams came true and they applauded me. So things have changed. They cannot be the way they were.
(1999) She was last seen on Italian TV Show "Meteore"
(December 2003) Accepted "Funniest Woman of the Year" at The Commies on Comedy Central.
(August 2004) Recently seen as Eve Russell's old Aunt Irma on "Passions" (1998).
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