THR Icon: At 90, Marla Gibbs Looks Back on Career as a Sitcom Queen — “My Romance With the People Is That I’m One of Them”
The TV legend reflects on her groundbreaking career, the secret to her peerless comedic timing and why she didn’t quit her job at United Airlines until season three of 'The Jeffersons.'
Marla Gibbs has a motto: “It’s never too late.” And she would know. The beloved actress — whose way with a zinger influenced a generation of funny people, from Wanda Sykes to Tyler Perry — was 44 when, recently relocated from Detroit to L.A., divorced and with very few credits to her name, she auditioned for a new CBS sitcom from Norman Lear called The Jeffersons, a spinoff of Lear’s smash hit All in the Family.
The role, which she landed, was Florence Johnston, a housekeeper to a successful Black family living on New York’s Upper East Side. Gibbs’ acid delivery of Lear and company’s whip-sharp and socially progressive dialogue — and her character’s ongoing rivalry with the man of the house, George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley, who died in 2012 at 74) — made her one of TV’s most popular and dependable belly-laugh generators.
Gibbs was Emmy-nominated five times for the role of Florence but never won. She went on to star in and produce another beloved sitcom, NBC’s 227, which ran from 1985 to 1990 and introduced the world to the talents of Regina King and Jackée Harry. Now 90, and with dozens of film and TV appearances under her belt, Gibbs is still working — since 2021, she’s been a regular on Days of Our Lives. She sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to look back on a groundbreaking half-century career.
What brought you out to Hollywood?
I moved to California in 1969 from Detroit, Michigan. I had moved to Detroit from Chicago, so my three children were all born in Detroit. But I’m a Chicagoan. My sister lived here, and she was begging me to come out here for the longest time. I was running from my husband. I was done. He followed me out here six months later. And I gave him another shot, but it didn’t change anything. So then there was a divorce.
Were you even thinking about acting at the time?
I always wanted to be [an actor] because I was a film addict: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Joan Caulfield, Joan Fontaine. I had a lot of sheroes.
Were there any African American actresses whom you looked up to?
[Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner star] Beah Richards. She later played my mom on 227.
What were you doing for work in Detroit?
I was working in reservations for United Airlines. So I transferred out here with my three kids. And, of course, we had free flights. I was able to ship my things and everything via United. It was pretty easy. I was there 11 years when I got to The Jeffersons. And then I stayed for two more years.
Wait. During the first two seasons of The Jeffersons, you were still working at United Airlines?
I was. At that time, we were shooting Jeffersons at KTTV. So I would get on the freeway, come up at Wilshire, turn right, go to the parking lot and sit at my desk: “Good afternoon, this is Ms. Gibbs. How may I help you?”
I have to ask: You were on a network sitcom — why keep your old job?
“Network” and “sitcom” didn’t mean anything to me then. I’m at a job over 10 years. Why give it all up for something new? What if it don’t last? A bird in the hand is worth 20 in the bush. I said to United, “Well, why don’t you let me work an hour later?” Because I was worried about being late if we ran over while taping the show. One day, Bernie West, one of The Jeffersons’ producers, said, “Do you still have that job?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Aren’t you tired?” I said, “No.” He said, “Would you take a leave?” I said, “If you pay me.” So I took a 90-day leave from United. After that, I thought, “I might as well give this a shot.” I was never sorry.
Did your co-workers at United see you on TV?
Yeah. They wondered what the hell I was still doing there.
Going backward a bit, when you got to L.A. in 1969, did you just think to yourself, “I think I’ll give acting a try”?
Yeah. “I’m out here where it happens.” I was very disappointed when I got to Sunset Boulevard. I always thought Hollywood was behind some gates. I said, “This is Sunset Boulevard?” And then when I got to Hollywood Boulevard: “This is Hollywood?” It really was a shock.
But you didn’t stop. You wanted to get your piece of the Hollywood dream.
Well, my sister was what they called an extra, but we thought she was a starlet. She was in The Poseidon Adventure. She was sitting next to the captain, and she didn’t have any lines, but we saw her, and every time she came back to Detroit, the press would meet the plane. We thought she was really hot. So first thing I did, I signed up for acting classes at PASLA, the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles. Ta-Tanisha from Room 222 was discovered there. Then I talked to my sister’s agent, Lil Cumber. She was the agent for most of the Black actors. She thought she knew what they wanted, so she put a broom in my hand and picked a photographer.
Because you were expected to play a maid?
That’s what most of the Black Hollywood actors played, the ones who were not in lead roles.
Yet this was not 1939 and Gone With the Wind. This was 1969, but nothing had changed.
Nothing had changed.
Your first parts were in blaxploitation movies [like 1973’s Sweet Jesus, Preacherman and 1974’s Black Belt Jones].
I didn’t think that, but yes.
The word “blaxploitation” didn’t come up?
Not to me. It was just a movie, period. My girlfriend and I, we would sweet-talk our way past the guards at the big studios and take our résumés. I remember we were at 20th Century Fox, and we met Joyce Selznick, David O. Selznick’s niece. And she said, “Come on in, girls.” She spent 20 minutes giving us a whole speech about how Hollywood works. I always appreciated her.
And how did you land The Jeffersons?
It’s because of you guys. The Hollywood Reporter. My agent was Ernestine McClendon. And she wrote a full-page letter to The Hollywood Reporter about how poorly her [predominantly Black] clients were being treated. We were “the revolving door” at auditions: in and out, in and out. They were not paying any attention to us. After that, everybody wanted to see us. Then I heard they were casting for The Jeffersons. And my agent got me an audition. And this time when I went in, they were paying attention to me because of Ernestine’s letter in The Hollywood Reporter.
That’s nice to hear! It was probably exciting, too, that a sitcom was going to be about a Black family who’d achieved the American dream.
I didn’t know what it was. It was called The Jeffersons, that’s all I knew. And the part they wanted me to read for, Florence the maid, reminded me of my grandmother and my aunt in Chicago. So that’s how I played her. And the casting director liked it. She took me right over to the producers, and they liked it. By the time I got home, I had the job.
And then they had Norman Lear come in. I decided that for one laugh line, I would try it a different way. They went, “No! What did you do? Do it the way you did it at the audition!” What nobody told me is that it was Norman’s favorite line.
What line was it?
I say, “You live in this building, right?” Isabel [Sanford, who played Louise Jefferson] said, “Yes.” I said, “And you live in this building, too?” Roxie [Roker, who played neighbor Helen Willis], said, “Yes.” I said, “You folks don’t mind if I ask you something: How come we overcame — and nobody told me?”
Had you been doing comedy before this? Did you know how to deliver a punchline?
It was something new. I mean, we didn’t call it comedy. We thought it was just funny things they said in the neighborhood. So I did it that way, and that’s the way I did it all the years I was on the show.
I love how unassuming you are.
I don’t think I gave the writers the credit that they deserved.
Well, it was a marriage, right? Their words and the way you deliver it.
Yeah. Sometimes I had to change it around. They might have “Mr. Jefferson” at the front, and I’d put it at the end. I’d say, “Black people speak in a rhythm. Chinese people speak in a rhythm. Jewish people punch words a lot. I have to put it in my rhythm.” After a while, I’d get two or three laughs instead of just one. So they left me alone.
What’s your friendship like with Norman?
We always say we love each other. It’s gotten better and better through the years. I’m sure he was probably a little annoyed with me over 227. I had originally produced 227 as a play [written by Christine Houston], and I owned all the rights. I sold it to Norman, who I guess sold it to Sony and NBC. He didn’t want any actor of his to also be a producer. “Actors act, producers produce,” he used to say. But I wanted to be executive producer. He refused. In the end, I didn’t get the money, I didn’t get the billing — but I got all the rights of a producer. I had final say on hair and wardrobe. And I hired Jackée, who had an awesome audition. Then she ended up getting the Emmy. Now, I’ve been a bridesmaid [at the Emmys] five times, but I’ve never been a bride. I didn’t think it was important. That shows you where my head was coming from, coming out of Chicago and Detroit. I said, “The work is its own reward.” Now I understand better. Because I understand the business.
How racist and how sexist was Hollywood as you became a star? And do you think you helped change it for the better?
It’s better, but I don’t think I had anything to do with it. The people watching, they’re the ones who make decisions about whether you’re good or not, or whether you deserve something or not. In 227, the network wanted me to own the building. I said, “I will not own the building. That makes me one of the haves. I don’t know what that would do to my career. And I’m not willing to find out. I’m one of the have-nots. My romance with the people is that I’m one of them.”
That’s fascinating. You knew your appeal was tied up in the fact that you were not one of the Jeffersons. You were their maid.
Speaking of the haves, what was your TV boss, Sherman Hemsley, like off-camera?
Completely shy. We went to different affairs, industry events, and he would be miserable. We felt so sorry for him. So Roxie and I would always be trying to bolster him up. When I first rehearsed with him, I said, “Is that all he’s going to give me?” Honey — the cameras came on and a whole ‘nother person stepped out.
You’ve mentioned Roxie Roker a few times now. [Roker died in 1995 of breast cancer at 66.] Was she your closest friend on the show?
She was. I loved Roxie. Every time she wanted to try something, she wanted me to do it with her. We took tennis lessons with this guy from Inglewood, and all we did was run for the ball. Then she joined this spa and took me there.
She’s famous to younger generations because she’s Lenny Kravitz’s mother and Zoë Kravitz’s grandmother.
Lenny was always around. He was a teenager then. I remember my son telling me, “Mom — he’s really good. He’s going to make it.” I told Lenny that.
Were Roxie and her husband [television producer Sy Kravitz] the inspiration for the show’s interracial couple, Tom and Helen Willis?
I don’t think so. Because I remember Norman told Roxie, “Now for this part, you’re married to a white man and you’re going to be required to kiss him.” He said, “Is that all right?” And she said, “Let me put it to you this way.” She took a picture out and showed him her husband. Roxie and [Franklin Cover, who played Tom] were very close. They were a lot of fun. Roxie called Franklin “the Black woman’s burden.” Because she picked him up at his house and took him to work all day.
Was it occurring to all of you that the show was busting with social taboos that you just did not see on television at the time? Interracial love and so on?
We saw them in real life. TV was catching up. And people recognized it. The first year we got some flak. They had some meetings with the network. And Norman said, “This is my show.”
Did all the actors in the Norman Lear TV Universe hang out? My fantasy is that you and Bea Arthur were friends.
Watching TV, it might seem that way. But you go to work, and you’re tired. You’ve got to go home and cook. And they’ve got whatever they’re doing. Plus, we’re not living in proximity to each other.
Oh well. What about Regina King? Didn’t you give Regina her big break at age 14 on 227?
That’s my baby. She was my daughter in a play called The Little Girl Down the Street Gave Me the Blues. When we were auditioning for [the role of my daughter in] 227, I said, “I want Regina.” I had to fight like hell, but they finally gave in.
And now look at her. Her career has been unbelievable.
I told her recently, “How do you expect me to catch up with you?” She’s just marvelous. I knew it, and everybody knows it now. You know, I finally got the star on the [Hollywood] Walk of Fame last July. And that was Regina’s idea. She thought I should have the star. Those things just don’t enter my head.
You’ve seemingly done it all. Is there anything else you’d like to achieve?
I just finished my book. It’s called It’s Never Too Late. That’s my story. And I’m sure it’s a lot of other people’s story. I’m sure it should be encouraging to a lot of people who think it’s too late. I really got it from a lady that came up to me and said, “Ms. Gibbs, I always wanted to act. You think it’s too late?” I said, “Are you still breathing? If you’re still breathing, it’s not too late.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.