Armed with an acid dry wit and a full arsenal of sarcasm and sass, African-American character comedienne Marla Gibbs showed up on 1970s television with a bang in middle age (44). Landing the feisty maid role on the popular ground-breaking CBS sitcom 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 Gibbs, Joseph Gibbs) 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. Born in Chicago on June 14, 1931, Marla attended Peters Business School (1950-1952) following high school 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, Marla 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 roles, including the blaxploitation film, Black Belt Jones (1974), she nabbed the role of Florence Johnston and television stardom. On The Jeffersons (1975), the role of Florence, the maid, was initially set up as a mere one-shot guest role 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 sitcom became a certified hit, Marla cautiously kept her job with the Airlines. However, with wisecracks and Emmy Award nominations (totaling 5) a plenty, Marla never really 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. However, the sitcom was harmed 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 1985, 227 (1985) 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 award-winning play was a solid hit and Marla wisely purchased the television 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 Johnson. This sitcom, which featured spitfire Jackée Harry as vampish neighbor Sandra Clark, 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 television movie, Lily in Winter (1994). 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), Foolish (1999), Border to Border (1998), The Brothers (2001), and standout roles in The Visit (2000) and Stanley’s Gig (2000). Elsewhere, Marla’s voice has been heard on the animated 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”. Into the millennium, Marla suffered both personal and professional setbacks. Her older sister, Susie Garrett, who co-starred on the hit sitcom Punky Brewster (1984), died of cancer in 2002. A few years later, in 2006, Marla suffered a small aneurysm followed by a stroke. She recovered and made a gradual comeback as a guest on such TV shows as Lincoln Heights (2006), House of Payne (2006), Mr. Box Office (2012), Scandal (2012), Hot in Cleveland (2010), The Blexicans (2015), American Horror Story (2011), This Is Us (2016), Black-ish (2014), NCIS (2003), Bless This Mess (2019) and the revamped One Day at a Time (2017). At one point, she played the recurring role of Grandma Eddy on the comedy series The First Family (2012) which starred her old “227” castmate Jackée Harry. On stage, Marla appeared in such comedies as “Boeing, Boeing” and was featured in such comedy films as C’mon Man (2012), Madea’s Witness Protection (2012), Grantham & Rose (2014), Lemon (2017), Please Stand By (2017), Love Jacked (2018) and She Ball (2020).


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