Marla Gibbs stole the show on ABC’s “Live in Front of Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons,” reprising her role as Florence, wisecracking maid to the Jeffersons. Gibbs earned five Emmy nominations for her original run on “The Jeffersons.”
Gibbs recently sat down with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum to discuss how it felt to walk onto “The Jeffersons” set again, working with the new cast and her memories of working with Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley.
Gold Derby: Marla Gibbs, you returned as Florence on “The Jeffersons” live special a few weeks ago. How did you and Norman Lear and everybody keep that a surprise?
Marla Gibbs: I don’t know how they did it but they did it.
GD: Were you allowed to even tell your friends and family?
MG: I did but they never had me in the lineup so I said, “Well, okay, I’m here. Whatever.” (Laughs.)
GD: Tell us about walking on that set for the first time in so many years. It was recreated so brilliantly, wasn’t it?
MG: It really was. When I read the script I said, “This is the same show I did, word for word.” And, of course, I remembered it all.
GD: Oh, you remembered it once you realized it was the pilot?
MG: Yeah, the moves and everything.
GD: It all came back?
MG: Yeah, because it’s the thing that changed my life so you don’t forget it.
GD: What was it like walking on that set for the first time and seeing the front door and the couches and the living room and everything?
MG: It was great and they actually had the actual backdrop that we had in the beginning. They had found somebody had it. They were trying to figure out how to recreate it. They said, “We have it.” So that’s wonderful.
GD: How many days did you work on the special?
MG: I think we did five days.
GD: So four days of rehearsal and then the live show that night. I heard the reaction in the room. Everybody cheered when the door opened and you were there. What was the reaction of the friends and family of yours?
MG: Everybody was just excited about it and all the actors were excited, too. Wanda [Sykes] was standing there when I said, “Miss Jefferson, that’s all I got to say.” And everyone went into an uproar and we just kept looking at each other and her eyes were twinkling.
GD: How important was it to you that Norman Lear be part of this and that he was there?
MG: Oh, it’s very important. That’s my hero.
GD: What is it about him? Of course, he did “All in the Family,” “Jeffersons,” “Good Times” and so many shows. What was it about him especially in the ‘70s and ‘80s that was so genius that captured what people were wanting to watch?
MG: I can’t put it into words but when I met him, I just loved him in the beginning because everything he said was so apropos and when he came to the set, the notes he gave made so much sense. As a matter of fact, he stopped coming to the set and I saw him in the hallway and I said, “Why don’t you come to our show anymore?” And he said, “Well, you guys don’t need me. Why, do you want me to come?” I said, “Yeah!” So he said, “Okay, cancel my so-and-so, we’re going to ‘The Jeffersons’ set.” And of course, the producer said, “Norman’s coming. Who invited him?” Somebody said, “Marla.” I said, “Yeah.”
GD: You were teacher’s pet that day.
MG: We were having a few issues on the set. It wasn’t quite working and I somehow knew that Norman would fix it and he came and right away we got the right input and the show went on. I knew he would do that. You just have that feeling about people.
GD: He has that instinct on the set of what’s working and what’s not. Were you already a fan of “All in the Family” when you got “The Jeffersons” job?
MG: Somewhat. I didn’t watch it every week but I watched it and I liked it.
GD: How did you get the role?
MG: Audition. As a matter of fact, my agent, Ernestine McClendon, had been an actress in New York and, I think, an agent in New York and she moved to Los Angeles. I went to meet with her and she represented me and at this time, she decided that people were not seeing her actors. They were treating her like a revolving door in and out and so she wrote a letter to “The Hollywood Reporter” complaining about that and they had a big article in there. So, suddenly, her actors started being seen. Of course, at that time they were auditioning for “The Jeffersons” and I heard about it. I was doing a play with Margaret Avery in what was called the Zodiac Theater where I thought I would always be doing plays ‘cause I loved it. I was doing a play and I heard they were auditioning for “The Jeffersons.” My agent called me, she made an appointment for me to go in and I went in. This time, the casting agent, who normally when I went in before, it was like I wasn’t there. This time, she was paying attention to me and everything I did she liked and she said, “I’m taking you over to the producers.” So she took me over to the producers. She said, “I want you to do the same thing you did for me.” So I did and they liked it, it was [Don] Nicholl, [Michael] Ross and [Bernie] West, the three producers, and they really liked it. By the time I got home I had a call, I had the job. That was really exciting and I never had a series before. So I went to read it for Norman and I decided to change the line. “Maybe I should say it this way.” So I said it another way and they said, “What happened? No, no! Say it the way you said it!” Of course, that’s the way I said it on the show. So I did and they liked it. This time, I was giving the show to the other actress who played Diane and that was the end but I was excited because I had this big show. So I went home and didn’t think about it anymore and they called me to come back for the fifth show and then I did the eighth show and then next year they offered me a contract. We only did 13 the first year, half a season. It was just a wonderful opportunity.
GD: I want to ask you about both of them. Isabel Sanford, what was she like?
MG: Isabel, everybody said, “My queen, my liege.” And I would say, “My ledgie.” I would mess up everything to keep her tickled. With her and Sherman, Sherman would always be eating stuff and Isabel, too. Isabel had some cookies and I saw where she put them and I moved them. So she said, “Somebody moved my cookies. Where are they?” And I would just look innocent. She would be fussing and then she’d find out I took them.
GD: That sounds like something Florence would do.
MG: I played jokes on them all the time and Sherman, he would open the kitchen door and the counter was there and he’d reach in and put something there and he’d reach in between sets to get something and I’d always move it. I would always be looking innocent, like, “I don’t know what’s going on.” After a while, they caught wind of me.
GD: What was he like?
MG: Sherman was great. He delighted in setting me up so I could hit him. I wouldn’t be able to hit him as well as I did if he didn’t set me up but he loved it.
GD: Were either one of them like their characters?
MG: Isabel was more so. Sherman, no. Sherman was an introvert but on-camera he was an extrovert. When I first started working with him I said, “Is that all he’s gonna give me?” The cameras hit and I said, “Oh, okay!” So we play off each other a lot.
GD: He would underplay in the rehearsals and then give you the full George Jefferson on camera?
MG: A whole other person.
GD: How did Florence change over time?
MG: In the beginning, as I said, in the original, “I do your windows every week” and then after a while, it was “Why can’t you do your windows?” So Isabel said to me once, “Exactly why do we have you here?” I said, “Obviously to teach you ‘cause you don’t know a damn thing. You don’t know how to cook, you don’t know how to clean your house. When I leave here, you’re gonna know everything.”
GD: On the special that you just did for ABC, Wanda Sykes plays Weezy. Tell us about working with Wanda.
MG: Wanda was great. Wanda did not imitate her. She just did the thing the way she thought it should be done and it was perfect.
GD: She had the hairstyle and the clothes right, though.
MG: Yes, so did Jamie. They put the hair on him.
GD: And Jamie does a full-on impression.
MG: Oh yes he did. He loved it.
GD: What’s he like to work with?
MG: He was great. Everybody was great but Jamie was just raring to go. He’d come in between the sets and go over and hug me.
GD: The first moment you arrived for the first day of rehearsal, what was that like and tell us about that moment?
MG: When I first arrived I was met by Kerry Washington who looked like a teenager ‘cause her hair would change I didn’t know who she was for a second. She said, “I get to work with you a second time.” Then I realized I’m talking to Kerry. She was just beautiful.
GD: Last time the three of you were together, Isabel, Sherman and you, was the CBS anniversary special about 16, 17 years ago. What was that night like reuniting?
MG: That was funny because I had an outfit that was almost a sapphire blue and I got there and Isabel had on sapphire blue and she said, “Is that the same color as mine?” Sherman said, “No, honey.” I said, “No, it is, but it’s not just like yours. Yours is beautiful.” She was not that well at the time.
GD: Maybe in the next year she passed away?
MG: Mhm. She was facing us. She said, “I’m having a problem. I fall backwards.” So I said, “Well my ledgie, you’re standing the wrong way. You need to turn around. We can’t catch you if you fall backwards now.” So I said, “I’ll tell you what, since we call you our queen, what you do is you put one hand on Sherman, you put one hand on me and then you just take your hand (waves like a queen) to your audience. That way you can get all the way to the microphone.” That’s what we did. We walked in like that, like she was the queen and we were escorting her.
GD: You had a fun time that night?
MG: We did. So then I met the people from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which is one of my favorite shows and I went over and hugged them and told them they were doing a great job. Then, Doris [Roberts], I went over to congratulate her.
GD: On the special, you had “All in the Family” first and then “The Jeffersons” was second. What did you all do to celebrate afterwards? Was there a big party?
MG: There was a party. We had a dinner at Jimmy Kimmel’s house, which was very nice. That’s before the show. And then afterwards there was another party. Everything was nice.
GD: Of all the original episodes back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is there one that stands out to you? I’m sure people ask you what your favorite one was.
MG: I have several. We did 200 shows. One was where I played Aunt Jemima. He wanted me to be the proper maid and drove him crazy. Then I had one with Billy Dee Williams, which was nice. There was another with Ned Wertimer and I. Ned and I became friends over the years until he passed away. We had to be Helen Willis and Tom Willis because George was inviting an interracial couple over and he wanted him to think that his friends were interracial and of course he was always at odds with Helen and Tom so he made me be Helen and Ned be Tom. It was funny.
GD: You got five Emmy nominations when you were on “The Jeffersons” but not right away. It started around 1980 so you were already into the show a few years. Tell us about your first Emmy Awards experience.
MG: Oh my goodness. It’s overwhelming. You can’t really describe it. You’re sitting there and then they put the camera on you and you’re trying to look normal. You wanna go, “Ahh!”
GD: Isabel won for Lead Actress one year.
MG: She did.
GD: That was an amazing episode of hers, the one where she goes back to visit her childhood home.
MG: Yeah, “The Doorknobs Were Shining.”
GD: Did you all celebrate that night after she won?
MG: No, I’m sure she did. I don’t know what she did. They probably had a private party.
GD: Last year you sort of got an Emmy from Michael Che.
MG: Yeah, and I messed that up. I was so busy trying to do my little thing. Afterwards, I said, “What were you thinking about?” But he said, “No, it was fine.” I was upset with myself but everybody said it was fine, it came out fine.
GD: It was good. It was very funny. The room just erupted in applause when you came onscreen. What would mean if this brought you back to the Emmy Awards in a few weeks when nominations come out?
MG: It would be a miracle. It would be very well-appreciated and accepted and I would say, “At last! I’ve been a bridesmaid four times and now I’m a bride.”
GD: Speaking of awards, I had to get your reaction on “227,” your TV daughter, Regina King, winning an Oscar earlier this year.
MG: That’s my baby.
GD: Every time I see her I ask her about you and how you’re doing.
MG: She has three Emmys, one Golden Globe and an Oscar. I said, “How the heck do you expect me to catch up with you? Would you pause, please?”
GD: Were you sitting at home when she won? Did you jump up out of your seat?
MG: Yes. My daughter was on the phone, “Did you see her? Did you see her?” I said, “Yeah.” She came over Christmas to help me trim the Christmas tree. She did that two years in a row. We stayed together.
GD: Even though she was young when you first started on “227,” did you know she was a great actress?
MG: She was already on her way. She worked with another group but she had already been acting and been in a couple plays. When we hired her, she was already there.
GD: And you followed her all these years and all the different things she’s been in?
MG: Yeah, and I wanted her on “227” because I said, “Look at her. She’s got sandy hair like Hal [Williams], she’s got light brown eyes like Hal, she could really be a star. I want her.” They had another little girl they wanted but I won.
GD: Have you spoken with her since she won her Oscar?
MG: Oh yeah. I called her right away. I don’t get her right away but I called her right away.
GD: Yeah, she’s quite busy. When was the last time you saw Hal Williams?
MG: I see Hal all the time. The city council did something for us. He was there. I was there. If something goes on he’s there or we’ll call each other. And then we did a reboot, it was supposed to be a reboot of “227” but actually, it wasn’t, we had a scene in it, me, him and Jackée [Harry]. I worked with Jackee at least three or four times since “227.” She played my daughter on “The First Family.”
GD: On “The Jeffersons,” it was so popular, the one that just aired, the special, have they talked at all about doing another one?
MG: Not to me. I’m sure they’re talking but I don’t know about what. I’m hoping they’ll come up with something and I hope I can be involved because I’m ready.
GD: Last thing today as we finish up, I just noticed that your birthday is this week.
MG: Yes, I’ll be 30 again before you say the other one.
GD: 30 celebrating how many times?
MG: 30 now since 2004, when I decided to be 30.
GD: How will you celebrate this next birthday?
MG: We’re going to dinner. We usually go to dinner and my daughter’s waiting for me to tell her where I’d like to go. I was over in the Grove yesterday, as a matter of fact, walking through and I saw the Marmalade Cafe and they had a little menu outside and I looked and I said, “This looks interesting.” So I told my son while I was on the way over here, I called him and I said, “Go to the computer, look up Marmalade Cafe and print out the menu so I can tell my daughter.”
GD: Now that you’ve given them an advertisement here maybe they’ll give you a free dinner.
MG: From your lips to God’s ears (laughs). Marmalade Marmalade!
GD: Marla, thank you so much. We were so excited to see you again on “The Jeffersons” and good luck with everything.
MG: Thank you, I was excited to be on “The Jeffersons.”