After Mopping Up as the Maid on the Jeffersons, Marla Gibbs Polishes Her Image as the Star of 227
There's a problem on the set of NBC's 227: The sitcom's star is blue. No, Marla Gibbs isn't melancholic; she's tinted blue. The monitor shows that the color balance is way off, giving Gibbs' flesh tones a shimmering hue. Hands on hips, Gibbs marches over to the monitor and, as she puts it, "drives the crew craaaaaazy" until the color is adjusted. "I'm the mother hen here," she cackles. "The cast, the crew, the network might not prefer it, but I stick my nose into everything, honey. I've got to see for myself."
The sassy tone of voice is familiar. It's the same one Gibbs used for 11 seasons as Florence, The Jeffersons' back-talking maid. Now with a similar tart tongue, Gibbs plays the role of Mary Jenkins—a housewife who rules the roost in her inner-city brown-stone—and the role of the show's co-producer. When Regina King, the 14 year old cast as her daughter, ad-libs a line about hitting her, Gibbs threatens to return the favor. "Regina knows when we're on the set that I'm her mama," says a laughing Gibbs. "If she does something wrong, I'm going to slap her one." Regina disagrees. "She just talks a good game," says the teenager.
As a downscale cousin to The Cosby Show, 227 has won decent reviews and ratings in its slot following Golden Girls. For the 50ish Gibbs, who guards her age, being the star of her own show represents a long-sought leap from sitcom ensemble player to power broker. "Marla really is involved in the show," says executive producer Jack Elinson. "She's no figurehead." She maintains casting approval and supervises scripts. As Gibbs observes, "When I produce the show, I don't have time to deal with affected people who live in contrived situations. That's just one big bore, honey."
The hard-nosed approach is more than just talk, as Gibbs' own offspring are aware. The actress raised three children with a loving but sometimes heavy hand. "The whoppings weren't that bad," says Dorian, 22, a graduate of USC's drama department. "Mom's arm would get tired before any real damage could happen." The same treatment was accorded Angela, 31, an actress, and Jordan Jr., 28, a cameraman at Universal Studios. "I whip their butts," jokes Gibbs. "I offer them a choice of the whip or a punch—and it's no plaything. Oh, mighty!"
The problems of Gibbs' own childhood were more psychological than corporal. In part, the key to Gibbs is her mother—or rather the absence of her mother. Gibbs grew up as Margaret Bradley, a shy, introverted girl on Chicago's South Side. Her parents divorced when she was 4, and her mother, using her stage name, Ophelia Kemp, left home to pursue a career as a popular radio evangelist in the Midwest. "It was very painful," Marla remembers. "I didn't feel she needed me when I was young. I needed answers that only she could give me, and she wasn't there." Mother and daughter reconciled later in life, and although Ophelia died in 1967, their relationship goes on. "She lives through me," Gibbs insists. "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."
Marla was raised by her father, Douglas Bradley, an auto mechanic. "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."
The same sense of displacement marked her early adult years. When she married Jordan Gibbs, a Chicago postal employee, "he was an escape hatch," admits Marla. "I really didn't know him." The marriage, which lasted 17 years, was often turbulent. "I would wonder what was wrong with me," she says. "I would go to the front door and go screaming down the street because I felt so restricted and enclosed."
In 1963 Marla went to work as a reservations clerk for United Airlines, and six years later a transfer took Gibbs, her husband and kids to Los Angeles. As a hobby, she began studying acting. "It was just to take my mind off my troubles. If I'd never earned a living at it, I wouldn't have cared." Acting accelerated her discontent. "I needed my freedom. The point is you move on when you want to move on," she says. She shortened her name to Marla and in 1973 filed for divorce.
Brash and upfront, Gibbs found her emerging personality custom-made for The Jeffersons' Florence, her first major role. An incorrigible scene-stealer, she considered the cast one big family. Says former co-star Sherman Hemsley: "Marla's like a favorite sister you can't want to kick out of the house." She fostered a similar family atmosphere in 1983, when she starred in a comedy at L.A.'s Crossroads Arts Academy, which Gibbs owns. Titled 227, the play featured a black Love Lucy-type mother trying to shield her loved ones from inner-city evils. When The Jeffersons went off the air last spring, Gibbs persuaded NBC to translate the play into a series.
If 227 doesn't survive the season, Gibbs won't have to worry about eviction from her 17-room house in the Los Feliz Hills of California. She also owns Marla's Memory Lane supper club, a jazz joint in downtown L.A., and You!, a high-priced clothing boutique in Beverly Hills. Romance has been a casualty of her numerous activities. "I'm not launching a major campaign for a man. Why're you asking? You know someone for me?"
In a sense, Gibbs accepted her blossoming confidence more easily than her financial success. Even during her first two years on The Jeffersons, she still kept her airlines job. But she isn't sorry she finally gave it up. "They stopped issuing unlimited passes to the employees. Now you have to go space available and you get bumped, honey," she says. "When I get on a plane these days, I go first class."
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