The Jeffersons’ Marla Gibbs talks showbiz, turning 86 and being a great-grandma!
The sitcom legend on living an ageless life with a sense of humor
Few TV stars are as cherished as Marla Gibbs, both for playing sassy maid Florence Johnston on her 1975 to 1985 hit
The Jeffersons and gossipy housewife Mary Jenkins on another long-running sitcom, 1985 to 1990’s 227. The first show “brought me a lot of love that was missing in my life,” she reveals to Closer. “People still tell me ‘I love you,’ and big, grown men will say, ‘I gotta have a hug,
Ms. Gibbs’ — and I’ll hug them!” But life hasn’t always been easy for Marla: Shortly after recording a 2006 album, she had a brain aneurysm that derailed her dream of a singing career and led to depression. Her loving daughter, Angela, an actress, helped put Marla on the road to recovery. Now, at age 86, this mother of three is as busy as ever, with recent roles on The Carmichael Show and Scandal and in two upcoming films, Love Jacked and Please Stand By. All that’s missing is a special someone. “I don’t necessarily want to remarry, but I want a companion,” Marla shares, before revealing a bit of the sass that made her famous. “A companion is good, because you can also send them home!”
— Gregg Goldstein
Congrats on turning 86! How does it feel to be “movin’ on up” to 90?
I decided to park on 30. So I’ll be turning 30 again next June 14. I said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” [Laughs]
Are you enjoying your 30s?
I like being a 30-year-old, because I’ve never heard anyone say there’s something they can’t do. They only say that at 40. The point is: We’re all spiritual as well as physical beings, and we’re all ageless and timeless. So I choose to vibrate on 30. I’ve got two films coming up!
And your daughter, Angela, acts with you in one of them, Love Jacked.
Yes, we get along very well. She worked on Birdman and The Revenant [as an acting coach], and she’s a director, so I’m waiting for her to write something for me.
How did you get started as an actress?
When I was in Detroit, a high school teacher asked me to speak about a product on a juvenile TV show. I liked it a lot, so when things weren’t going well with my marriage, I moved to California. I got the audition for The Jeffersons, and the rest is history!
What inspired your performance?
My aunt, my grandmother and people I grew up with were all in my head. Florence reminded me of them. I was only supposed to be on one show, but they got such a big response, they offered me a contract.
And you were still working part-time for United Airlines!
I’d been with them for 10 years and had an unlimited pass and my choice of shift. I knew a bird in the hand was better than 20 in the bush…and what if this TV show didn’t last? One day, a producer said, “Do you still have that job?” I said, “You didn’t tell me to quit!” I resigned. Of course, I’ve never regretted it.
You said it brought you a lot of love….
Growing up, I was not the favorite at home, so I was always looking for it. Off camera, Sherman [Hemsley] would say, “I love you, Marla,” and I’d say, “I love you, Sherman.” We talked about every month. I’m sorry he left us so soon.
How was everything with Jackée Harry on 227?
Jackée came out wanting to be a star. My feeling was that there are no stars, only working and nonworking actresses. She said I was very selfish, but she’s apologized and has been very nice. We’ve done a few things since then and became friends.
In 2006, you had a close call….
I had an aneurysm — not many people survive them. Lee Meriwether had invited me to see her in Love Letters. When I was in the bathroom, I heard something in my head and kept looking in the mirror, but I couldn’t see anything. I ended up on the floor. That’s where they found me. The doctor said, “Her life will never be the same.”
Wow. You seem to be in great shape now. How did you get back to your old self?
My daughter brought me to a doctor who was an expert in aneurysms. She was my advocate and was with me all the time. I did rehab, but went through depression when I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything again.
Was there a turning point?
I looked at myself in the mirror and had to figure out who that little lady was. So I got up and decided I had to do something. I got to do Scandal, and I’m working more than ever.
You’re a grandma, too.
I also have two great-grandkids!
Anything left on your bucket list?
I want to do a part that says older people are the same. At a lot of nursing homes, you’ll see people falling in love and getting married. There’s no time limit except the one you put on yourself.
Any benefits to this stage of your life?
That you’ve learned a lot. You don’t fret or give into panic. You don’t trip. You are content.
— Reporting by Ilyssa Panitz
“The universe has a way of putting you where
— Marla ( filming Love
Jacked with daughter Angela in 2016)