Marla Gibbs Played Florence on "The Jeffersons." See Her Now at 90.
She hasn't slowed down during her five-decade career.
Marla Gibbs is a multi-talented actress, singer, comedian, writer, producer, and former jazz club owner—but you most likely know her as Florence Johnston, George Jefferson's maid in the CBS sitcom The Jeffersons. During her 10 years on the popular series, Gibbs became famous for her character's wisecracking quips, which catapulted her to fame in the mid-'70s. Gibbs received five Primetime Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series during her time on the show, then went on to star on another Emmy-winning series the year The Jeffersons wrapped. Read on to see the iconic actress now at 90 years old!
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She got her start while working a very normal job.
Before Gibbs landed her breakout role, she was a married mother of three living in Detroit and working for a hotel switchboard. At the time, her sister was living in Los Angeles doing bit parts in television shows, which Gibbs says inspired her own move to L.A. in the mid-'60s. There, she started working for United Airlines, again as a switchboard operator—a job she would continue for 11 years while attending theater workshops and doing community theater.
What she didn't realize at the time was that her work on the switchboards was teaching her the skills she needed to succeed in Hollywood. "It was all preparing me to do television. And I realized when I got into TV I was used to handling people, handling lines, handling scripts. It wasn't a script, per se, like television and film, but it was scripted," she recalled in a 2006 interview with the Television Academy Foundation.
When Gibbs landed her spot on the show, she continued to work for the airline. "I'd get off from 'Jeffersons' and come right up 6th Street, zoom around the corner, and I'd be sitting at my desk at United Airlines. 'Good Evening, United Airlines, may I help you?' Sometimes people would say, 'Your voice sounds familiar.'" Ultimately, she realized she would have to fully dedicate herself to acting if she wanted to succeed. "I decided that if you only stretch one leg, you can't go very far, you've got to take both legs with you. I decided to give it a shot. And of course, I wasn't sorry," she recalled.
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She's worked steadily in TV and film ever since.
Gibbs got her first onscreen role in 1968, as an uncredited extra in the Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda film Yours, Mine and Ours. Five years later in 1973, she landed her first credited role in the film Sweet Jesus, Preacherman, starring Roger Mosely. From there, things took off for Gibbs. After making several TV and TV movie appearances, she was cast on The Jeffersons in 1975, which ran for a decade.
Immediately following the show, she signed on for another long-term role as Mary Jenkins on the Primetime Emmy Award winning show 227. The popular series lasted for five seasons, extending the actress's unbroken streak of small screen success.
Since the show's eventual wrap in 1990, Gibbs has appeared on scores of TV shows and movies. Her television credits include Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 101 Dalmatians: The Series, Dawson's Creek, The King of Queens, The Hughleys, ER, Passions, This Is Us, Scandal, and more. Additionally, she has appeared in several popular movies, including Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection. Most recently in 2021, Gibbs appeared in eight episodes of the soap opera Days of Our Lives. She currently has three new projects slated for release in 2022.
She fondly remembers working on "The Jeffersons."
When asked what a typical work week looked like on The Jeffersons, Gibbs shared that she found it "very easy… because we were so good and because we had the lines down in no time."
She explained that the cast would all come together to first read through a script on Wednesday, then they'd spend Thursday rehearsing and blocking the moves. On Friday, the cast would have a run through for the directors, who would then fix any problems behind the scenes over the weekend. On Monday, everyone would come back together for a dress rehearsal and on Tuesday, they'd tape the show. "I loved it," said Gibbs, explaining that this rhythm kept the cast fresh for taping day.
She also described her working relationship with co-star Sherman Hemsley, saying the two would "feed off" each other's energy. Gibbs called Hemsley a "gifted and generous actor," and described him as an introvert off-screen who transformed into an extrovert the moment the camera was rolling. "You can't hit a person if they don't set you up, and he set me up so I could crack on him all the time," she recalled. "Sherman is the reason my character worked so well."
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Gibbs still feels very connected to her role as Florence.
Fans of the sitcom remember Florence as the wisecracking maid who could put George Jefferson in his place with a look. What they didn't know is that, to Gibbs, the role was personal because she based her delivery of the character on her own grandmother and aunt.
The actress shared that she tried to keep the character true to her family's real-life backstory and upbringing, often working with the writers to tweak dialogue if she felt it was out of character. "Florence was a no-nonsense woman who just didn't let anyone take advantage of her, and would tell you like she saw it whether you asked her or not," remembered Gibbs, adding that she "had a sense of morals that were all her own."
"It appealed to the older people with their sense of dignity and their sense of integrity, and it was funny to the younger people. And so it just worked—it was just real," she said. "It was always about truth to me."