If it wasn’t for a woman named Ernestine taking Hollywood to task, Marla Gibbs may never have played the iconic role of Florence Johnston on the 1970s hit sitcom “The Jeffersons.”
“My agent at the time was Ernestine McLendon. She wrote a letter to The Hollywood Reporter complaining that her actors were never seen. It was like a revolving door,” Gibbs tells the AFRO. McClendon’s missive to the important media industry periodical worked.
Marla Gibbs, who played the iconic Florence Johnston on ‘The Jeffersons’, is part of the new Shonda Rhimes show ‘Station 19.’ (Courtesy photo)
Gibbs recalls, “Suddenly, we started being seen. I had been in Norman Lear’s office twice before that but it was like I wasn’t there. The casting agent had paid no attention to me. This time, she paid attention and I got the part.” Originally, Florence was only supposed to have been on one episode. “I was only supposed to be on the first show,” Gibbs explains, ”But they liked what I did and they wrote more for me. The next season, I had a contract.”
Shonda Rhimes is notorious for keeping scripts under wraps and the same is true of her new series “Station 19”, in which Gibbs will play a recurring character. At present, all the veteran actress knows about her character is, “Her name is Edith, she lives in a senior facility and has a grandson.” A spinoff of the fourteen seasons-old “Greys Anatomy”, it stars Jason George revisiting his “Grey’s Anatomy” character Ben Warren who has changed careers and is now a fireman. Gibbs first met Rhimes, who she describes as, “Just wonderful. Very talented, very creative”, when she was a guest star for two episodes on “Scandal” where she played leading character Olivia Pope’s neighbor in season four.
Gibbs is known for her flawless depiction of tart-tongued Florence Johnston, who was the housekeeper for the characters George and Louise Jefferson. Preceding “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s” Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv by a decade and a half, they were the first wealthy Black married couple who came into people’s living rooms each week, on Norman Lear’s groundbreaking sitcom “The Jeffersons.”
Gibbs earned five Emmy nominations and one Golden Globe nomination for the role. “The Jeffersons” was also ahead of its time in regularly depicting an interracial family; the upstairs neighbors Tom and Helen. Tom and Helen’s twenty-something daughter Jenny, was arguably television’s first “bougie” Black girl.
Gibbs then went on to co-produce and star in her own comedy series “227” as housewife Mary Jenkins. Jackee Harry co-starred as her audacious neighbor Sandra and Regina King played her conscientious yet typical teen daughter, Brenda. Since then, Gibbs has done a slew of films and guest appearances on popular shows like the aforementioned “Scandal,” “Southland,” “American Horror Story,” and “Hot in Cleveland.” She appeared on the megahit family drama “This is Us” in its first season.
Gibbs was working at United Airlines when the opportunity to play Florence, came along. “Doing ‘The Jeffersons,’” she says, “Was just astounding. It was wonderful. I was working for the airline and it was quite a surprise and quite a boon for me. I hadn’t expected it. I thought I would always be a theater actress but I turned out to be a television actress which was very gratifying.” Gibbs was also surprised at the genre for which she became most known. “I always wanted to be a dramatic actress but when I got to comedy I said to myself that this must be where I’m supposed to be.”
The Chicago born and raised Gibbs says, “I had always wanted to be an actress growing up.” Unfortunately, she didn’t get the chance to do any acting or be exposed to theater during her childhood or adolescence. However, she says she and her sister, who were raised by her father and grandmother, “were avid movie-goers.”
Gibbs moved to Los Angeles to study acting in her early thirties. By that time, she was already a Mom and would take acting classes with her daughter, Angela. “We did the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles workshop and then we went over to the Watts Watts Workshop which was quite popular then.” Though she has done a lot of theater work with her daughter, it was only recently that they got to work together on-screen. They recently wrapped the film “Love Jacked” which is awaiting distribution. “It was the first film we got to work on together and it was a wonderful film,” she enthuses. It also stars Keith David (“Greenleaf”) and Mike Epps (“Meet The Blacks,” “Survivor’s Remorse.”)
When she isn’t working Gibbs’ favorite thing is to hang out with her “part Maltese, part Pekingese” dog that she’s had for about three years now. “His name is Quito. The man I got him from probably said Poquito, but I didn’t hear the first part. I call him Quito.”