“Where’s the black lady?”
Gibbs’s repertoire spans stage, film and television, but she’s probably best known for charming audiences on “The Jeffersons” and “227.” The Emmy-nominated actress also has a jazz album under her belt, the recently remastered “It’s Never Too Late.”
The album title is no coincidence for Gibbs, who moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s to start her acting career. Decades later, she’s still acting: Gibbs will follow up last month’s “Scandal” cameo with another appearance on Thursday’s episode. And like any “Scandal” fan worth her salt(ed popcorn), Gibbs is on Twitter.
— Marla Gibbs (@MarlaGibbs4Real) March 6, 2015
She’s also a great-grandmother whose age is pretty well documented. But if you ask her, she’ll tell you she’s 30. Read on to find out why.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
A lot of people were really excited to see you on “Scandal”
People are stopping me all the time, saying they enjoyed it. And they want to know some of the secrets that I cannot tell them.
You’re going to be on the show again on March 12. Is there anything you can tell me about the episode?
Do you watch the show?
What other shows do you watch?
“Everybody loves Raymond” — even though it’s off, I watch the reruns of that. I was watching “Frasier,” but they took that off. I watch “Law and Order.”
You’re in the indie film “Grantham and Rose,” which was released on iTunes/Amazon last month. What else are you working on?
I just finished shooting “Hot in Cleveland,” which is another one of my favorite shows. And of course Betty White is everybody’s favorite.
I got big hugs when I went to do the show — from her and the rest of the cast, which was wonderful because Wendie Malick, who is on the show, was also on “Frasier.” And [Georgia Engel] from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” was in the segment with me and I was a fan of hers.
Do you have a preference between television and film?
I like doing both. I like doing more serious work like “Scandal” because that’s how I started, but when I ended up in comedy, I said “I guess this is where I’m supposed to be,” and it turned out that’s exactly where I was supposed to be.
So you hadn’t originally started as a comedic actress?
No, I was a dramatic actress.
I really trained in community workshops. I trained in Watts — in Los Angeles — at a place called PASLA (Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles). Then I went to Mafundi [Institute] and did plays there. I did work at Watts Writers Workshop. Margaret Avery had a theater called the Zodiac workshop and I did several plays there. When the audition for “The Jeffersons” came up that’s where I was.
What other acting did you do before “The Jeffersons”?
I was in “Uptown Saturday Night” as an extra and “Lady Sings the Blues” as an extra. Then I decided I didn’t want to be an extra. The guy that would put us on wanted to call us back, and I said “No, I can’t come back.” He said “Why?” I said “Because I want to do what Diana Ross is doing.” He said “Don’t we all?” I said “Yes, but I’m going to.”
And we laughed about it later because I had him as a guest on “227.” But we just believed we could do that. I’d say I had some of the best training at Mafundi and PASLA. People always ask “did you study in New York?” I say “No, I studied in Watts.” I don’t think it matters where you are if you have a good instructor and you have a good workshop.
What were you doing before you started acting?
I had been working for United Airlines for 11 years when I got “The Jeffersons” and I stayed with them an additional two years. I was doing both things. Because in my world, a bird in the hand is worth twenty in the bush, so I wasn’t ready to give up the airline yet. Besides I had unlimited passes.
How often were you working for the airline while you were filming the show?
Every day. I worked part-time for the airline then. So I talked United into letting me come in at 7 because we’d finish the show at about 5 and I would get out. United was in downtown Los Angeles then, so I could catch the freeway and come up right next to United and be in my seat saying “Good evening, this is Ms. Gibbs. United Airlines — Ms. Gibbs, can I help you?” I was on the phone — reservations. Sometimes some people would say they recognize my voice. I’d just say, “really?”
Florence Johnston, your character on “The Jeffersons,” is so beloved by fans of the show. Is it true that she was only supposed to be a recurring character?
It was supposed to be a one-time guest appearance. So I was very blessed that it turned into 11 seasons and a show for me.
That show was “227”?
That show was “Checking In.” I don’t think the public got to see anything but the pilot. We did four episodes but the writers strike hit, and we were not able to go on. So I went back to “The Jeffersons.”
Out of all of your roles, is Florence your favorite?
I would have to say that was my favorite and “227” was next. We have some fans that favor “227” over “The Jeffersons,” especially younger people, and some that favor “The Jeffersons.” But “The Jeffersons” actually has never stopped running, so now we have a whole new audience. Little children!
I was doing “The Hughleys” and the two children that were my grandchildren on the show, they came running in one day saying “we saw you, we saw you!” They had seen a re-run of “The Jeffersons.” I was in a department store and a Caucasian man walked up to me and he said “my son recognized you.” His son was three-years-old. I said, “Are you staying up late? What time do you go to bed?” (Laughs) Because we were on at night then.
We have people today that say “I watch you every week.” They’re watching “The Jeffersons” faithfully because they don’t like what else is on TV.
Both “The Jeffersons” and “227” were so impactful, particularly for audiences of color. Do you get that type of feedback from fans?
I meet so many different people of different races who say “I grew up on you.”
“The Jeffersons” — we never considered ourselves a black show. We were mixed in the cast and all of our guest stars, mostly, were other races. We were reflecting people and we really reflected all of society.
We had a lot of good episodes. We touched almost everything on that show.
You had even more of an expanded role on “227”
I had all rights, courtesies and privileges of executive producer. I had no title and no credit. And no money for that. But I didn’t care because I wanted to do it. That was one of the most rewarding experiences that I had because I wrote two or three episodes. I sat in on editing and I made decisions. I sat in on casting.
We had a slew of wonderful actors. Kelsey Grammer. Leslie Nielsen came with his little thing that you press and it makes you think somebody broke wind. He would wait for the moment somebody was about to sit down and he’d press it. He was incorrigible. I loved him. He was funny.
Which episodes did you write on “227”?
There was one called “Rich Kid.” I wanted [the character] to die and they said no. I said “No, that’s what happens when you sell drugs. People lose their children.” He was a well-dressed young man in high school with Brenda (Regina King) and Calvin (Curtis Baldwin) and they were enamored with him. He had a fancy car that he was driving that he told his mother was his friend’s. But he asked Calvin to hold a package for him and he just gave him $50. All he had to do was give him the package. But his grandmother got the package. And then we realized he was selling dope. So I went over to tell his mother and of course she put me out. I told her about the neighborhood watch meeting. She came to the next one and she said he had been killed. And she said “Somebody help me because I’ve got another one at home. Somebody tell me what to do.”
And that’s where we ended because nobody knows what to do. We let it end like that.
What do you like to do when you’re not acting?
Working out. I have a trainer. I had a foot infection so I had to drop the trainer for a while. Now it’s time to get the trainer back. I enjoyed that.
You’re 83 now?
No, I’m 30. Born in ’31. You do the math and don’t tell me. I really live that. If I go to the hospital or the doctor — I’m 30. They ask me for my birth date, I put my birth date down. Then they ask me for my age, so I put 30. Because when people tell their age they start seeing themselves as that. I do not see 83 in my life. I don’t know what that is.
People start saying “I’m old” and they start acting old and next thing you know they’re gone. Or they stop living, they stop dreaming, they stop doing anything. My thing is that it’s never too late if you’re still breathing. I’m still vertical and I’m still on this side of the grass.
And I’m still 30, so there’s no excuse. I can do anything I want to do because it’s never too late.