Margaret Theresa Bradley, known professionally as Marla Gibbs (born June 14, 1931), is an American Emmy Award-nominated actress, comedienne, game show panelist and singer. In an acting career that spans four decades, she's best known for her role as maid Florence Johnston on the sitcom The Jeffersons (1975–1985) and for her starring role as housewife Mary Jenkins on the sitcom 227 (1985–1990).
Gibbs, who was the third of four children, born as Margaret Theresa Bradley in Chicago, Illinois, to Douglas Bradley, a self-taught mechanic (later ice truck carrier), and Ophelia Birdie Kemp, a grocery store clerk and a restaurant manager, who would also worked in a church theater, where her mother would charged the whole family $1.00 to watch a show, 10 cents for the children and 25 cents for the adults. Her mother also sold all the snacks in the concession stand. Her grandmother also ran a boarding home, where there were 3 rooms, had done most of the ironing little Margaret had tried. In 1935, a distraught Margaret soon realized her parents were getting divorced as her mother left Chicago to pursue a popular evangelical ministry on radio in another midwestern state. As a young film buff of the 1940s, she grew up watching the movies in the likes of: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power and Vivien Leigh, as she would go out to certain movie theaters. She also learned there were almost no African-American moviestars, who were so popular at the time. She once had a crush on William Marshall, prior to acting.
Despite of her parents divorce, Margaret stayed with her father and two siblings in Chicago, while her mother moved to Detroit, Michigan. Her older sister, Vera Louise, was named after her own aunt, Margaret was named after her own aunt, and her younger sister, Freda was named after her aunt's husband's-sister. She's of German descent by her grandfather. From what little Margaret has been raised, her mother had a lot of sayings, she didn't understand at the time, though mostly what she said are true. At a very young age, she wanted to adopt and save each and every one of the dogs. She lost one of her four dogs, one disappeared and she went looking for the other, she didn't find the other dog. She went to the pound, where she was told about the dogs and the final cage, who only had five days to live. Nobody adopted them, they were all dead. She wanted to have all the dogs, but couldn't get them all, she was only allowed to pick one. She tried to get the dog to her grandmother's house, but her grandmother wouldn't allow her too, hence, Margaret was kicked out of her house, that same year she graduated from Chicago's popular Wendell Phillips High School, in 1949. It was also at Wendell Phillips (where she attended, and became a classmate to the late Sam Cooke).
After her father's death at 16, and the eviction of her grandmother's at 18, she couldn't take her dog back to the pound. She took her dog to reside at her best friend's house, whom she had given a dog to, who in turn, her best friend also had a dog. The cat came by the window suffered a busted eye, and was immediately taken in - hence, her best friend, had had enough. Young Margaret took the Chicago Transit Authority bus, where she took the cat in the bag, to the veterinarian. The vet said she couldn't take the cat in the bag, after badgering the veterinarian, he took Bradley around and showed her some other pets, including birds, among other things that other pet customers had brought, but never came back, hence, she couldn't take her cat back, hence, she was forced to keep it, feeding the cat some food. Her best friend had insisted on Margaret and herself to give up the place, hence, they both had to let their own dogs go. She was also looking for work. Her best friend told her to lie on just about everything. Margaret's first job was working in the Garment District, where she jumped up though she came up with the name of A.H. Gleberman, and said she'd made it someplace else like Racine, Wisconsin. She went in and had the experience working as a factor, wiping chalk marks on clothing. One of the staff came in to work, and Bradley's boss said of another co-worker she was let go, hence she used her time card to clock her, and was determined to work. The next day, going against the boss's orders, the same co-worker of Bradley's came back to work, clock in, but was already informed, she was fired, hence, Margaret's boss had stopped using her as an employee. Bradley was asked by her best friend if she had any sewing experience, and she said yes, fortunately for Margaret and unfortunately for her best friend, she didn't know how to turn the sewing machine on. She later worked at a men's factory, whose job was to straighten up the zippers while cutting the ribbons. Plus she was celebrating for doing her work, though she was too slow.
Later, she worked at Service Bindary, who did her usual two jobs, making sure there was succession of jobs, she went in for an interview realizing they weren't hiring. Later, her boss told her the work was hiring and was immediately taken in, after reviewing her application. Her job was to take the easels, at the time, they made all the displays, where it was a mounting in a book-bindary company. Every display have been stood up with an easel, like a cardboard, where they pull the easel on the back and hose it up. She ran the easels through the glue machine, and put it over there. She got a lot of experience in working through that. She also hired a lot of people for the job. She also had a job working in the mailroom. In the same situation as her previous job (in the factory), one of her co-workers, the mailclerk, had one beer too many and continued using the bathroom, until her boss was furious with her co-worker, noticing he wasn't there, hence, she was just sitting there, waiting for him to return. Despite of her co-worker's drinking behavior, he got fired and Bradley took over.
A lady who grew up with her wanted to know from her if Bradley knew how to run a switchboard, when she didn't, hence, she stayed in the mailroom.
She wanted to be a comedic actress, playing the kind of roles she would more likely to do. Despite not doing dramatic roles, Bradley eventually wound up in comedy.
Before she got to do some acting, she also worked in a all-black Gotham hotel in Detroit, where she worked as a switchboard, the job that everybody was more familiar with her, and later she worked for the Department of Street Railways, where she worked for a switchboard in a bus company.
In order for her to become an actress, she legally changed her name from Margaret Theresa Bradley to Marla Gibbs. This was because her name was too long, she wanted to go with the ebb and flow of her newly, rechristened name.
Before the start of the acting career, between 1963 and 1975, Gibbs had worked as an airline attendant with United Airlines before relocating with her children from Detroit to Los Angeles. Soon afterwards, she joined PASLA (Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles) with her daughter, Angela, and studied at the Mafundi Institute and Watts Writers Workshop (both in Watts, California). Ms. Gibbs soon performed in several well-received productions including Medea, Amen Corner and The Gingerbread Lady at the Zodiac Theatre.
Acid-dry character actress
Gibbs also had a wide variety of guest-starring roles. She made her guest-starring debut on an episode of Barney Miller. The part led to other roles such as: The Love Boat, 3 episodes of Pryor's Place opposite Richard Pryor, A Different World, In The Heat of the Night, Empty Nest, Lincoln Heights, she reprised her role as Florence Johnston on the very last episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 2 episodes of Martial Law, Touched By An Angel with Roma Downey and best friend Della Reese (whom she guest-starred with her on 227), Dawson's Creek, Happily Ever After, The King of Queens, Judging Amy, ER, The Rerun Show, among many others.
Prior to Gibbs, who was working on her last days for United, her Hollywood agent wrote a open letter to the Hollywood Reporter, which an agent printed, she auditioned for the role of sassy maid, Florence Johnston on CBS's, The Jeffersons, where she started to gain international notoriety. This reminded her of her grandmother and aunt, in favor of the unfamiliar actress who went in, got the call and won the role, after she read for producers Don Nicholl and Norman Lear. Gibbs, who never had any time to watch the parent show, All in the Family (from which The Jeffersons had spun off) where it already starred: Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley, both as: Louise and George Jefferson respectively. The show was already an immediate hit, where it ranked #4 in the ratings. The show was based on All in the Family, that revolved Louise who lived in the sky-high apartment with her husband, who also worked for the cleaner, who also had kids and had an interracial couple, whose marriage wanted to work as an authentic couple. Though the scene wasn't real, Lear needed to make it real, as well as the couple's first kiss, where it was Lear's idea. He dissected and solved the problem, very successfully, plus there were a lot of chemistry that she had with Sanford & Hemsley of 1970s/80s television.
Originally, her character had a recurring role, but kept on coming back for more appearances, hence, Gibbs's character grew to be popular, receiving the most fan mail, hence, she became the breakout character for the entire show. She was also nominated for 5 Emmy Awards, but didn't win. In addition, ratings continue to build, for the next six seasons, between 1979–1985, ex. when she left on a temporary basis to star in her own short-lived series, Checking In, before she came back.
Compared to All in the Family, among many other Norman Lear's groundbreaking series, this one also dealt with topics, such as: racism, suicide, peer pressure, dating, gun illiteracy, among many other issues that other 1970s television had offered.
Despite good ratings, when The Jeffersons was unexpectedly and sadly canceled in the summer of 1985, she and the rest of the cast realized the show had ended in controversy after CBS axed the series without an appropriate series finale, hence, they were all shocked, esp. Gibbs herself, but was not out of work for long.
After a short hiatus from television, Gibbs switched networks from CBS to NBC, to play the leading role of sharp-tongued housewife and resident gossip who rocks the inner-city brownstone, Mary Jenkins, on 227. Originally, the series was supposed to make its debut after 1985, however, since Gibbs was released from her contract at CBS, Norman Lear allowed her to star, produce and write in her own series, the same year The Jeffersons got axed from the prime-time line-up, though she was still working at the same production company, outside of Lear. The show was about a play where her real-life daughter, Angela, produced the play by Christine Houston, that Gibbs actually did a play in her own theater, she founded in 1981. Compared to her other role on The Jeffersons before this one, she played almost exactly the same role, and it was also an immediate hit, too, where it served as the answer to other mid-1980s groundbreaking sitcoms that stood the test of time such as: The Cosby Show (which was a downscale cousin), The Golden Girls (a show that aired immediately-following 227), Amen, Night Court, Growing Pains, Perfect Strangers, Who's The Boss, Cheers and Newhart. In turn, Gibbs also made 227 a hit, where she show talked about various topics like: dating, peer pressure, business partnership, dancing, depression, lying, anger, drugs, winning, sex, among many others.
Also starring on 227 was a familiar actor and a best friend of Gibbs', Hal Williams, in the role of construction worker/husband, Lester Jenkins, a Broadway actress, the late Helen Martin in the role of Mary's nosy neighbor, Pearl Shay, another familiar actress, the late Alaina Reed Hall as her best friend, Rose Lee Halloway, along with 2 unfamiliar actresses, Regina King (who was in the 227 play) as Mary's teenaged daughter, Brenda Jenkins and Jackée Harry as Mary's sexy, attractive building vamp, Sandra Clark. Above all, the entire cast got along real great on- and off-camera for the last years of the 1980s, esp. King and Harry (despite rumours swirling around Gibbs & Harry). Harry was also one of the several candidates to audition for Rose and Sandra, at the same time. She in turn was also one of the 500 young ladies to also audition for either a female 227 character, where Jackee stayed at the hotel. Gibbs's co-star also had changed clothes continually for two separate characters, and when it was clear, the very moment she left the hotel room, she got a call, where both Marla and the producers got Jackée to play Sandra instead, hence, the role of Rose was eventually given to Hall. Compared to Gibbs's own Jeffersons character, her co-star was also said to have a recurring role lasting for only 7 episodes, despite being a regular, when she came in every show, each week for Harry to become a breakout character of 1980s television, for the four of five seasons that she stayed on the air, also like Gibbs, Harry also got fan mail, as is the case for Martin. Despite of all the fame Harry was receiving, tensions were mounting between the two ladies as 227 focused more on Sandra's character at the beginning of the fourth season in 1988. NBC was also given a chance for Jackée to star in her own series, the following year, where she created her character, hence it was never developed. She finally left 227 midway throughout the 1989-90 season, and Gibbs wasn't very happy, though they feuded occasionally.
That same season, this once-successful show was also on the brink of cancellation, as well, despite of low ratings and Harry's departure, after 5 seasons and 115 episodes. Unlike The Jeffersons last episode, 227's final episode had the appropriate series finale. NBC didn't just say goodbye to 227, but this also put an end to Gibbs's 16 year career on network television, playing 2 separate roles.
Jackée Harry said of her feud with Marla before her departure from the series during the 1989-90 season: “When Sandra took off and I took off with her, the truth is it did indeed create a lot of tension. There were problems on Marla's part, which was truly ridiculous because she had all the power. It was her show. Maybe the problem stemmed from the fact that from the beginning Marla wanted someone else for the part, but the network insisted on me. They were all pushing Sandra, and they were pushing me. That changed when I got big, maybe too big, in Marla's eyes. Not that Marla and I ever had any arguments. She was never rude to me, and we always remained cordial. But on the biggest night of my life, when I won my Emmy, not only wasn't there a party given for me, but there was also not a flower or a word of congratulations. Ever. There was nothing, and that hurt. Afterward, my part got less and less each week, and it became clear to me that it was time to leave so I did.” After the feud, Gibbs completely took Harry in, as a best buddy, sister and comrade - Susie's (Marla's real-life sister) death in 2002, drew Gibbs & Harry real closer, as Harry was so devastated to hear about her mentor's sister who lived a good life. Today, Harry remains on good terms with Gibbs, as they speak woman-to-woman, having to come full circle with each other.
Gibbs has also appeared as guest star in several African American sitcoms, including, The Hughleys, Martin, Chappelle's Show, and Listen Up. She also has done voice-over work for the animated TV series, 101 Dalmatians. Gibs also starred and sang in the movie Stanley's Gig. She performed the theme song "In the Memory of You", by writer/producer Frank Fitzpatrick, which will be released on the upcoming CD entitled, Scenes In Jazz.
Gibbs owned a jazz club in South Central L.A. called "Marla's Memory Lane Jazz and Supper Club" from 1981 to 1999. She released a music CD, "It's Never Too Late", in May 2006. She also co-wrote 227's theme song with television songwriter Ray Colcord.
In October 2010, The La Femme Film Festival in Los Angeles, California, will induct Gibbs as Honorary Board Member.
She has 9 hobbies: praying, sewing, reading the Bible, movies, traveling, singing, listening to jazz music, spending time with her family and acting.
Gibbs lost her father, Bradley Kemp, in 1947, at the time she was 16.
Gibbs reconciled with her mother Ophelia, and even after her death in 1967, her relationship continues to grow strong in Heaven.
Gibbs, who is divorced, has three adult children (two sons and a daughter, whom she had by the age of 20). She was first married at the age of 13, with Jordan Gibbs. Gibbs is also the younger sister of late supporting actress Susie Garrett (died in 2002), who co-starred with actress Soleil Moon Frye and veteran character actor George Gaynes on the 1980s NBC-TV sitcom show Punky Brewster. She is also the great aunt of actress Cherie Johnson, who co-starred on Punky Brewster and Family Matters.
Marla: "When you're the head of the show, you really have to take care of the other actors, and you really have to do what the producers want, what the network wants, and it was fun for me, because I learned a lot getting an opportunity to do those things." - (Source: The Bill Kerwin Show)
Marla: "Nothing is out of our realm, because it has nothing to do with color. As Black people, we're not different from anyone else, other than the exterior." - (Source: EbonyJet.com)
Marla who said of Jackée Harry: "She is hysterically funny. As a matter of fact, she would say some things that were so outrageous or she'd do something and she'd have to stop and laugh herself and it would break me up, so we'd have to stop and go again." - (Source: The Bill Kerwin Show)
Marla who said in 1985: "As soon as I finish one thing, there's always something else on the horizon I want to do. I don't have any intention of retiring from anything." - (Source: EbonyJet.com)
Marla who said in 1989: "People come up to me all the time, little kids run up to me and identify me for their parents. I say, 'George Jefferson sent you, right?' If I'm going to my car, they walk me to my car, I always keep autographed pictures to hand out, too." - (Source: St. Petersburg Times.com)
Marla when Norman Lear liked to turned The Jeffersons stereotype on its ear: "I was a maid, but I wasn't Hattie McDaniel. I was a black maid to a black family. George Jefferson had worked his way out of the ghetto and into New York's East Side, although his prejudices hadn't caught up with him. The last few seasons, we banned all 'honkey' jokes completely." - (Source: The Toronto Star.com)
Marla: "I whip their butts. Oh, mighty!" - (Source: TorontoStar.com)
Marla of her on- and off-screen chemistry with Sherman Hemsley, who played George Jefferson: "Sherman is hilarious. As a matter of fact, he is so creative, our tipples and our rhythms are so much alike that when he says something, sometimes he would say to me, 'You know, Marla, I forgot my lines.' I said, 'I don't know my lines.' He said, 'Yes, you do!' I said, 'Your mind took a picture of them the first time we did.' So stop saying you don't know it, and I said, 'Anyway, you just say something and when your lips stop moving, I'll answer them.' So, once we come out, I was chewing gum and I'm chewing gum, and I'm looking at him, when he was looking at me, he forgot his lines, so I kept on chewing gum and looking at him and he kept looking at me, and the audience went hysterical. They laughed about 2 minutes, and in that time, he thought of his lines." - (Source: The Bill Kerwin Show)
Marla who said in 1988: "When you're busy doing, you don't have time to talk. You don't have time to say, 'I can't.' You've got to answer the next phone call!" (Source: Daily News of Los Angeles.com)
Marla of her Florence Johnston character: "Florence was the person who was not going to take no bull from anybody, no matter how little money she made. Just because you don't have a lot of money does not mean you have to let people walk over you." - (Source: TV.com)
Marla as to how hard it was for black actresses to find meaningful roles in Hollywood, who honestly revealed the kind of roles that she like to play: "The kind of roles I would be playing now would be such as Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. Challenging reaches and stretches where you come out of one character into another." - (Source: EbonyJet.com)
Marla: "'Put it in the universe,' was her favorite saying, which I say [means] God said if you make one step, He'll make two. Its the same thing. First, you have to put the idea and the thought of what you want in the universe, then you have to act on it and you have to act on it in faith." - (Source: EbonyJet.com)
Marla of whom she stressed the importance of jazz in the United States: "Jazz, of course, is our heritage. Jazz is a culture, it's not a fad. It's up to us to see to it that it stays alive." - (Source: EbonyJet.com)
Marla on becoming a producer in her own right, prior to becoming an actress: "My role is being part of the decisions made. They feel that I have the focus and that I know what project is. I am part of all the note sessions. But we all have input - not just me." - (Source: EbonyJet.com)
Marla who said of Regina King: "Regina knows when we're on the set that I'm her mama. If she does something wrong, I'm going to slap her one." - (Source: People.com)
Marla: "They stopped issuing unlimited passes to the employees. Now you have to go space available and you get bumped, honey. When I get on a plane these days, I go first class." - (Source: People.com)
Marla: "Florence represents the masses and represents what working people feel in subservient roles ... Just because a person is working doesn't make him less of a person. I say what they would like to say to their bosses." - (Source: EbonyJet.com)
Marla of her mother’s, Ophelia Kemp’s 1967 death: "She lives through me, 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." - (Source: People.com)
Marla of her father, Bradley Kemp: "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." - (Source: People.com)
Marla who said blacks must take the initiative in the neighborhood's further development: "When someone else comes in, it's going to be redeveloped for their purposes, not for yours, because it's their money." - (Source: New York Times.com)
Marla on the death of The Jeffersons (1975), series' lead, Isabel Sanford, in 2004: "Isabel was our queen and that's what we called her on the show. She would come in and just light up the room and start telling stories and having everybody in stitches." - (Source: NewYorkPost.com)
Marla who said in 2009 about her real-life best friend's/co-star's, Alaina Reed Hall's ex-husband, Kevin Peter Hall, who guest starred on 227 (1985): "It was a wonderful segment because we had [guest star] Luther Vandross, who was also a friend of Alaina's, sing; and we had the same minister who performed the actual wedding." - (Source: KDVR.com)
Marla who said of her 2006 stroke and aneurysm: "I had a small aneurysm and a stroke as a result of the surgery. Fortunately I can walk and talk and do all those things. God has been really good to me." (Source: Essence.com)
Marla who said in 2008: "I never thought I was a great mom. I always worked. I fell in love with my children as they got older. When they were teenagers, I was the mom for the neighborhood. I realize now I should've been holding them. I didn't feel like they needed me. I felt anybody who gave them a bottle or changed their diapers was fine. But as they got older, I related to them more and they related to me. Then I became the mom who baked the cookies." (Source: Essence.com)
Marla who said in 2009: “That massage was one of the best parts of the trip.” (Source: Boston.com)
Marla who said in 1992: "I said, 'Don't let your child see you stealing.' And she said, 'I have enough dignity left to appreciate what you're saying, but I ain't got no food. We ain't got nothing.' I had to stop and think about that." - (Source: People.com)
Marla who said in 2010: "You can't ad-lib, because the camera needs to know what you're going to say, so that they can be there, you'll be talking and you'll be on-camera." (Source: MSNBC.com)
Marla if she and the rest of her 227 (1985) would like to see their own characters differently: "On the show, we like to see done differently, and some we're just fine. But then, it's always something." (Source: MSNBC.com)
- 2009: Devil's Land .... Judge Martha M. Levine
- 2009: Afro Ninja (V) .... Aunt Mary
- 2009: The What Goes Around Short Film 2009 .... Ms. Lacey
- 2008: Lincoln Heights .... Hazel Roberson (1 episode, 2008)
- 2006: Ways of the Flesh .... Ms. Overwood
- 2006: The Ties That Bind .... Delores
- 2005: Love on Layaway (V) .... Narrator
- 2005: Cold Case .... Georgie - 2005 (1 episode, 2005)
- 2005: ER .... Cherise Barnes (1 episode, 2005)
- 2004: Listen Up .... Jackie Widmer (1 episode, 2004)
- 2004: Passions .... Aunt Irma (1 episode, 2004)
- 2002: Arli$$ (1 episode, 2002)
- 2002: The Rerun Show .... Dr. Beamish (1 episode, 2002)
- 2002: The Hughleys .... Hattie Mae Hughley (16 episodes, 1998–2002)
- 2002: The King of Queens .... Nana Louise (1 episode, 2002)
- 2001: Judging Amy .... Zella Van Exel (1 episode, 2001)
- 2001: The Brothers .... Mary West
- 2000: Touched by an Angel .... Millie (1 episode, 2000)
- 2000: Stanley's Gig .... Eleanor Whitney
- 2000: The Visit .... Lois Waters
- 1999: Dawson's Creek .... Mrs. Fran Boyd (1 episode, 1999)
- 1999: Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child (1 episode, 1999)
- 1999: Lost & Found .... Enid
- 1999: Foolish .... Odetta
- 1999: Martial Law .... Delores Samuels / ... (2 episodes, 1999)
- 1998: Border to Border .... Dela
- 1998: 101 Dalmatians: The Series .... Duchess (8 episodes, 1997–1998)
- 1996: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air .... Florence Johnston (1 episode, 1996)
- 1995: Martin .... Miss Minnie (1 episode, 1995)
- 1995: Burke's Law (1 episode, 1995)
- 1994: Lily in Winter (TV) .... Maize Covington
- 1993: Empty Nest .... Josephine Douglas (1 episode, 1993)
- 1993: In the Heat of the Night .... Lilly Baker (1 episode, 1993)
- 1993: The Meteor Man .... Mrs. Reed, Jeff's Mother
- 1993: A Different World .... Principal Shaw (1 episode, 1993)
- 1991: Up Against the Wall .... Louise Bradley
- 1991: Last Breeze of Summer
- 1990: Menu for Murder .... Marty Hallard
- 1985: 227 .... Mary Jenkins (115 episodes, 1985–1990)
- 1986: Drug Free Kids: A Parents' Guide (V)
- 1985: The Jeffersons .... Florence Johnston (207 episodes, 1975–1985)
- 1984: Pryor's Place .... Miss Stern (3 episodes, 1984)
- 1981: The Love Boat .... Janet Dalton (1 episode, 1981)
- 1981: Checking In .... Florence Johnston (4 episodes, 1981)
- 1979: You Can't Take It with You (TV) .... Rheba
- 1977: Passing Through
- 1976: Arthur Hailey's the Moneychangers TV mini-series .... Mrs. Euphrates
- 1975: Barney Miller .... Mrs. McBee (1 episode, 1975)
- 1975: The Missing Are Deadly (TV) .... Nurse #1
- 1974: Black Belt Jones (uncredited) .... Bartender
- 1973: Sweet Jesus, Preacherman (1973) .... Beverly Solomon