Florence had more mouth than Madea. George Jefferson’s surly nemesis and painfully lazy housekeeper never packed heat like Madea-didn’t need to-but she always managed to keep her pint-sized boss in his place. The spunky 77-year-old Marla Gibbs may have played dozens of parts in her distinguished career, but it is the wonderfully sarcastic Florence that we love best.
ESSENCE.COM caught up with Gibbs, who chatted about everything from her enduring friendship with “The Jeffersons” star Sherman Hemsley to the downside of being a working mother.
ESSENCE.COM: What have you been up to? We miss seeing you on the big and small screens.
MARLA GIBBS: I had an illness a couple of years ago, so I’m recuperating from that, but starting in October, I’m doing a three-month bit in Overland Park, Kansas, for a play called “Boeing-Boeing,” which happens to be on Broadway now. I did a Neil Simon play for them a couple of years ago called “Proposals” and that went over well so they invited me to come back and do another. And I just finished a cameo in (the ABC Family series) “Lincoln Heights.”
ESSENCE.COM: You mentioned an illness. How are you feeling now?
GIBBS: 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.
ESSENCE.COM: I’m so glad to hear that. Tell us about your role in “Boeing- Boeing.”
GIBBS: I play the housekeeper. It’s a very funny play about a young man who believes in polygamy. He has three girlfriends and they’re all airline stewardesses and [it’s about] how he juggles their schedules. They all believe they’re engaged to him. I kind of keep everything from going to pot and he really gets on my nerves.
ESSENCE.COM: Reminds me of a certain sarcastic housekeeper. How much of Florence Johnston is Marla Gibbs?
GIBBS: Oh, quite a bit. That was the way I grew up. She reminded me of my aunt and my grandmother. They always had that kind of dry wit.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you ever watch old reruns of “The Jeffersons”?
GIBBS: All the time. I love it. It’s a way I keep in contact with those who have [passed away]. I watch “227” too. Fun memories.
ESSENCE.COM: Tell us something about Sherman Hemsley that we don’t know.
GIBBS: Well, in real life he was an introvert and on the show he was an extravert. He was very shy, really sensitive and spiritual. He did not like to call Franklin (played by Tom Willis) a honky. He finally asked [the producers] to please take that out. He said, “We’re friends now. Why am I still calling him a honky?” So, they finally took that out.
ESSENCE.COM: When was the last time you and Sherman spoke to each other?
GIBBS: (Laughs) The day before yesterday. We’re looking forward to doing a show together, a version of “Love Letters.”
ESSENCE.COM: It’s been 30 years since “The Jeffersons” debuted and you guys really hit racial issues head on. Yet, there’s still such a lack of diversity in Hollywood. How does that make you feel?
GIBBS: Now we have Blacks on almost every show. It might be one Black, but it’s on almost every show. There’s always something we can complain about. We’re all one. Things could always be better, but things could always be worse.
ESSENCE.COM: You have three children. What’s the secret to being a good mom and what advice would you give young women?
GIBBS: 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.