'227' Her Third Series : Winning Numbers Are Coming Up For Gibbs

September 17, 1985|MI CHELLE SOREY | Sorey, a USC graduate, was a Calendar summer intern.

Marla Gibbs is bubbling over like a bottle of freshly opened champagne, and why shouldn't she be?

In a dozen years, she has done what most actors only dream of doing: performed in numerous stage productions and television shows and been nominated for four Emmys. She's also a successful business woman, and this fall she's starring in her third television series, NBC's "227," which she is also co-producing.

It's almost as if everything she touches turns to gold.

"I think if you don't appreciate what you've got, you won't be blessed with more," Gibbs said of her relatively short acting career and her successes.

"I never thought about doing the things I'm doing now; they just started to evolve. In 1969, I moved out to Los Angeles from Chicago . . . in 1970, I enrolled in an actors' workshop . . . in 1971, I was doing small parts in movies, and by 1974 I was in a TV series."

Gibbs, best known for having played the role of the wise-cracking maid Florence on "The Jeffersons" for 11 years, radiated enthusiasm as she talked about her latest TV endeavor and the level of consciousness she hopes to arouse with it.

The new series is an outgrowth of a play, "227," that was based on playwright Christine Houston's childhood and originally was performed here at Gibbs' Crossroads Acting Academy in 1983. After it opened for a second run, producer Norman Lear took an interest and invited network executives to see it. From there, the possibility of turning it into a television series was discussed.

Initially there were negotiations with Universal. "We talked and talked and talked and never got anywhere," Gibbs recalled, "so we struck a deal with NBC. Brandon Tartikoff (president of NBC Entertainment) has been wonderful to work with, and I feel very good about '227.' "

On stage, "227" took place in the 1950s on the stoop of a tenement at 227 East 48th St. in Chicago. The TV series is set in Washington in 1985, and the comedy spins around the old apartment building and its tenants.

Gibbs' character of Mary Jenkins, which she also played on stage, resides in the complex with her husband (Hal Williams) and daughter (Regina King). Both Williams and King also were in the stage production of "227."

"Mary is quite a bit like Florence," Gibbs said. "She has the same frankness and honesty that Florence had, but she's more real. She's also zany and apt to get into trouble. She's more of an 'I Love Lucy' type, but she's a conscientious wife and mother. Most people think I'm a comedian but I'm not. My comedy comes from real situations and that's what we intend to show."

Other cast members include her neighbor and best friend (Alaina Reed) and the apartment vamp (Jackee Harry). The series airs Saturdays at 9:30 p.m.

Although all of the principal cast members are black, Gibbs takes exception to labeling it a black show. "I don't think there are any black shows," she said. "By and large, we all have the same experiences. What's real for blacks is real for everyone, and that's what we're trying to say."

Gibbs hopes "227" will accomplish what "The Jeffersons" did during its long run, which is to transcend the color line.

"After a while people forgot we (the actors) were black. It was just fun to them," she said. "They could look at George Jefferson and say, 'My husband is just like that,' or 'My boss is just like that.' They could relate whether they were black, white or any other color. I've never heard of a show referred to as a white show, so why should there be black ones?"

The outgoing Gibbs also believes that television watchers want to go back to good, clean fun. "Most TV shows are junk. People have been hungry for a family show. They want to get back to the sanity and forget about all the madness," she said.

Along with acting in and co-producing the series, Gibbs owns the Marla's Memory Lane supper club and the You clothing boutique.

All in all, it adds up to a successful career, but in her credits is one television series that did not do well. "Checking In," a 1981 spinoff of "The Jeffersons," was her first attempt to fly solo. Gibbs again played Florence, who had moved up from being the Jeffersons' maid to a management position with a large New York hotel.

"Unfortunately, I knew it wouldn't work," Gibbs said. "People related to Florence because she represented the masses, and the masses of the people are employed. When they switched her to the other side, they killed her character in the first episode."

Although her first attempt at her own series was short-lived, Gibbs believes "227" will prosper. "I think we're going to do 12 years," Gibbs said with a smile. "But whatever happens, it was wonderful."

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