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Checking In With Marla Gibbs: A Candid Interview With 'The Jeffersons' and '227' Star

01/11/2016 06:59 am ET
  • Dustin Fitzharris Worked as Associate producer, 'All My Children'; journalist; contributor, Out.com and ABCNews.com

2016-01-05-1452004837-750743-marlaphoto1420161.jpgMarla Gibbs lives by the mantra "it's never too late." After becoming a household name 40 years ago as Florence, the sassy maid on The Jeffersons, Gibbs says that as long as she's still breathing, there will always be something new she'll want to explore.

"God works with us through ideas. He gives us the idea. Then we have to have the faith and belief," she says. "We can only do how much we believe we can do. When things happen, all you really have to do is change your mind. When you change your mind, everything around you changes."

At 84, she admits to only being 30. She believes that once people start telling their age, they begin seeing themselves in a particular way. Gibbs continues to keep active and didn't allow an aneurysm and a stroke nearly 10 years ago stop her.

"Whatever is wrong can be fixed this day and age," she says.

She also makes it a priority to never change sizes. With her feisty, trademark whit she shares, "Some people gain weight and say, 'Well, I'm a 10 now.' I always say, 'You gotta get back in that 8!'"

In her home in Los Angeles Gibbs is relaxed, but there's excitement in her voice. She tells stories in great detail about her colorful life in Hollywood and opens up about being a shy girl growing up in Chicago.

Born Margaret Bradley, Gibbs learned at an early age the value of hard work. Her father was a mechanic. Her mother was an entrepreneur who had several successful businesses. They divorced when she was 4, and her mother left the home to pursue her own dreams. That was painful for Gibbs, but she acknowledges her parents taught her the ability to adapt and change. She still recalls her mother saying, "If you hold your hand closed nothing can get out, but nothing can get in."

Before making a name for herself on television, Gibbs worked as a reservations clerk at United Airlines while raising her three children. After relocating to Los Angeles, she began studying acting as a hobby and as an escape from a rocky marriage that ended in 1973. Her life changed two years later when The Jeffersons premiered. Even though the show was a hit, for two years Gibbs didn't quit her day job. She'd leave the studio and return to her desk at United. When a producer approached her and asked if she'd consider taking a leave from the airline she replied without hesitation, "If you pay me!" Her hiatus lasted three months. Then she decided to fully commit to acting.

"If you only stretch one leg, you can't go very far. You've got to take both legs with you," Gibbs says.

With 227, the comedy that debuted 30 years ago and ran for five seasons, Gibbs stretched herself even further. She was involved with every aspect of the show. From the lighting to the editing to the writing, Gibbs' curiosity and determination for perfection lead her in every direction. While some would call Gibbs a trailblazer for African-American women in Hollywood, she doesn't see it that way.

"I didn't think I was doing great things. For me it was just common sense," she says.

Reflecting on 227, Gibbs can't help but think of the Emmy Award-winning Regina King who played her daughter.

"That's my baby. She calls me mommy," Gibbs says full of pride.

Most recently Gibbs has returned to her roots and has been taking on dramatic roles in such shows as Scandal and American Horror Story. She's also writing her memoirs. With all that she's accomplished in her life, being a mother remains her proudest achievement.

"I didn't have my mother around. When you don't have your mother, it becomes very difficult, and you don't get the kind of nurturing you want," she says. "I never really believed I could be a good mother. You follow what you grew up with -- even the parts you don't like because you think that's what you're supposed to do. Babies don't come with manuals. It's guess work, but as they get older, you kind of gel into it."

Does she think she was a good mother?

"That's what my kids say!"

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