Five-time Emmy nominee Marla Gibbs debuts on Days of our Lives August 17, as Olivia, Paulina’s (Jackée Harry) mother, who’s hoping to keep a family secret under wraps: She wants to stop Paulina from telling her niece, Lani (Sal Stowers), that she’s actually her daughter. Good luck with that! TV Insider chatted with Gibbs, 90, about the unique way in which she became a Days viewer, her long-running relationship with Harry, legendary TV creator Norman Lear (The Jeffersons, All in the Family), and getting her overdue Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
How did your guest spot on Days come about?
Marla Gibbs: They made an offer. I didn’t know I’d be playing Jackée’s mother. I’d done that before on [the 2012 sitcom] The First Family so it was easy for us to jump into that relationship. We’ve worked together about three or four times.
Days is not your first soap opera.
No. I’d done Passions as Eve’s [Tracey Ross] Aunt Irma [in 2004-05]. Galen Gering, who plays Rafe on Days, was on Passions as Luis and so was Justin Hartley [as Fox], who’s on This Is Us now. Tracey was wonderful as Eve. Irma and Eve had a big history. She knew Eve’s secrets and, of course, Aunt Irma blurted them out! I learned how heavy my head was by doing that part because the director would say, “Aunt Irma is sleeping in this scene,” so I’d have to drop my head!
How would you describe Olivia and Paulina’s relationship?
They understand one another. [Chuckles] I’m her mother! Mothers know everything that’s going on. They know the real truth!
How does Olivia differ from Aunt Irma?
Olivia’s trying to keep a secret from coming out. Paulina wants to reveal it, but Olivia can’t understand why she wants to tell it. She doesn’t want her to tell it because it could destroy her granddaughter, Lani.
Had you ever seen Days before joining the show as Olivia?
Yes. When I was on Passions, they had written in that Aunt Irma was a fan of Days. She never missed an episode! So, I decided to check out Days to see what Aunt Irma was talking about; I’ve been with Days ever since!
While your appearance on Days is being well-publicized, you popping up in The Jeffersons’ episode of Live Before a Studio Audience was a surprise.
Yes, they didn’t reveal that in advance. Playing Florence was my first big part and it was great fun stepping back into that role.
Florence, in a way, was the voice of the audience. When Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict) asked for a “scotch, neat,” Florence, not knowing the term, shot back, “Don’t worry, you’ll get a clean glass.”
Florence reminded me of so many people that I grew up with in Chicago. I just had to let them come out to play her.
Florence was fearless in her interactions with her boss, George (Sherman Hemsley). Do you have any favorite memories of working with him?
I loved working with Sherman. We loved working with each other. He was just great. We stayed in touch with one another right up until his death.
How did 227 come about?
It was a play I’d done in my theater. We ran for about six months. During that time [then-NBC Entertainment President] Brandon Tartikoff came to see it. I was talking to Columbia [Pictures Television, now Sony]. Then, I ran into Norman while I was on the lot. He said, “I heard you have a great show. I want to come and see it.” I said, “Well, you better hurry…we’re closing tomorrow!” After he saw the show, he said, “Have you signed anything?” I said I had not, and he said, “Why don’t you and I do it?” That’s how we started working together on 227.
Jackée Harry (Sandra) became a scene-stealer on 227 the way you had as Florence on The Jeffersons.
She may not know it, but I’m the one who hired [Jackée] for 227. The network wanted someone else for the part of Sandra. She had come in and read for the part of Rose [played by Alaina Reed Hall], Mary’s sidekick on the porch. She asked if she could read for Sandra. She gave the part a little Mae West. She was so funny. After she finished, I said, “That’s Sandra.” I was told the network wanted someone else for the part. We went a few rounds and they later said, “We’ll hire her to play Sandra but we’re only going to give her 7 episodes out of 13, because she’s so over the top.” I said, “Whatever…” She ended up being in every episode. That’s how good she was.
Sounds like you meant, “Oh, you’ll see” when you said, “Whatever.”
That’s right. I asked for Helen Martin [Pearl], Regina King [Brenda], Hal Williams [Lester], and Jackée. Those were the four. All of them were spectacular on the show. Of course, everyone now knows just how spectacular [Oscar- and Emmy-winner] Regina King is. She’s like my daughter—my daughter from another mother.
Norman Lear’s series entertained and educated millions. What’s it like to have worked with him?
It’s been tremendous. Norman has such a way of understanding what needs to be done. We had a scene once that wasn’t working on The Jeffersons with the Willises, Helen and Tom, played by Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover. I saw Norman and asked him, “Why don’t you come to our show anymore?” He said, “You don’t need me!” I remember him coming over and solving that particular problem. When people said, “Norman’s coming. Who invited him?” [Chuckles] Someone else said, “Marla!”
Congratulations on receiving your Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last month!
Thank you. My grandson and my daughter put the whole thing together. My star is right next to Snoop Dogg’s, and I’m getting ready to do a film with him. I remember when I first came to Los Angeles, I’d go to the [Grauman’s] Chinese Theater in Hollywood and see all the names and the footprints of stars that I knew, and the Stars on the Walk of Fame. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d have one and now, I do!
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