'227' stars reflect on how the sitcom 'set the bar a little higher'

The comedy is where one Oscar winner cut her teeth, while it also paved the way for other series with Black stars.
/ Source: TODAY

More than three decades later, there’s still no place like home.

The sitcom “227” premiered 35 years ago this past September. The NBC comedy, which aired for five seasons, starred Marla Gibbs, fresh off her run as the feisty maid Florence on “The Jeffersons,” as Mary Jenkins, a gossipy housewife living in a Washington, D.C., apartment building filled with all sorts of zany characters.

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The sitcom revolved around the Black tenants in the building, and while it may be easy to label “227” a Black comedy, its appeal transcended skin color.

“The husband and wife were real and had real problems and faced difficulties,” Gibbs told TODAY.

The Jenkins clan in “227” was a solidly nuclear, middle-class Black family that showed people can have some of the same issues, regardless of race.

“I had a big influence on how the show went and that’s the way I wanted it to go,” Gibbs said.

The cast of "227" (back, from left): Curtis Baldwin, Marla Gibbs, Hal Williams, Regina King, Kia Goodwin. In front: Jackée Harry, Helen Martin and Alaina Reed Hall(C)Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

The comedy was the kind of fare parents could watch with their children, while not being too bland.

“‘227’ kind of set the bar a little higher because it was a totally intact family,” Hal Williams, who played Mary’s contractor husband, Lester, told TODAY.

“It was a mother, father, daughter and they were very positive. There were very few negatives. It addressed all kinds of social issues and it gave oncoming shows the opportunity to explore new avenues and new issues comfortably because the networks and production companies were open to that kind of a pitch idea.”

Marla Gibbs, Jackée Harry and Helen Martin all helped make "227" a hit.(C)Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“We had a family show that dealt with family issues,” he added.

Gibbs said the show excelled in its ability to cross over and not reach any one particular demographic.

“It was somebody they could relate to, even in their own family or their own neighborhood,” she said.

There’s also the matter of casting. Gibbs and Williams were TV veterans joined by Helen Martin, who played sassy Pearl, grandmother to Calvin, portrayed by Curtis Baldwin. Alaina Reed Hall played Mary’s friend and building landlord Rose.

Marla Gibbs, Hal Williams and Jackée Harry in a scene from "227"(C)Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

The real star, though, may have been Jackée Harry as man-hungry Sandra Clark, who purred “Maaary” when addressing Gibbs’ character and stole scenes with her comedic edge. She was so good that she won an Emmy Award for best supporting actress in a comedy for the role.

“I credit her with the success of the show because she was somebody that was easy to write for,” Gibbs said.

"I just came in and I wanted to be something different, so I had my girlfriend's voice, Valjean Dean, from high school and Mae West and Lucille Ball. I just put them all together," Harry said about her audition during a 2010 "227" reunion on TODAY.

Long before she won an Academy Award or any of her four Emmy Awards, Regina King was a child actor whose first TV or film role was as Mary and Lester’s daughter, Brenda Jenkins. Williams, whose résumé before “227” included “Sanford and Son” and “The Waltons,” made a point to pass along his wisdom to King and Baldwin.

Regina King played Brenda, daughter to Lester and Mary.(C)Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“I tried to instruct them to always be professional, be on time, know your lines and Regina just ate it up,” he said.

“I’m not surprised,” he said about her success.

"The foundation started on this show. I learned the importance of being a professional," King said during the cast reunion on TODAY.

“227” came at a time when Black family comedies were changing. “The Jeffersons” had set the stage for an affluent Black family on the small screen during its 11-season run. “The Cosby Show,” which premiered a year before "227," focused on an affluent family and became the top-rated show in America for five consecutive seasons. Black TV families had previously been poor, such as those depicted on “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son,” or didn’t have two parents in the house, like those on “What’s Happening!!” and “Julia.”

Gibbs and Williams had real chemistry as Mary and Lester Jenkins.(C)Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“227” was part of a new era that has continued to evolve in the decades since on programs like “My Wife and Kids,” “Family Matters,” “Living Single,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “black-ish.”

Gibbs has certainly witnessed the growth of Black representation on TV.

“I’ve seen some very encouraging things and I see a lot of Black people working,” she said. “I think we have to count what we see when it’s not their show, also, because almost every commercial and every show has one Black person in it.”

Gibbs also believes “227” offered something different, pointing to a story about her and Martin when they were promoting the show.

"227" conveyed the challenges many parents faced in the 1980s.(C)Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“When we did one of the appearances for ‘227,’ we were at the airport and a white couple ran up to Helen and they said, ‘You’re doing us! You’re doing us!’ So, they really connected and they weren’t even Black,” she said. “I wanted the show to be authentic about a loving family who were in the neighborhood and who went to public school and did all those things.”

The show holds a special place in fans’ hearts and has cemented its place in pop culture. In 2019, Williams, Gibbs and Harry reunited for a “227” spoof on HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” and Williams has tossed around the idea of a “227” reboot, although he has not formally pitched the idea anywhere.

“We’re just kicking it around. I figure if you throw enough stuff on the wall, something's going to stick up there,” he said.

Marla Gibbs credits Jackée Harry with "227's" success.(C)Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Did "227" help pave the way for other Black shows that came later?

“Probably, because the more the industry opens up to creators, of every kind, of every ethnicity, the more the industry opens up and accepts people with creative ideas,” Williams said.

"227" signed off for good on May 6, 1990, but all these years later, the comedy endures. While times change, the need to connect with viewers remains the same, and Williams believes “227” still holds up today due to its message that transcends the decade in which it aired.

“We addressed things that are still timely today. And the show is a family show,” he said.