Warfield, Marsha 1955–
Marsha Warfield 1955–
Marsha Warfield had a growing reputation as a stand-up comic when she was offered the role of bailiff Roz Russell on the popular National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television series Night Court. With little training and almost no experience as an actress, Warfield walked onto Night Court and quickly established a strong, enduring character. She has been a mainstay of the situation comedy since 1988.
An Ebony contributor offered a vivid description of Warfield: “At times, it appears that the old expression ‘If looks could kill’ was coined specifically for [her]. She has elevated the cynical look to an art form. Hers is an expression that could make killer sharks flee to safer waters.” In fact, the tough, no-nonsense character Warfield portrays on Night Court —and to an extent in her stand-up routines as well—is not an accurate reflection of the performer’s actual personality. Warfield commented in People: “In public when I don’t have the protection of the stage, I feel vulnerable. I feel small, and I don’t know how to make small talk.”
The tough exterior, the sarcastic remarks, the look that “could make killer sharks flee”—all these are products of a youth spent on Chicago’s gritty South Side. Warfield was born there in 1955, the oldest of two daughters. Her father left the family soon after the younger daughter was born, and Warfield was raised by her mother, Josephine, and stepfather, James Gordon. Her mother held a job with the telephone company, and her stepfather was a computer operator for the city’s library system. Marsha and her sister Cassandra grew up in a comfortable, middle-class home with expectations that each would one day pursue careers that would afford them a similar lifestyle.
Marsha’s parents probably became wary of her intentions while she was still a teenager. An indifferent student, she relied on humor to bluff her way through school. “I was accused of being a smart mouth,” she recalled in People, “so I became a smart mouth. Humor was my shield and my weapon.” Warfield also noted in TV Guide that she was both large and rather shy as a teen, the type of person who sat in the last row and mumbled one-liners about fellow classmates and teachers. “I guess my social commentary was pretty funny because I made everyone laugh,” she said. “One of my principal targets was the cheerleaders. I’d watch them
Born March 5, 1955, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Josephine Warfield (a telephone operator); divorced, c. 1973. Education: Graduate of Calumet High School, Chicago.
Comedienne and actress, 1974—; stand-up comic in clubs throughout Canada and the United States, 1976—. Principal film appearances include The Marva Collins Story, 1981; Mask, 1985; and D.C. Cab, 1985. Principal television appearances include role of Roz Russell on Night Court, NBC, 1986—; and host of Marsha, NBC, 1990; Comedy routines performed on cable television specials, including Teddy Pendergrass in Concert, 1982; Harry Anderson’s Sideshow, 1987; Comic Relief, 1987; Just for Laughs, 1987; and On Location, 1987. Other television appearances include The Richard Pryor Show, 1977; Riptide, 1983; and The Thirteenth Annual Circus of the Stars, 1988.
Selected awards: Winner of San Francisco National Stand-Up Comedy Competition, 1979.
Addresses: Office —Warner Bros. Television, 4000 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91522. Agent —Fred Amsel, Fred Amsel and Associates, 6310 San Vicente Blvd., Suite 407, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
sweat through their routines, and I’d say something like, ‘Imagine going through all that just to end up an airhead.’”
At 17 Warfield graduated from Chicago’s Calumet High and promptly joined her mother working at the phone company. She was married at age 18 and divorced after only a few months. Her job with the phone company was equally short-lived, and, unemployed with few prospects, Warfield began to consider a career in stand-up comedy. She performed for her friends, who finally dragged her to a local comedy club and persuaded her to take the stage. Warfield remembered in Ebony that she was ready to give it a try. “I said to myself, ‘I’m 20 years old, divorced, and I don’t have any skills and I don’t want to work in the Post Office for the rest of my life. I know what I don’t want to do, but I have no idea what in the world it is I want to do.’ Once I got on stage and did it that night, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Warfield’s debut was warmly received by an audience composed mostly of other comics. Before long she was performing regularly at clubs in Chicago. The wages were minimal, but her family and friends chipped in to support her, offering her free rent and meals when she was short on funds. “Once my friends and family had gotten through telling me about why I couldn’t make it, since my father wasn’t named [film producer] Cecil B. DeMille or something, and saw that I really wanted to give it a go, they helped me,” she related in Ebony.
Her act was bawdy, to say the least, with an ample supply of four-letter words and references to intimate relations. Wildly popular with women, it was based on what females might chat about in the privacy of the ladies’ room—mostly about common problems experienced with husbands and boyfriends. Some of Warfield’s audiences in Chicago offered her a cool reception, but in 1976 she moved to Los Angeles where she found an enthusiastic crowd response and the attention of producers. Money was still tight, however, and she often had to move in with fellow performers. Her only rewards, at times, were the applause and warmth of the crowd as she ended her act.
In 1977 a fellow comedian helped her to land a part on The Richard Pryor Show. Unfortunately, the show failed, and a disappointed Warfield actually considered leaving the comedy business. Then, in 1979, she pulled off a coup when she won the prestigious San Francisco National Stand-Up Comedy Competition. Coincidentally, one of the comics she beat that night was a magician named Harry Anderson, who would later become her costar on Night Court.
The publicity from the competition helped Warfield to land more gainful employment, including bit parts in such films as The Marva Collins Story and Mask. She also performed at the best comedy clubs in the United States and Canada, but absolutely refused to “clean up” her act. She therefore appeared most often on cable television specials, including Teddy Pendergrass in Concert and Comic Relief until, while working at the famed Comedy Store in Los Angeles, she caught the eye of Reinhold Weege, the creator and producer of the popular situation comedy Night Court. Weege noted in TV Guide that since the cast of Night Court was already filled with well-loved characters, he filed Warfield away in his mind for future reference.
Tragedy unexpectedly hit Night Court when first Selma Diamond, who played a female bailiff, died of cancer and then, only a year later, her replacement, Florence Halop, also died of cancer. Weege reported to TV Guide that after those two unfortunate deaths, he decided to alternate women bailiffs on the series, using several different women on successive shows. He called Warfield in for an audition, along with three dozen others. “I went to the casting call in a sweat suit and sneakers,” Warfield recounted in TV Guide. The other women were all petite little yuppies, all dressed up. I said to myself, ‘You’ re never going to get this part,’ but I read.… That was a Tuesday. On Friday, my agent called … and said, ‘You’ve got two weeks’ work in Night Court. ’”
Those two weeks stretched to four years and counting, even though the show’s writers initially thought it would be difficult to write for a comic with little acting experience. “When I first went on the show I was a bundle of nerves,” Warfield remarked in People. Still, the comedienne’s creativity and persistence helped her to envision a dynamic character with her own distinct personality. She and Harry Anderson created a scene for her first show that served to define “Roz Russell.” In the scene, Roz brings some papers to the bench for the judge to sign. A veteran card-trick magician, Anderson tries to break the ice by giving her a deck of cards and telling her to cut them. Roz takes the deck—gives her trademark stare—and rips it in half. Warfield remembered in TV Guide that when that scene was shot, both the audience and the crew howled with laughter.
Ever since then, Warfield’s Roz has held her own within the cast and has even appeared on a number of other shows. TV Guide correspondent Bill Davidson declared that “the writers on Night Court know how to blend Warfield’s personality into the fictional character of Roz. If Roz is tough and physically powerful, then they can surprise the audience by showing she also is ‘vulnerable,’ a favorite word in the TV writing business.”
During her off-time from Night Court, Warfield has continued her stand-up work, never varying her brand of raunchy humor to suit middle-of-the-road tastes. The migratory life of a comedienne has not become easier for her, she told the Chicago Tribune, even though she is now financially secure. “I don’t like travelling, because I never get to see anything, and I don’t get to go anywhere,” she said. “In every city I know how to get from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to the nightclub, and that’s it. When I do get time off, I’m usually writing, working on my act and getting ready for the show.” She added: “There are always problems and you get upset, but you do all of it to get back to the stage. So if it’s a little inconvenient, I have to deal with it because I have to perform.”
Warfield has not remarried and lives in Los Angeles with her sister, who works as her secretary. Her only true love thus far, she has discovered, is working in front of an audience. “Performing is asking people you don’t know to give you a hug—and it’s devastating if they don’t like you,” she explained in TV Guide. Warfield also noted in the Chicago Tribune that she may never marry again because comedy has become “almost like a fix” to her, and she has little to give emotionally when she leaves the stage. “Show business can be a drug, a lover and a whole lot of things,” she said. “It fulfills that need. I don’t need to inflict that on other people.”
Her soft side, however, is not entirely hidden. Cast members of Night Court describe Warfield as a woman who is gentle with children and who can become emotional to the point of tears. The comedienne, who briefly hosted her own off-beat talk show, has also used her success to benefit her home community in Chicago. In 1990 she began awarding ten annual $500 scholarships to outstanding students at her alma mater, Calumet, and at Morgan Park High School. Asked by the Chicago Tribune to describe her future goals, the acerbic comedienne hesitated only a moment and said: “I want to do it all. I want to own the world.”
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 7, Gale, 1990.
Chicago Tribune, December 29, 1988.
Ebony, May 1988.
Jet, July 2, 1990.
People, February 15, 1988.
TV Guide, July 9, 1988.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Warfield, Marsha 1955(?)–
WARFIELD, Marsha 1955(?)–
Born March 5, 1955 (some sources say 1954), in Chicago, IL.
Actress, writer, producer, and comedienne. As a stand–up comedienne, has appeared in comedy clubs throughout the United States, beginning 1976.
San Francisco National Stand–Up Comedy Competition, winner, 1979.
Inmate, They Call Me Bruce? (also known as A Fistful of Chopsticks), Artists Releasing Corp., 1982.
Ophelia, D.C. Cab (also known as Street Fleet), Universal, 1983.
I Be Done Been Was Is (documentary), Cinema of Women, 1983.
Homeroom teacher, Mask (also known as Peter Bogdanovich's "Mask"), Universal, 1986.
Officer White, The Whoopee Boys, Paramount, 1986.
Herself, Truly Tasteless Jokes (short film), 1987.
Herself, Paramount Comedy Theatre, Vol. 2: Decent Exposures (documentary), 1987.
Royette Tyler, Caddyshack II, Warner Bros., 1988.
Also appeared in Gidget Goes to Harlem.
Television Appearances; Series:
Regular, The Richard Pryor Show, NBC, 1977.
Roz Russell, Night Court, NBC, 1986–92.
Host, The Marsha Warfield Show, NBC, 1990.
Dr. Maxine Douglas, Empty Nest, NBC, 1993–95.
Principal Dowling, Smart Guy, The WB, 1997.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Lela Boland, The Marva Collins Story, CBS, 1981.
Lisa Dillon, Doomsday Rock (also known as Cosmic Shock), The Family Channel, 1997.
Television Appearances; Pilots:
That Thing on ABC, ABC, 1978.
Cleo, Anything for Love, NBC, 1985.
The Noel Edmonds Show, ABC, 1986.
Panelist, Wanna Bet?, CBS, 1993.
Television Appearances; Specials:
(Uncredited) Woman in phone booth, Legends of the Superheroes, NBC, 1979.
Teddy Pendergrass in Concert, HBO, 1982.
Harry Anderson's Sideshow, NBC, 1987.
Presenter, The 19th Annual NAACP Image Awards, NBC, 1987.
Comic Relief II, HBO, 1987.
Just for Laughs, Showtime, 1987.
"Uptown Comedy Express," On Location, HBO, 1987.
Herself, Motown Merry Christmas, NBC, 1987, then syndicated, 1990.
Presenter, The 1st Annual Soul Train Music Awards, 1987.
The 13th Annual Circus of the Stars, CBS, 1988.
The 20th Annual NAACP Image Awards, NBC, 1988.
The 10th Annual Black Achievement Awards, syndicated, 1989.
A Laugh, a Tear, syndicated, 1990.
The 4th Annual American Comedy Awards, ABC, 1990.
The 2nd Valvoline National Driving Test, CBS, 1990.
Herself, A Party for Richard Pryor, CBS, 1991.
Gladys Knight's Holiday Family Reunion Concert, syndicated, 1991.
A Comedy Salute to Michael Jordan, NBC, 1991.
Celebrate the Soul of American Music, syndicated, 1991.
The 5th Annual American Comedy Awards, ABC, 1991.
Comic Relief V, HBO, 1992.
Presenter, The 6th Annual Soul Train Music Awards, syndicated, 1992.
The 6th Annual American Comedy Awards, 1992.
Herself, Mo' Funny: Black Comedy in America (documentary), HBO, 1993.
Baseball Relief: An All–Star Comedy Salute, Fox, 1993.
Competitor, Superstar American Gladiators, ABC, 1995.
Host, The 106th Tournament of Roses Parade, NBC, 1995.
Nurse, Me and My Hormones, ABC, 1996.
Herself, Richard Pryor: The E! True Hollywood Story (documentary), E! Entertainment Television, 2003.
Also appeared in The Mac Davis Special, NBC.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
The Jim Nabors Show, syndicated, 1978.
Guest, Soul Train, 1981.
Mama Max, "Something Fishy," Riptide, NBC, 1984.
Doris Bradshaw, "Keaton and Son," Family Ties, NBC, 1984.
Late Night with David Letterman, 1985, 1992.
Roxanne Brewster, "The Belles of St. Clete's," Cheers, NBC, 1985.
Panelist, "Wordplay Series Finale," Wordplay, 1987.
Herself, "The Funny Men vs. The Funny Women," Family Feud, CBS, 1989.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, NBC, 1990.
Beverly, Mark's sister, "Boy Don't Leave," Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, ABC, 1993.
Herself, "A Thanksgiving story," Saved by the Bell: The College Years, NBC, 1993.
Dexter's sister, "Date Night," The John Larroquette Show, NBC, 1994.
Herself, "An Officer and a Thespian," Cybill, CBS, 1996.
Bebe Manero, "The Quality of Mercy," Touched by an Angel, CBS, 1996.
Mrs. Alexander, "Does the Whale Have to Be White?," Dave's World, CBS, 1997.
"Goode Cop, Bad Cop," Goode Behavior, UPN, 1997.
Agnes Finch, "Love Don't Live Here Anymore: Parts 1 &2," Living Single, Fox, 1997.
Tracy, "My Mom's Not an Ottoman," Moesha, UPN, 1997.
Amy, "The Dry Run," Mad about You, NBC, 1997.
Sergeant Meany, "The Joint," Clueless, UPN, 1998.
Judge Nancy Watson, "Divorce, Downbeat and Distemper," The Love Boat: The Next Wave, UPN, 1999.
Shirley, "Veronica's Sliding Door," Veronica's Closet, NBC, 1999.
Herself, "Marsha Warfield," Star Dates, E! Entertainment Television, 2003.
Also appeared as herself, Stand Up, America, BBC; herself, The Arsenio Hall Show; Simone Ray, The Burning Zone, UPN; in Family Edition, The Family Channel; Future Quest, PBS; The Late Show, Fox.
Television Work; Series:
Co–executive producer, The Marsha Warfield Show, NBC, 1990.
Appeared in "Men" by Gladys Knight.
Wrote episodes of The Richard Pryor Show, NBC.