9-1-1' Star Marsha Warfield Talks Coming Out and Playing Straight Before Detroit Shows: 'I've Come a Long Way in a Lot of Ways'

Jason A. Michael

In the late '70s, Chicago-born Marsha Warfield started her career by writing for comedy legend Richard Pryor. Then, in the '80s, she rose to fame in her own right starring as Roz on the popular sitcom "Night Court." After the show ended in 1992, she made film and TV appearances throughout the rest of the decade. But then Warfield, who came out publicly in 2017, retired and walked away from Hollywood. 

Recently, though, Warfield returned to TV yet again, appearing in Season 4 of Fox's "9-1-1"  — and, again, during the current season — as Antonia "Toni" Wilson. The show, which airs Mondays at 8 p.m., follows the lives of Los Angeles first responders such as paramedics, police officers and dispatchers. In the series, Warfield is the mom to firefighter and paramedic Henrietta "Hen" Wilson, played by Aisha Hinds. As a result of the pandemic, Warfield's character lands on hard times and has to move in with Hen.

Beyond "9-1-1," Warfield will perform her comedy show "The Book of Marsha" at Bert's Marketplace at 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. on both Nov. 5 and 6. During the show, she'll tell stories about playing straight, coming out to her mom and her observations on the state of America. 

You were off the scene for almost two decades. What were you doing during that time?

In my act I say I was sitting at home fucking with people on Facebook — not that it existed when I first left. I was retired. I was not working. I moved to Vegas in 2001. I'm still there. I didn't work until about 2015, and so I started all over again and went back to the clubs doing standup – and not just to the clubs but some bars. Whatever shows I could get. And I'm just now building it up to where it's ready to showcase.

When you came out of retirement, you also came out of the closet.

I was tired of being in it. People don't understand how much the world has changed for LGBTQ+ people and they don't realize that LGBTQ+ is a fairly new acronym. Everybody was in the closet until pretty much the AIDS crisis and the bungling of that brought issues to the forefront that had long been purposely buried. Deliberately buried. So Ellen came out and then Rosie came out, and it wasn't until the Obama administration when we got gay marriage and it kind of blew the roof of everything. It's a new environment that people are coming into, so coming out is not quite as traumatic for most people. It's a different world.

In this new and different world, your first TV credit since 1999 is your recurring role on the Fox show "9-1-1." You, an out lesbian, play the mother of an out lesbian character. Did you get a "you've come a long way, baby" sort of feeling when you landed the role?

I've come a long way in a lot of ways. I think about that. I thought about that just the other day: where I'm playing a straight woman mother of a lesbian. It's interesting how that turned out. And then when you think about you want to make rules and you say gay people should play gay people. Well, that would leave me out and her out. It's kind of interesting to flip the script and just let people act.

Going back a bit, I read that when you came out to your mother she made you promise to stay in the closet until she died.

I came out to my mother. I think I must have been close to 30 — well. I was over 30. I was in a relationship and I didn't want to hide it anymore, so I told her. And she said she knew. And to this day it bothers me when people say that because if you knew and it's OK, why did you leave me in that closet? It just bothers me; telling me you knew doesn't give me anything to work with. It feels dismissive of the reality that I live. So that was kind of hard to take.

But, truthfully, her telling me she didn't want me to come out while she was alive in the environment that we were living in didn't hurt at the time. It hurt later. You get older and you realize just how suppressed you've been and how much you've missed. You can't imagine what the world looks like outside your window until you go outside. I had been inside so long that it was a load off to tell her. And that small condition, knowing the reality of being the parent of a gay person as far as society was concerned, didn't make it easy on them either. So, in the moment, I wasn't overly upset about it. I grew to be resentful but more so saddened and disappointed. It could have been so easy. It could have been so different.

Tell me about your standup. Your act is a bit different these days than when you first started out. How is the lesbian thing going over with your audiences?

They don't have a problem with it. They have more problems with my race-based material than the lesbian material. I'm talking about that from my own point of view. I haven't had any negative feedback on that. 

What haven't you done in your career that you'd like to tackle?

There's so much. I would like to see what the next iteration of show business is. I think we're in a transition period where people aren't going to be going to movies on Friday night anymore. And depending on how this Covid thing goes, gathering in groups might not be a good idea for a while. So what's the new thing? I think there are so many possibilities. I wish I was a 22-year-old starting again. There seems to be so many possibilities now. And I'd be getting a lot more sex with women.

Are you getting any now? Do you have someone special in your life?

Yes, I have a boo, baby. Her name's Angie. Hopefully we'll be Mrs. and Mrs. soon. That was never something you could look forward to for most of my life. But it's something I think about and we talk about it and we plan to do it.  

What does the future hold for Marsha Warfield?

I have no idea. That would be so stifling. I think I'd quit if I knew. There's so many possibilities. Who knows? Somebody could call me tomorrow and say we want you to do this or that. As for my standup, I call my show "The Book of Marsha" because, at this age, it's my story, looking back over my life and the world as I know it over these past 60-plus years. It all comes out in my standup.


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