February 15, 1988 12:00 PM

The most onerous task for a performer—next to working with children and animals—is taking over for a star who’s left a hit series for greener pastures. In the case of Marsha Warfield, who plays the bailiff on NBC’s hit comedy Night Court, the task was especially onerous, and tragically so: Her two predecessors, veteran actresses Selma Diamond, 64, and Florence Halop, 63, died of cancer in two successive seasons. Warfield may rate several Nielsen points for bravery in signing on as bailiff Roz Russell, but she insists that she had no sense of courting a Night Court jinx. “There’s no way to say this without sounding callous, but if the two women before me had been 33-year-old black women, I would have been really nervous about taking the part.”

Happily, Warfield has come through her first season not only alive but very, very well. With her imposing 5’10½” stature and dry, often acerbic wit, she’s become a master of the put-down, contributing mightily to Night Court’s continued place in the Top 10 ratings. Yet she is nervous—not about the jinx, but about her own talent. “When I first went on the show I was a bundle of nerves, and I’m still a bundle of nerves,” says Warfield, whose background is in stand-up comedy rather than acting. “I’m scared they’re going to find out I don’t know what I’m doing and they’re going to ask for all the money back.”

“I’m not an actor either,” understates Night Court star Harry Anderson, who started as a comic magician. “I’m a street performer. Her secret is safe with me.” Admittedly it was “tough for her coming in with a bunch of wiseacres,” he says. “But Marsha’s dealt with all that. She’s got a real future—when I stop holding her back.”

Don’t try it onstage, Harry. She’ll destroy you with a blue streak of blue sass. Warfield made her considerable stand-up reputation with one of the raunchiest female-oriented routines around (in fact, she beat out Anderson, among others, in San Francisco’s 1979 International Stand-Up Comedy Competition). While Marsha likens her TV character to “a black Eve Arden,” Our Miss Brooks would send her to the principal’s office for her stage patter, much of which is unprintable.

No surprise, she grew up in a tough part of town—Chicago’s South Side. Her divorced mother, Josephine War-field, married James Gordon, a computer operator in the city’s library system, when Marsha was 5 and her only sister, Cassandra, was 2. An indifferent student, Marsha learned to rely on humor at school. “I was accused of being a smart mouth, so I became a smart mouth,” she says. “Humor was my shield and my weapon.”

In quick succession after high school, Warfield joined her mother as a phone company employee, met the boss’s son, married him and divorced him. “I was only 18,” she says, “and stupid.” The marriage lasted about as long as it takes to dial information; so did the job. But Warfield found her true calling soon after, when she took to the stage at a local comedy showcase. She quickly established a name for herself, though not always a good one. In the early ’70s, black female comics were as rare as politicians with nothing to hide, and Warfield’s scabrous humor—while drawing roars of recognition from women—offended many men. A pristine sample: “I like sex a lot—especially since I found out women are supposed to have orgasms.”

Moving to Los Angeles in 1976, she discovered a more tolerant audience on the West Coast. Warfield has done some acting since then (most recently in the movies Mask and D.C. Cab) but has spent most of the time cracking jokes in bars and comedy clubs. “Clubs are a protected environment,” she says. “But you go to a bar and make truck drivers laugh at 3 a.m., then you got some legs under you.”

This is not to suggest that Marsha is without a softer side. When Night Court’s Markie Post brings her 8-month-old daughter, Kate, to the set, “Marsha immediately turns into the loving aunt,” says Post. “It’s something you wouldn’t expect from Marsha. For all her bluster, I think she’s basically shy.”

“In public, when I don’t have the protection of the stage, I feel vulnerable,” admits Warfield. “I feel small, and I don’t know how to make small talk.” That’s one reason why Warfield—who shares a three-bedroom duplex in West Hollywood with actress Candy (Brewster’s Millions) Jennings—doesn’t often date. The other reason: “I’m practicing safe sex.”

But Warfield still doesn’t play it safe onstage. Despite the inducements of bigger bookings, she refuses to clean up her act. “My agent and I fight all the time about that,” says Warfield, “but I know what’s best for me. I’ve fought and climbed in the back door of showbiz.” Yes, she’s going through the front door these days, but if it closes on her, she’ll take it philosophically. “We’re just God’s way of playing Monopoly,” she says. “Think of your life and the people and the struggle, and God’s sitting up there eating popcorn and having a laugh at it all.”

—Written by Joanne Kaufman, reported by Lois Armstrong

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