Marion Ross – For fans of classic television shows, if they decided to create a hall of fame for the tube’s greatest moms, the following names would automatically come to mind: Harriet Nelson, June Cleaver, Carol Brady, Shirley Partridge and Marion Cunningham.
They wouldn’t be immortalized for how they looked so fashionable in an apron and high heels, or how they kept their TV families well fed with milk & cookies or meat loaf & mashed potatoes, but how – in their own right – managed to keep their respective family dynamics intact with plenty of humor, wisdom and strength.
“I always found the role of Mrs. C to be an evolving one. At the table reads I always read the girls’ parts, as a way of constantly auditioning for the writers on Happy Days. I kept showing them what I can do and what others things I can do with the part. As a result, the writers kept on expanding the role of Mrs. C, and it kept on growing throughout the show’s run,” said Ms. Ross during a recent phone interview to promote the publication of her memoir My Days: Happy and Otherwise.
Although many people remember Marion Ross for her role as Mrs. C on the ABC hit sitcom “Happy Days” throughout its decade-long run from 1974 to 1984, her book shows that her life – both professional and personal – wasn’t always idyllic as that of the life of the fictional Cunningham family of Milwaukee.
Born in October of 1928 in the small Minnesota town of Albert Lea (her mother was actually Canadian, born and raised in northern Saskatchewan), Ms. Ross knew from an early age that a career as an actress (in particular a Broadway stage actress) was destined for her. Ironically, when her family moved to California, she began to get small roles in a variety of movies and TV shows, including “Perry Mason”, “General Electric Theatre”, “The Untouchables”, “Rawhide”, “Teacher’s Pet” with Clark Gable, “Operation Petticoat” with Cary Grant and “The Glenn Miller Story” with Jimmy Stewart, and “Airport” with Burt Lancaster.
It was after completing a small part in the latter movie that she met a casting agent through a mutual friend, who told her that she was casting for a new sitcom pilot for ABC called “A New Kind of Family” that was being produced by a young man named Garry Marshall, and that she would be ideal for the role of the mother. The pilot, which also starred Ron Howard, was shot but was not picked up; instead, it became an episode on the ABC anthology comedy series “Love American Style” in 1972. Two years later, as a result of the pilot’s popularity on that show, ABC finally picked up the pilot and debuted in January of 1974 as “Happy Days”.
As well, the book baldly portrays how her actual married life was never like that of Howard and Marion Cunningham. During the early 50s, while she was a contract player for Paramount, Ms. Ross married Freeman (“Effie”) Meskimen, an aspiring actor who was less motivated to pursue a career in acting and whose only passion was for alcohol. And by the time they were divorced more than a decade later, she had to face the struggle of being a single mother, who was constantly auditioning for – and acting in – any TV or movie role that came her way, so that she can support herself and her two children, son Jim and daughter Ellen.
Although Ms. Ross uses the first half of the book to tell her story in a very introspective, revealing and philosophical tone, she allows ghost writer David Laurell to allow the people she is close with both personally and professionally to give their point of view of who and what Marion Ross is all about. Telling their sides of the story in the book are her real life children, her personal assistant Gwen Berohn, and her “Happy Days” family including Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Anson Williams, Don Most and the late Erin Moran and the late Garry Marshall. This device works quite well, as it helps to complete the well rounded portrait of Marion Ross, which is a combination of a complex, strong individual who faced and conquered adversity, and the co-star who was just as much a mother figure to her TV family offscreen as she was onscreen. And the family dynamic of that cast made working on “Happy Days” such a joy for her.
“The cast of Happy Days was a close knit group, and we still are,” she said. “And when we found out after season five that the show was a solid hit, we never got spoiled by that fact. While Donny (Most) was the most funny member of the cast, Ron (Howard) was quietly being perfect all the time. When he made the announcement that he was leaving the show to go to NBC direct TV movies – and later feature films – it was a big blow to all of us. But I told him that he had to go and do what he had to do.”
These days are indeed very happy ones for Marion Ross, as she is about to turn 90 this fall. She is happily retired from acting and when she is not promoting her book, she is living at her two acre Happy Days Farm in Serrania Ridge, California (where her former Happy Days co-star Scott Baio is her neighbour), and is the proud grandmother to her three grandchildren.
Although she was at first reluctant to write this book, classic TV fans are grateful that Marion Ross decided to forgo her reluctance to write My Days: Happy and Otherwise. She admits now that she had a marvellous experience writing a memoir that wasn’t a scandal-filled tell-all. And her many fans and admirers should be satisfied that they got a memoir that’s filled with genuine honesty and affection, not to mention cherished memories of one of TV’s most popular and longest-running sitcoms from the point-of-view of one of TV’s most popular moms.