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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

Marion Ross on 'Happy Days' and today

October 07, 2009|Susan King

Long before she became an iconic TV mom, Marion Ross -- a.k.a. Mrs. Cunningham from "Happy Days" -- dreamed of becoming an actress growing up in the small town of Albert Lea, Minn.

She recalls being "transported" by movies, especially in the snowy winter months when getting to a theater was no easy task.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 08, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Marion Ross: An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about Marion Ross said the actress attended San Diego State University. The school was known as San Diego State College when she was enrolled. It became San Diego State University in 1960.

"We would walk across the ice to go to the theater," Ross said in a recent interview. "Coming home it was dark and you would cross the frozen ice. I would be weeping and standing under the streetlight with the light coming down and snow would be falling in my face. I would say, 'There is no music up and under my life. What's missing?'

"The desire was enormous that I had. I was about 13 . . . and by the time I was 22 I was under contract to Paramount. Now I realize how amazing that was."

Ross, a robust and vibrant 80, is holding court in a dining room at her rustic Woodland Hills house, which is named -- what else? -- Happy Days Farm. Even the towels in the guest bathroom are inscribed with "Happy Days Farm." Ross shares her home with her companion of the last 20 years, actor Paul Michael, a friendly, burly man with a big cigar and a Panama hat.

Because of her warm performance as Ron Howard's mom on "Happy Days," the classic sitcom that aired from 1974 to 1984, Ross is still much in demand to play mothers and grandmothers. She's doing a five-episode stint as Ida, the meddling mom of Sally Field, on ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" and plays a wise grandmother in the Hallmark Channel movie "Flower Girl," premiering Nov. 14 on the cable network.

Not all of them have been as sweet as Mrs. C.

"On 'That '70s Show.' I was really a dreadful mom," she said with glee. "I was Red's father and had irritable bowel disease and smelled of cigarettes. Topher Grace and I had one scene where we were in the car and he said, 'Grandma, you are such a bad person. If you could just be nice for one hour it wouldn't kill you." Then over I go and die. The next scene I'm up in heaven. I have the same clothes on, but they are only in white. I said to St. Peter, 'It's nice up here. But it's not Vegas.' I love that."

Her favorite fictional mom role was that of the outspoken matriarch of a Jewish family in Gary David Goldberg's 1991-93 CBS dramedy, "Brooklyn Bridge."

"It was heaven," she said. "The writing was so wonderful. We made 35 episodes. They moved us so much we would ask among ourselves, 'What night are we on?"

Her other "best credit" is playing SpongeBob SquarePants' grandmother. "I will meet a little kid who is like 11. I say, 'Do you know that I am SpongeBob SquarePants' grandma? They will turn around shaking all over and show me their SpongeBob underwear. Isn't that something?"

As for her mothering abilities, she said proudly: "I did a great job." Her son is actor Jim Meskimen, and her daughter is Ellen Plummer, a former writer-producer of "Friends" who now writes for CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine."

Though Ross spent her formative years in Albert Lea, her family moved to San Diego while she was in high school. She enrolled in San Diego State University and worked in summer theater in La Jolla and also at the Old Globe.

Eventually she and her husband moved to Los Angeles so she could break into movies. In the early '50s, she was put under contract to Paramount.

"One morning in makeup, there is this girl in the chair next to me," Ross remembered. "It's Audrey Hepburn! She is just my age and had just come to do 'Roman Holiday.' She was so charming."

And so thin. "I bought two candy bars right away and ate them," Ross said, laughing. "I wanted to kill myself."

Ross found steady work on stage, TV and in such films as "Sabrina," with Hepburn, "The Glenn Miller Story," "Teacher's Pet" and "Operation Petticoat."

"In those days you would walk into the dining room at Paramount and there were all of these big portraits of all these big movie stars on the wall. Around the corner was C.B. DeMille. The dining room was filled with big movie stars. It's all gone now."

By the time she was 40, Ross was unhappy, divorced and struggling to find work. "I had two children to support," Ross said.

She had made two films with writer-director George Seaton, 1956's "The Proud and the Profane" and 1958's "Teacher's Pet," and decided to ask him if he could give her a part in his next film, the 1970's disaster classic "Airport."

"He said, 'Do you want a part or a long part?"

She opted for a long part. "I was one of the people on the airplane. It was a notch above being an extra."

Ross made many good friends during the lengthy production, including actress Sandra Gould. And it was her friendship with Gould that led to her becoming Mrs. C.

"She invited me to dinner," Ross said of Gould. Also invited was a casting person for "Happy Days."

Not long after the dinner, she got a call from the casting person. "She said they needed someone to play Ron Howard's mother -- and that was it."

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Elsewhere

Champion swimmer Esther Williams became one of MGM's biggest stars of the 1940s and '50s in a series of Technicolor "aqua musicals."

Warner Home Video gets in the swim this week with the "Turner Classic Movies Spotlight: Esther Williams Vol. 2" DVD set, which includes six Williams hits, including 1952's "Million Dollar Mermaid" and 1945's "Thrill of a Romance."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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