America’s Beloved Television Mom
An Exclusive Interview with Marion Ross
For 10 years, millions of fans enjoyed Marion Ross as Marion Cunningham, or Mrs. C., on Happy Days, the quintessential 1950s mother to Richie and Joanie, and the nurturing figure to The Fonz and the cast of teenage characters, including Potsie, Ralph Malph, and Chachi. Building on her maternal persona, Marion more recently has played Drew Carey’s mother on The Drew Carey Show, the indomitable matriarch on Gilmore Girls, and the awful mother-in-law character on That 70s Show. Her time in show business extends back decades and is truly an illustrious one. She began her career in the 1950s as a starlet at Paramount Studios and went on to appear in many of the top television shows of the 50s and 60s. Marion is perhaps proudest of performing with Sir Noël Coward that also starred Claudette Colbert and Lauren Bacall in a live telecast at CBS. She received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2001, and in 2008, she presided over the dedication of The Marion Ross Performing Arts Center in her hometown of Albert Lea, Minnesota.
We talked with Marion as she was preparing for the launch of her autobiography, My Days: Happy and Otherwise, which came out in March. The book takes us inside the dreams of a young, poor girl in rural Minnesota all the way up to the height of her fame. It includes her reminiscences of her times with Henry Winkler and Erin Moran. Rounding out Marion’s own memories are an interview with the late Gary Marshall (which was to be his last), a lovely foreword from her “TV son” Ron Howard, and interviews with her real-life son and daughter.
American Senior I have read your book over the past couple of days. I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed it and what a wonderful tribute it is to your life and to everything that you’ve accomplished in your career. I find it very interesting that your son and your writing collaborator had to give you a little nudge to do the book.
Marion Ross Oh, they did, yeah. I said no, I don’t think I can do a book. I don’t have any scandals [laughs].
AS It really held my attention, even without any scandals. You’ve certainly led a fascinating life!
MR Well thank you, thank you so much. I still think I don’t have enough scandals, but I suppose that’s okay.
AS Did you always want to be an actress?
MR Oh yes, I wanted to go to New York and be a stage actress. I would take lessons from little old ladies about the thea-tah. And they would say, “You caaahhnt,” speak the way you do. Because when I was a girl, I had a nice [shifts into accent] Minnesota accent, you know [shifts out of accent]. So I had a hard “R” sound at the end of my words. You know, it was a nice accent, but my speech teachers thought, let’s get rid of that and replace it with a very grand theatrical way of speaking. The teachers would say to me, “You caaahhnt breathe the way you do. You must breathe from your diaphragm.” After a while, I couldn’t speak normally at all. My mother would shrug and say to people we met, “Marian is going to be an actress. That’s why she speaks that way, so never mind her.’”
AS Ron Howard mentions in the book that you were like a mom to the cast on Happy Days, both onscreen and off. How does that make you feel?
MR Well, I did give a lot of advice in my dressing room and soothed over ruffled feathers if there were any misunderstandings on the set. It was such a great cast, and we bonded just like a real family would. So you really had that kind of tendency as well to look out for each other, and we saw each other through the good times and through the bad. What is wonderful is that that family feeling now that the show’s been pretty old—like 40 years old—still connects all of us very, very much. We’re all in touch with one another.
AS Speaking of family and maintaining bonds, what advice can you give mothers in general?
MR Well, you’d better do a good job. That’s my thought. If you aren’t doing a good job, it’s going to come back and haunt you, so try to do it well. And, in a way, it’s certainly one of the most creative things—perhaps the most creative thing—you could ever do, to shape another human being, this incredible human being that you get to help mold.
AS You wrote about how people have come up to you in public and said that seeing you as a TV mom made them almost think of you as their own mom, and that gave them strength in their own lives. How does that make you feel?
MR Yes, that happens and that is a lovely, lovely thing. So that kind of keeps me in line, doesn’t it? I want to be a good example.
AS You kind of have to be, don’t you?
MR [Chuckles] Oh, I do, I can’t go around disappointing everybody.
AS Tell me about being a mother in real life.
MR I had a lot of fun being creative with my children. For example, my son is very artistic, so you know, when it came time to go to bed, I might see that he was making something, so I would fix him a cup of cocoa and let him finish! You know, because he had a great idea where he was working on.
AS So, no strict bedtimes when creativity is involved…
MR Exactly, very well put, yes.
AS Speaking of creativity, I know that both of your children have followed you into very impressive careers of their own, and that makes you very proud.
MR Yes, I’m very proud of them both.
AS You’ve established yourself and maintained a compelling presence over many years in a notoriously challenging profession. To what do you attribute that drive?
MR Well, my mother was quite liberal. She belonged to League of Women Voters and was president of the PTA, so she was very forward looking for the times. She had been a teacher, so she was on the ball. She would say to me: You can be anything. You know, she was really fantastic about that. She gave me the boost to go and pursue my dreams and to not be held back.
AS Now, it might sound strange, but apparently, there’s a story in the book about how a piece of leftover linoleum demonstrates how you dealt with life’s low points. Can you tell me the story behind that?
MR First of all, this tale shows just how thrifty I am and my take on problem-solving. Now at that stage, I was divorced, I was broke, and please, I was in my 40s. Everything seemed dreadful. The house was kind of falling apart with a big rip in the kitchen floor. I found a piece of that linoleum in the garage. So I put it in the oven to make it soft, you know? What do I know about that, right? Slap some big dab of glue on the back of it, and I repaired it. I fixed it. Me? Me? I did it. I wanted to go put a sign on the door: “Back at 2 a.m. Out Dancing.” [Laughs] Just the exhilaration I felt about fixing that darn piece of linoleum.
AS Well, I suppose that sense of finding joy in everyday things and people is a comment on your great spirit and upbeat outlook on life. What is it that gives you that attitude?
MR Well, I think it’s my Irish mother. My Irish-Canadian mother. You can be anything. You can do anything. She was always telling us wonderful stories about triumphs, and she expected us to be wonderful.
AS Happy Days is perhaps TV’s most nostalgic look at families and community. How did your own nostalgia for your childhood influence your role as Marion Cunningham?
MR Well, you know I was raised in the little town of Albert Lea, Minnesota. And when I was raised, all the small-town Minnesota families were alike, all the mothers were alike—so that kind of gentle caring, well that’s where all that comes from. Nobody had anything in those years, but we did have each other.
AS What was it about its 1950s setting that helped make Happy Days such a great hit?
MR I think people still want to live like that, if you don’t mind. Nowadays, life is going by so fast, the culture’s changing so fast, but it’s hard on us, and we like to have the order of father coming home from work, and mother having made the pot roast. Those were comfortable times, and it’s that comfort we’re looking for.
AS There was an especially interesting part in the book where you’re talking about going to the public library and how you found a lot of inspiration there.
MR I would go to the library and read. I would read Who’s Who of Famous People. I was about 14 years old. And there would be these little bios, and they would say someone came from such a place and then they became famous. I thought, well what happened in between? I wanted to know how. How did they do that? So I would then read autobiographies. The first autobiography that I read that changed my life was Noël Coward’s Present Indicative. He was like, 9 years old when he was acting, you know? And I thought, Oh, here I’m 14 and I’m not getting any work. [laughs]
AS Oh my God, at 14 you’d missed the boat! I remember that about this time, you have a wonderful story about your dad and a Shirley Temple doll.
MR Oh, yes. We were all sick with the flu and we were pretty poor. My father went to the drugstore to get some Vicks VapoRub for our little chests. The store had a raffle for a doll. You bought this key (to try to) unlock this little belt that is around a 22-inch Shirley Temple doll in this beautiful dress. So my father bought a chance on this little key, and of all things, the key opened and he came home with the big Shirley Temple doll. We had it for years and years. Wonderful. So then, years later, I was one of the TV moms at the Rose Bowl parade. And the marshall of the parade that year was Shirley Temple.
So later, she went over to my press agent and said, “Is that the mother from Happy Days?” To think that Shirley Temple knew who I was, you know? And all those years ago, I had just kind of been in awe of her as this beautiful doll that my dad brought home. So my dream came true. Weren’t we all that way once as children—having dreams and thinking they’d come true. And people of my age, none of us had anything. It was the Depression. So we didn’t have stuff. All of it was going to come true in the future. It was about what you could be. The possibilities. And that’s the great American Dream. You know, the immigrants came here. You can work hard, you can have it all. You can do it. And I hope we don’t lose that. We mustn’t lose that.
AS Yes, it’s very important to look forward. To savor the hope and the promise and the dream.
MR Exactly. Savor the dream. That’s what it’s all about, my darling.…
Seamus Mullarkey lives and works in New York City, and has a deep appreciation for all mothers in this world.