In the 50’s, TV audiences had their share of iconic, seemingly perfect mothers: Barbara Billingsley in Leave It to Beaver, Harriet Nelson in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Jane Wyatt in Father Knows Best among them. In the ’70’s, there was the unique generation of “groovy” moms– most notably Florence Henderson’s Carol Brady and Shirley Jones’ Shirley Partridge. When it first came out in 1974, the new sitcom Happy Days was indeed a curio: A show created in the 70’s which took place from the 50’s through the early ’60’s. As Marion Cunningham, lovely character actress Marion Ross would soon join the prestigious coffee clatch of TV matriarchs who would live forever in American pop culture. Being the beloved “Mrs. C.” had its privileges: She was the only one on the show who could get away with calling Henry Winkler’s Fonz by his real name, “Arthur”. Happy Days ran for 11 seasons. During that time, the show with the infectiously memorable opening theme (“Sunday, Monday, Happy Days”… well, you know the rest.) hit #1 in the ratings, spawned seven spin-offs, and inspired some questions which remain unanswered to this day (Whatever happened to Chuck Cunningham, Richie’s older brother?). Today, Happy Days has found eternal life thanks to reruns and video on demand… and as its many hardcore fans would agree, it holds up very well. But Ms. Ross’ long acting career neither started nor ended with Happy Days. Before donning Mrs. Cunningham’s apron, Ross appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies throughout the ’50’s and ’60’s. After Happy Days ended in 1984, Ross continued to work steadily. She starred in the short-lived but critically acclaimed CBS comedy-drama Brooklyn Bridge, which ran from 1991 to 1993. The series won a Golden Globe and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award following its first season. In 1996, she starred as housekeeper Rosie Dunlop opposite Shirley MacLaine in The Evening Star, a sequel to Terms of Endearment. While that film didn’t match the financial or critical success of its predecessor, Ross was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her moving performance.
Marion Ross is retired from acting, but the energetic star is busier than ever in 2018. She has just released a new book, named My Days: Happy and Otherwise. The book spotlights her 50+ career in showbiz and features some deeply personal content, such as Happy Days‘ creator Garry Marshall’s final interview, a foreword from her “TV son” Ron Howard, and a conversation with her real-life son and daughter. Now living in southern California, the eternally youthful Marion Ross spoke with me about her new book before setting off on a promotional tour for My Days: Happy and Otherwise. With crack-of-dawn appearances on morning talk shows and the inevitable long lines of fans seeking autographs and selfies at book signings, retirement is likely to be anything but quiet for this star!
JR: Thank you for speaking with me, Ms. Ross! Greetings from New York City.
MR: Hello! So, how are you doing with your weather today?
JR: Well, considering it’s late March, it’s not exactly what you’d call “spring-like”– but given the winter we had in New York, being in the 50’s is something of a heat wave!
MR: (Laughs) Well, it’s gorgeous here. I just have to tell you that!
JR: Are you trying to make me jealous? (Laughs)
MR: I am! But we are coming to New York for the book promotion! We’re looking forward to it! So… did I raise you? Are you one of my “children”?
JR: (Laughs) I’m a child of the ’80’s… but thankfully, because of the phenomenon of Netflix, video on demand, and cable TV– especially MeTv, which we get here in New York City– Happy Days transcends generations. Even the kids today can watch it, which is a wonderful thing.
MR: Oh, I’m so glad that the kids are watching it. And then they can watch Henry (Winkler) on the new show Barry with Bill Hader on HBO.
JR: Ah yes! A lot of your Happy Days co-stars– Henry, and Donny Most, and Anson Williams— have been really busy lately! Anyway, congratulations on the new book, My Days: Happy and Otherwise!
MR: It was fun to do it, and it’s fun to go out on tour and talk about it. So… anything you want to ask me, just go ahead and fire away!
JR: (Laughs) Thanks! So, first off, what was it like to go back through the years and write about all those memories? What I find so funny is how when you first appeared on Happy Days, people thought that you were just “discovered”… but your resume of movie and TV work was very impressive long before you became Mrs. Cunningham!
MR: It’s a lot of stuff, isn’t it? I started under contract to Paramount Studios when I was 22, and I never looked back. I never stopped working.
JR: That’s quite a work ethic!
MR: It is, isn’t it? Yeah!
JR: And, there was even life after Happy Days!
MR: Yes! I did a series called Brooklyn Bridge that I was very proud of. I also played Drew Carey’s mother for a while. I did all kinds of things.
JR: Now, at 89, you finally decided to “retire”! How has retired life been treating you?
MR: I actually decided at 87, because I got tired! I sad, “You know, children, I’m tired. I’m going to quit with this play!” I didn’t want to spend my last ounce of energy that way. I thought I should kind of ‘back off’… and I’m having a good time now!
JR: Have you discovered any new hobbies that you weren’t able to do before?
MR: I’m pretty busy with everything. But first, we’re out selling the book, which is fun.
JR: Yes, it is! How has the response to the book been so far?
MR: People who have read it like it. What’s wonderful is that at the end of the book, there’s a chapter for every one of the Happy Days people. Each one has written a chapter, including Garry Marshall before he died. It’s just a lovely little document.
JR: That was very nice of you to include your co-stars!
MR: They were all very eager and willing to do it, too. I had to give them each a present! (Laughs)
JR: Ahhh… that was going to be my next question! What is your relationship like with the rest of the Happy Days cast today?
MR: We all went to Ron Howard’s and had a big birthday party with his daughter Bryce Dallas Howard this last weekend. It was wonderful to go to this big space and see so many people. These are all old friends now. It was just wonderful to see one another. Some shows you do and then you never see the people again. But with Happy Days, we’ve all stayed in touch very much. We had a softball team together! It was a wonderful way to promote the show and share the P.R. efforts. We traveled all over the United States with the uniforms. I have my own bat with my name on it, and my own mitt. We even went to the East German border and played softball with the U.S. Infantry… and then, as soon as the show was over, the very next morning we all got on the plane and flew to Okinawa to play softball with the U.S. Marines. Can you believe that? I’m sure the Marines thought that they would beat us. Why not? But they had no idea! First of all, we’re actors. We’re very competitive. And, you couldn’t be on Happy Days unless you were a good athlete!
JR: That’s amazing! So, your role of Mrs. Cunningham, one of TV’s favorite moms, has been cemented into pop culture history forever. But do you ever get tired of being so closely identified with that one role– like when people stop you on the street and yell, “MRS. CUNNINGHAM!” I’m sure some of them say how they wish you were really their mother, or wish that their own mom was more like you, and that kind of thing… Are you ever like, “Enough already!”
MR: (Laughs) No! I am smart enough to appreciate what that means! Everybody in world is out there to sell something– to get a brand. We had it with Happy Days. The first few years– actually, almost for the first five years– the show was not very well-known. But then we lasted another six years! We had 11 seasons. So, it’s pretty special to have something like that come into your career. And then, we all went on and just did thousands of other things after that! When you think of somebody like Yul Brenner, you think of The King and I. Name almost any big celebrity, and hung on their mantle is the one big thing they did.
JR: How true! So, along those lines, what is your relationship like with your fans today? Years ago, we used to write actual fan letters– on paper! I’m sure you got a lot of those! And now, everything’s changed. We have “fan pages” on the internet…
MR: Yes! I get far less fan mail actually “through the mail”. The internet is the big engine now. And, sometimes we go to autograph signing conventions, and hundreds of people show up for that. It’s amazing, just amazing. But the computer has taken over! The kids are way ahead of me with all the machinery they use. They use different devices that I wouldn’t even know about. I mean, I’m 89! Did you know I was 89? (Laughs) I’m quite grown up!!
JR: (Laughs) Well, technology can be a great thing! Now, on the New York City subway, I can finally catch up on all those great movies that I never got the chance to see “the first time around”– like The Evening Star!
MR: I love my part on Evening Star. That was a good part– with the dreaded Shirley MacLaine! (Laughs)
JR: (Laugh) When I see that movie, I see two strong actresses playing two strong women. Shirley held her own with you, and you held your own with her!
MR: Wow! And she was powerful! She would watch me like a hawk… because I think she thought that I was pretty damn good, you know? I kept her on her toes!
JR: (Laughs) Yep! I think that your performance in The Evening Star is one dramatic role that your fans need to see you in!
MR: I loved playing that. I’m a character actress, so I don’t care what I look like. Here I was, dying: My lips were fixed to look like they were cracking, and I remember one time where Shirley was on her elbows leaning across the bed and asking me “What do you think about this?”— something about her life… and I said, “Shirley, doll, I’m dying here! Don’t be bothering me with this stuff!” (Laughs)
JR: Well, I always tell people, “You only have one life to live… unless you’re Shirley MacLaine!” (Both laugh) So… without giving too much away, are there any never-before-heard stories or surprises that you share with the reader in your book?
MR: I’ve lead a careful life. I’ve tried not to live a scandalous life. When I was under contract to Paramount– I was only 22– I would watch the other starlets and I would be like, “Uh-uh-uh-UH! Don’t do that!” So, I’ve always been very careful with my life– and consequently, I’ve lasted. I’ve had a much longer career than many actresses. So, if you wanna know things, you’ll have to buy the book: My Days: Happy and Otherwise!
JR: (Laughs) So, since you brought that up: I know that Hollywood has changed so much through the decades, and the entertainment business in general has changed so much through the decades… So, how do you feel about the explosion of…
MR: …Weinstein and everybody! Yeah! When I was growing up, that was the standard fare. At Paramount, they wouldn’t let you “go around” on your own. It wasn’t safe. You didn’t go into people’s offices and be unprotected. My agent didn’t want me going around on my own and making friends. He’d say, “That’s not safe for you. No!” I was VERY aware of how dangerous it was to be a young actress in Hollywood at that time. There wasn’t really anyone to protect you other than maybe your agent– or maybe NOT your agent! I remember this one time when I was serving dinner at some people’s house to make some money. And someone said, “This girl wants to be an actress.” This man came into the kitchen and gave me his card and said, “Call me.” Ahhh! Wonderful! Well, I went to go see him. I thought it was his office, but no, it wasn’t. It was his apartment.
JR: Uh oh!
MR: He said to me, “How do you think you’re going to get anywhere?” I answered, “Well, I’m a very good actress.” I was a college graduate too. He told me, “Well, you know, there are 10 girls lined up for a part. Which girl do you think is going to get that part?” I said, “The one they like the best!” He said, “Now, WHY are they gonna like one better than the other?” It took me FOREVER to get his message. He said, “I can help you. I’ll take you to parties” and all that… and I was already married! I told him, “You have no character! I’m married! I can’t do things like that!” Can you imagine? I was the greenest thing in the world!
JR: You brought up a good point. This was never a “new” thing! We’re only just hearing a lot about it now: how powerful the status quo is, and what it’s like for young women– not just in entertainment, but in general!
MR: Yes. In the business world too. Anywhere. It’s not going to change overnight, but it’s good to cast the spotlight on it every now and then!
JR: Speaking of the entertainment business: Both your children are involved in show business as well, too, right?
MR: Yes! My daughter Ellen Plummer is making a new pilot right now. She was a writer/producer on Friends, and now she’s creating a new pilot for ABC. I don’t know too much about it, but they are working on it right now. My son Jim Meskimen is in a commercial right now. He’s the George Washington being pulled across the highway in a boat, crossing the Delaware Turnpike for GEICO!
JR: Ahhh yes! I know that one! That commercial gets a lot of airtime!
MR: That’s my son Jim! I did a good job, you know what I mean?
JR: Yes you did! So, when your children first announced that they wanted to go into showbiz, how did you feel about that– especially given how hard you worked to become successful?
MR: I said “No!” And they could see with their own eyes how hard it was. I was divorced with two children to raise. Nobody had a job. Jim wanted to buy a hairdryer and I said, “No, we can’t afford a hairdryer!” (Laughs) Now, we have about six hairdryers!
JR: (Laughs) That’s great! Anything else you’d like to tell your fans? Besides, obviously, “Buy the book!”?
MR: I would just like everyone to know my story: I came from Minnesota. My mother was a Canadian. I was raised to believe that you can be anything. You can follow your dreams! You can do it! I wanted to be special and be different from everyone else. I had such a drive in me! My children have somehow stumbled along and followed their dreams also. It makes me so excited to know that there are endless possibilities in life!
My Days: Happy and Otherwise by Marion Ross is now available in hardcover, audiobook, and Kindle.