Marion Ross: Upon conjuring her image, one might primarily envisage a most neatly coiffed raven up do, grounded by a commensurately elegant petticoated skirt under a full body apron, and the all-around genteel vintage American allure of the most feminine kind. But would one ever divine an Irish incarnation, minus the motherliness, all the while retaining the no-nonsense apron, by way of British Theatre the Noel Coward way? Well throw in the black and white aplomb of Cary Grant, the smoldering sensuality of Lauren Bacall, the paternal sensibilities (and theatrical insecurities) of Humphrey Bogart, and a little gregarious reminiscence of Louis Armstrong, and you’ve got some of the top watershed moments from Ross’ earliest days in showbiz!
Now on the heels of Ross’ 90th Birthday, a related literary work to beat all other forms of story telling ever conceived, celebrates Ross’ life in a most thorough and joy inducing, yet sometimes pragmatic, manner by way of My Days: Happy or Otherwise. Featuring a fond forward by TV son/formidable Hollywood Director Ron Howard, along with a rare foray into Garry Marshall’s very last interview, delving into a conversation with Ms. Ross’ real world, (as opposed to reel world) son and daughter, Mr. C’s life story is nothing short of a most touching series of “This is Your Life” episodes to epic autobiographical appeal.
Taking us through her earliest enterprises in entertainment, Ross guides us from her humble, unassuming childhood in rural Minnesota, to her first two decades of burgeoning stardom at Paramount Pictures, then on wards and upwards to Love American Style, highlighting her apron clad presence, the likes of which, would set precedent for all that was Mrs. C: one of America’s most beloved and classic TV moms!
Would you believe Ross met the love of her life when she was 60 years old?, but not before wedding captain Stubing in a fictionalized marriage ceremony on The Love Boat; All this after most writers from Happy Days were absorbed by the sea faring comedy in the wake of the final resounding zip of Arthur Fonzarelli’s badass leather jacket, prior to its immediate transport to the Smithsonian at the conclusion of the nostalgic 50s sitcom’s eleven year run.
Key topics further discussed by Ross encompass her first love: Theatre, namely her critically acclaimed performance as Martha Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway and the National Tour. Joined by Jean Stapleton as her sister Abby, the offstage tales are just as fun and fascinating as those on. Other notable performances have encompassed roles in the National Tour of Steel Magnolias, Lost in Yonkers, in Toronto, and The Games Afoot at The New Theatre in Kansas City, to speak nothing of her performance of The Last Romance in in the summer of 2010 with the ultimate, real world, love of her life: The late Paul Michael.
And of course a career retrospective into would not be complete minus the mention of her work on the lauded TV series, Brooklyn Bridge for which she was granted two Emmy nominations along with an award for Best Comedy Actress of the Year by Viewers for Quality Television. Stardom with Shirley MacLaine is also best not overlooked via her Golden Globe nominated role of Rosie in the cinematic yarn entitled The Evening Star. And lest we forget, her parade of uh…shall we say…less predictable maternal figures in the form of Drew Carey’s beloved mum on The Drew Carey Show, the spirited matron on The Gilmore Girls, along with the…um… less-than-nurturing mother-in-law on That ’70s Show. But the maternal roles do not stop there! She also played Sally Field’s mother on Brothers and Sisters and still enjoys the role of Sponge Bob Square Pants’ grandmother on Upstairs Downstairs… Nay but we jest over here at the LA Beat as we not only try to jog attention paid, but your memory and/or aptitude for common sense: on the cartoon of the same name.
Fortunately, and coincidentally enough, chief among Ross’ life’s bliss is admittedly the absolute joy divined in motherhood: Both onscreen and off. From her comedian/impressionist son Jim Meskiman to her wordsmithing daughter Ellen Plummer (best known for her writing on Friends), to admitted “wild child” Erin Moran aka Joanie, to the hipster rebel-with-a-cause and break-out star of the 70s that was the Fonz/Henry Winkler respectively, Ross has nurtured the best, most diligent and colorful of kids!
In keeping with all the raven-and-red-haired hues present in both real life and reality based comedy, both Richie and Ralph come to mind. Aside from a close connection with Howard to this day, Ralph aka Donny Most also shares an exceptional contemporary rapport with Ms. Ross as it was discovered that while Ralph “still has it”, so does Mrs. C, in the form of all the things Ralph has, along with a vintage Rolls Royce (Model C – for Cunningham)!
Lucky enough to have her own memories of Marion Ross, the article’s author knew back in 2017 that an M.R. interview was in order as per the following discussion with Donny Most at an event promoting Anson Williams’ Alert Drops to prevent drowsy driving. All activism and (below) banter took place in front of the Malibu Fire Station as follows:
Marion Ross – I remember coming from Happy Days one night. Now we finish the show and…I have an old 1960 Rolls Royce: Silver Cloud…
Donny Most – I remember that car!
Marion – I still have it! So, I’m driving to San Diego…and I’m going to go down to San Diego after the show, and it’s probably 11:30 at night. My hair is up…I still look like Mrs. C.
(Donny Most laughs)
Marion – Now there’s not a lot of traffic on the U.S. Highway coast going to San Diego, so I’m driving along, singing…driving very casually, and a cop pulls me over and he says, “You’re all over the road…Get out of the car!”
Donny – He thought you were drunk huh?
Marion – He took one look at me and he said, “Get back in the car!” He said, “You’re a terrible driver!”
Donny – Well you were drowsy at the time.
(Uproarious laughter from all around)
LA Beat – Did he call you Mrs. Cunningham at all?
Marion – No he didn’t. But he knew who I was!
LA Beat – And he knew who you were and he said, “Get back in your car. Get back in your room!”
Marion – (big belly laughs) “You’re a terrible driver!!!”
LA Beat – Too bad Anson didn’t have a time machine in the 70s and give you some drops from his time machine!
And no, while we still have no Time Machines—that we know of–Marion does still have that car, Anson has now made those drops, and if we could somehow find that original police officer, I’d say we have quite the potential for quite the reenactment, if not, an emotionally corrective experience, on hand–to be sure!
Time machines notwithstanding, observing Ross speak is enough to transport one wherever and whenever one desires, incumbent upon whether she is recounting her burgeoning friendship with Jean Stapleton via the stage tour of Arsenic and Old Lace, Tom Bosley instructing her to “don’t touch me” on the set of Happy Days, or on a more upbeat romantic note, the meeting of the love of her life Paul Michael at the age of sixty no less!!! So, the very notion that LA Beat was entreated to a second interview was just what the doctor ordered–Dr. Who or otherwise–for a lesson in all things evocatively historic in the most nurturingly nostalgic of ways…
That established: the LA Beat was lucky enough to catch up with Ms. Ross to the British delight of coffee and scones, on a cozy, rainy afternoon in early February at the aptly named, and equally warm snug and festive Happy Days Farm in Woodland Hills.
And in grand tradition of all manner of time travel, our conversation picked up right where we left off: On that of the old Rolls Royce in which she almost got ticketed:
I still have it. It’s in the garage.
That’s crazy. How long have you had that car?
I’ve had it since ’81. Can you believe that? It’s a 1960 [model]. I bought it in’81. I think I was about the third owner. And now I never think of it. I never drive it. I never get in it.
It’s just for posterity…
We’re just changing… we’re just changing all the time
That’s so cool. Well, I have a ton of questions and I guess the first one is, when you were a little girl, when you were first starting off, did you know that you wanted to be an actress or was it just something that came to you later?
Not when I was a little, little girl. But by the time I was…ten or eleven when the [Second World] War was going on…they would be telling stories about the war and people around the dining room table would say, “Look at Marion,” tears are coming down [my face]… I was always very aware that people would watch me. Isn’t that funny? So it was interesting. But I didn’t decide to become and actress ‘til I was about 13. I lived in Albert Lee Minnesota, a town of about 15,000 people… But my mother was a Canadian and I was raised on [the sentiment], “You can be anything,” and I’m a middle child…and I had a crippled brother who was a year and a half younger than me. So, I think all of those things gave me a drive, that really never went away… And right after…the war was over, my father was working the Panama Canal. [So] we moved to San Diego. We sold everything we had… It was not my plan. ‘Cause…I was going to be a New York actress. So, I’m about 15/16 years old. And about that time, I had been up in Minneapolis, worked for a family, took care of their children, so I could go to MacPhail school of Music and Drama [where] they would say… “You know you CAAANT, speak the way you DOOOO,” because I’m from Minnesota. I had a real nice Minnesota accent… So now I’m studying with old ladies, and by the time I get on the train to go to California, [it] turned out to be a very good thing, because right after the war, the Globe Theatre went back to Balboa Park and was renewing itself. What a treasure the Globe Theatre in San Diego! Craig Noel who ran that [was a wonderful person who turned into one of my best friends]. That was where I went… So, I came there, I went to Point Loma High, my senior year… [and then went to] San Diego State, did all the plays at San Diego State, and the plays at the Globe theatre. Couldn’t have landed at a better place!
So now you also acted with, Claudette Colbert and Lauren Bacall?
I did. I did. That’s a wonderful story because I’d been working at CBS an awful lot, and I’d been doing an Irish Maid on a show called Life with Father. It was a series… One of the first books I ever read was Present Indicative [by Noel Coward]. The first chapter of all the books he wrote, and this was about his youth, in England, [when he started out as] a young actor at a very young age. So, I was a big Noel Coward fan! Now at CBS they were going to do Blithe Spirit starring Noel Coward, Claudette Colbert, and Lauren Bacall. [I was up for the] maid’s part, Edith: the cockney maid. So, I go and meet these two guys: Charles Russell and Lance Hamilton in a café…it was a funny little audition. So, then they call me, and they say “Can you come over to Humphrey Bogart’s house on Sunday afternoon? We’re going to have a little read through and Mr. Coward has to meet you.” So, I said, “Shall I dress up?” “No, no dear. You just come the way you were.” I wore a little skirt and sweater. So, the butler opens the door in Holmby Hills/Beverly Hills and says “What do you want to drink?” So, I said, “Scotch and Water”. What do I know about Scotch and Water? I wasn’t in college yet… So, Humphrey Bogart said, “I’m so glad I’m not going to read today I would be so nervous… So nervous…” Claudette Colbert had a Dior suit on, with a Mink collar. She was awfully very fancy… Lauren Bacall had a beautiful men’s grey dress suit with a pin: smart tailored. Everybody was nervous. Noel Coward was in his smoking jacket and I got a little hassock and sat right down at Noel Coward’s feet… I want to sit right so that I could [sit] with him and read, eye to eye. A three-hour script is about this big. It’s about 2 inches/2 ½ inches. Takes a long time to read… So, it was a wonderful experience because I could eye to eye with Noel Coward. Pretty exciting.
You weren’t shy. Noel Cowards’ one of my favorite playwrights.
As far as the way he treated me, I’m sure he could be a real asshole. He could be–and cruel. But he was very kind to me–always. Claudette Colbert–not so much. Oooh difficult — Hateful sort of person. Lauren Bacall: Perfect. Because she was only a couple of years older than me. And she’s at the beginning of her career, and then there’s Noel Coward. This couldn’t be any better!
And Lauren Bacall played the wife?
She played the dead wife, Elvira… And we did this show at CBS Live. They had an invited audience, people like Judy Garland… It was a big fancy production! But wow!… And Noel Coward said, “When it’s all over, and we’ve dried our tears, would you come to a little sit down party at Clifton Webb’s house?” And I asked the other gentleman, I said, “Can I bring my husband?” And they said, “Oh yes darling, you must bring your husband.” …and by that time, [Noel Coward] was having such a terrible fight with Claudette Colbert… They were not getting along at all… So, she didn’t come to the party. And then Lauren Bacall didn’t come to the party because Bogie… I think Bogie was dying… But he was not well, he couldn’t come. So, at the party, I got to sit with Clifton Webb, Noel Coward: Moi, Edith the Cockney Maid Marion, and Mildred Natwick who was playing Madame Arcadi. So, everybody was craning into our table to hear the stories because Noel Coward would say to Clifton Webb, “Tell that wonderful story about you…when you were doing this, this and this.”
Now Humphrey Bogart, it sounds like he really wasn’t in the room, but what impression did you get of him… in that the limited amount of time…
He was very busy with the children, and glad that he wasn’t reading, glad he wasn’t involved in this production, because everybody was so nervous…
So human…So, so human… Now Life with Father was a show. I’ve seen the play, “Life with Father”, and read the book. Was that a TV show based on the play or was that a play on TV?
No, it was based on the original Life with Father [about] the Victorian family, Vinnie, and the four red headed boys. I was the Irish maid… That was my first Irish Maid.
Did Noel Coward see you there?
That’s how CBS suggested me for that. Because I’d done three years of Life with Father, which was done live. In other words, if you made a mistake, it went on the air…which was good ‘cause I’d been trained on the stage. If you didn’t train on the stage, you weren’t ready for that.
Now, you worked with Jean Stapleton as well in Arsenic and Old Lace… Do you have any stories about that?
It took a long time for the two of us to get to know each other because she was very serious. You wouldn’t know that about her… She’s a wonderful person and a wonderful actress! So, we toured with Arsenic and Old Lace with Larry Storch playing Doctor [Einstein] and Jonathan Frid [as nephew Jonathan]… We were out for like a whole year, and I had never done that before; been on a national tour of a play! And that was wonderful. And that’s when we bonded so well, became such good pals.
Did you go by bus, train, plane…?
No. We would fly and then we would get in these big limos, and Jean and I would go to all the art [galleries]… We’d go to Washington D.C, and we would do all the art museums…together… Being alone in a limousine…we would talk and she would tell me things about her life, and herself and that’s how you began to really bond, in the dark, telling each other secrets.
It’s great to have that companionship when you’re regularly performing. So many performers talk about loneliness in between.
And I became great friends with Larry Storch and his wife. In fact, all three of us and the stage manager…all took Tango Lessons! When we were in San Francisco we’d take Tango Lessons… And so we always had a good time. I always had a good time with everything. But she was one of my best friends!
Sounds so fun and exciting! Did you ever work with her afterwards?
I didn’t actually. But she’s wonderful.
That’d be so cool if you guys had done a TV show together or something. I could see you two as the Golden Girls before there were Golden Girls. Maybe there’s a parallel universe where you guys did do that TV show: Marion Ross, Jean Stapleton and say… Barbara Barrie as Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche respectively… I don’t know…
Now tell us about your working with Cary Grant. What was it like?
Oh my God. Operation Petticoat — Cary Grant. Boy does anybody ever live up to their image! He was perfect…PERFECT! So, one day, I’m sitting up on top of this conning tower… The pink submarine is docked on the side of this big wharf, and he came up there, and sat down beside me… And I said “You know, I don’t think I can go down in the submarine because I am two months pregnant.”
Pregnant with Jim [Meskiman]?
(nodding) And he said, “Oh you are?” And tears came in his eyes. And it was like, we had this moment. Cary Grant and I had this moment. But he was a lovely guy, and Tony Curtis was an awful lot of fun! But you wouldn’t want to be married to him!
Ha ha! Sorry Babe, you’re just not marriage material…
So, it was fun to be on Operation Petticoat, ‘cause we went to Key West. And I’ve had such a wonderful life being all kinds of different people, going all kinds of different places. And then in the book, you’ll see that we had our softball team!
Oh, I remember that, the Happy Days Softball Team, and everybody was on it. And you played different shows, in other words, the Happy Days cast would play…casts of other shows!
There would be a pick-up crew for each show. They’re not professional ball players… But they take it pretty seriously. I had my own bat. I had my own mitt. And we played soft ball everywhere.
That’s you? (In response to a soft ball picture next to a photo of Ms. Ross sitting with the primary cast of The Glenn Miller Story) Such a great opportunity in smaller roles. Did you ever get a chance to talk with Jimmy Stewart or have any scenes with him?
You know, I didn’t get to meet him at all really. But…one day…at lunch, I’m all by myself. I don’t have anybody in my category… So, I go into Twentieth Century Fox, and at the counter [sat]…Louis Armstrong, Cozy Cole… all these musicians [were] sitting on the counter! I thought, “Well I’m gonna sit with those guys! I’m all by myself…” and I sat with them and had all these conversations with Louis Armstrong… Can you believe it? So, it’s like…It’s been a… in many cases, small career but a big career, full of stuff.
Do you remember what you talked about with Louis Armstrong? What your conversation was.
I talked to him a lot, about all kinds of things, and he was very chatty and he was in this period of getting himself very thin.
Oh, interesting. You don’t think of a thin Louis Armstrong…
So, regarding Happy Days, what was one of your—or were some of your–favorite memories?
It’s so interesting…When I was cast on Happy Days my part was so unimportant. My lines were like, “Oooh Howard…” “Oooh Richie you’re not eating…” So, then they would say to me, “Uh Marion, we’re going to do the table read. Read all the girls and read those other women.” So, my heart would thump and I would read the bejesus out of these parts, and their heads would spin around. I was always auditioning for them, and my parts would get better, and better and as the years [went] on, my part got to be very wonderful and we were we just mad pals on the show after the first five years and then it goes on another five years.
So, you really grew that character.
Oh exactly. No. She had lots of colors… So, I [was] constantly auditioning…reading other kinds of people. Showing them what I could do. This was fun. We had a fun life, I tell you. And then we had our soft ball team, and we even went to the East German Border and played soft ball with the third infantry! And the day when Happy Days was all over after ten years, the very next morning, we all got on a plane. We flew to Okinawa and played soft ball with the U.S. Marines. I couldn’t believe it! And I was like 55 years old. I would say to my neighbors, “I’ve gotta go play ball and get my mitt!” and so it was this colorful kind of life that I had.
So, who was the best and who was the worst on the team?
Well Henry was the best of course, and we became great dear friends. Tom Bosley was difficult, and he made it difficult ‘cause he didn’t want me in that part playing his wife. He must’ve wanted somebody else specifically. So that was 3 or 4 years of…
Winning him over?
Just putting up with it… and surviving…surviving… Yeah, and I did. But he was never keen on me… He learned to accept me, but not too much. Interesting, isn’t it?
Cause it doesn’t show.
No. Didn’t show. Didn’t show. No.
And it’s also too like, “How could you not like Marion?”
And playing his wife he said, “Don’t touch me.” Okay I won’t touch you. But Ron was, of course perfect, and a wonderful person, and I was of course, very close to Henry. We were good pals, and we’re still great pals. He calls me very, very often. Checks up on me.
Now speaking of shows that brought mass star power together, did you ever do The Love Boat?
I did so many Love Boats! …The writer/producers from Happy Days – once our show closed down…all went over to Love Boat. They called me up and they said, “We want you to come on, and marry the Captain: marry Gavin.” And I’m very good friends with Gavin, and I said, “That’s a good idea. I would love to do that!” So, we did that!
And what was one of your favorite Love Boat Stories? What was one of the favorite people you worked with?
Well I think it was marrying him. Because Renee Taylor was the wedding supervisor in the scene. She’s practically going down the aisle with us. We had to practically get rid of her. Both Gavin and I were so excited. I couldn’t sleep the night before! They sent me to a beautiful wedding gown place in Toluca Lake and I said, “Really? You want me to wear this? All of this? I never had a wedding gown!” …I had eloped in my skirt and sweater when I was in college. So, I never had a wedding dress. So this was great. So not only had Gavin and I come in down the aisle there. There was Renee Taylor to. We had to get her out of the way.
What I really want to ask you about, is you said you had a story about finding your soul mate.
My Paul… I was 60 when I met him… He was 62 but I thought he was much older… He seemed MUCH older to me…
So, how’d you two kids meet?
We were in a play together… It was called A Whole Half. It was a silly little play.
Interesting… Interesting… ‘Cause you’re finding your other half while you are still whole…
It was wonderful. But I got to be sixty and I said, “I cannot go on anymore alone. I cannot do this anymore.” ‘Cause, from 40 to 60, I built my empire… [But the] next time I [went]…to have my teeth cleaned… I said “I met the greatest guy, I met the greatest guy!” And that romance took a long time to really congeal you know? He’s so different from me. From Broadway… Pure bred Lebanese. Born in this country, went to Brown, very smart, terribly handsome, terribly talented, Terribly Lebanese… I’m scotch Irish!
What was his last name?
Michael…Like the French…
There are so many French Lebanese.
He was just so bloody smart. Sexy and smart. Very good singer. Baritone and on Broadway… My God. And after not starring on Broadway, he did Man of La Mancha Everywhere, Zorba the Greek and all those great roles. Incredibly handsome. He was my treat to myself.
It’s like your soul summoned him. You waited long enough!
I said lookee here, I’ll have one of those!
Ah, a life of adventure, fun, and romance, culminating in inspiration surrounding all three!
And to divine more about said amazing life, you may procure Marion’s latest chronicle down below: