Small-town dreams, 'Happy Days'

HOLLYWOOD — Long before she became an iconic TV mom, Marion Ross — aka Mrs. Cunningham from "Happy Days" — dreamed of becoming an actress while 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.

"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 who favors a big cigar and a Panama hat.

Because of her warm performance 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's character, 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 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's "The New Adventures of Old Christine."