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‘Happy Days’ in Carver County
by Mollee Francisco
Jan 05, 2012 | 2517 views | 4 4 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Marion Ross, pictured with Tom Bosley (Howard Cunningham) and Henry Winkler (Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli) in a Happy Days press photo. The show ran from 1974 to 1984. Ross kept a dress from the “Happy Days” set as a souvenir after the show wrapped. “I can’t quite fit into it anymore,” she said wistfully.
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The pages of an atlas flap noisily as Marion Ross flips through the book in search of her birth city.

“Now I can find Waconia, but where is Watertown?” she asks, her voice as warm and familiar as a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day.

The famous redhead doesn’t have many memories of her time in Carver County – she left the area when she was only 3 years old – but she does have photos.

“I have a picture here of mother holding me, wrapped up in blankets at the edge of a lake,” she said in a phone interview. “It must be Watertown.”

Ross, 83, grew up the second of three children to Gordon Ross and Ellen Hamilton Ross. “I was the middle child,” she said. “It was a good spot to be in.”

She credits her birth order with giving her the push to be successful – most notably playing Marion Cunningham, “Mrs. C.,” for 11 seasons on “Happy Days.” “You have a lot of drive, a lot of initiative,” said Ross. “You don’t expect people to do a lot for you.”


Motion pictures – especially those starring Greer Garson and Ingrid Bergman – fascinated the young Ross. “The movies were just wonderful,” she said.

But Ross wasn’t content to simply sit back and watch them. “My friends tell me I would act out every part,” she said.

Bitten hard by the acting bug, a teenage Ross successfully convinced her parents to let her leave their home in Albert Lea to move to Minneapolis and work as a nanny while attending classes at the MacPhail Center for the Arts.

There, in addition to practicing her craft, Ross struggled to sound less like a Minnesotan.

“I had a teacher who told me I’d never work,” she recalled. “I had a real nice Minnesota accent and she said ‘You can’t talk like that.’”

When Ross was 15, the family moved again – this time to San Diego – but she was still trying to perfect her movie-ready voice.

“By the time I got out there, I couldn’t talk at all,” she laughed.

Though most aspiring actresses would have been excited to move closer to Hollywood, west was entirely the wrong direction for Ross.

“I wanted to go to New York,” she said haughtily. “I wanted to be a New York actress.”


Ross found her footing in California and became active doing plays in San Diego, but it wasn’t long before she made her way into the movies. She was under contract at Paramount by age 22.

And while Ross kept busy with small roles in movies like “Sabrina,” “Teacher’s Pet” and “Operation Petticoat,” she didn’t hit it big until she hit was in her 40s.

It was in 1972 when Ross, then a divorced, mother of two, did an episode of the television anthology “Love, American Style.” Created by Gary Marshall and featuring a group of teenagers growing up in the 1950s, it was called “Happy Days. The show aired around the same time as “American Graffiti.”

“Suddenly, the [1950s] were hot,” Ross explained. Talk of making “Happy Days” into a series got louder.

“They gave us each $1,000,” Ross recalled. “They said it was to ‘put a hold on you.’”

Ross squirreled the money away. “I was thrifty,” she said. “You have to be when you have income and then don’t have income.”

“Happy Days,” with Ross as Marion Cunningham, debuted Jan. 15, 1974. It ran for 11 seasons and most notably launched the careers of Ron Howard (who played Richie Cunningham) and Henry Winkler (who played “The Fonz”).

Ross remembers that there wasn’t much to the Mrs. Cunningham character when the show began.

“It was very minimal,” she said. “Everything was ‘Oh Howard!’ and ‘Oh Richie!’ but I didn’t care. Everyone wants to be in a series.”

Ross was “tremendously determined” to make the most of Mrs. C. (as her character was affectionately referred to). Over time, she evolved to become one of the most beloved moms in television history. Ross was twice nominated for an Emmy playing the role.

“I loved being Marion Cunningham,” she said.

“I like the fact that [“Happy Days”] is such an icon and that we’re all icons,” Ross continued. “People are nice to me because of it. I like that a lot.”


When “Happy Days” ended its run in 1984, Ross made appearances on a variety of shows, often as a character not so far removed from Mrs. C.

“You get locked into that,” she said. “People think that’s all you can do, but I’m not just a sweet woman from the Midwest.”

Ross proved as much in 1991 when she landed the role of the Jewish grandmother on the short-lived, but critically-acclaimed, “Brooklyn Bridge.”

“Henry [Winkler] always takes credit for getting me that role,” she laughed.

Perhaps leaning on the vocal training of her youth, Ross gladly accepted the challenge of perfecting a Polish accent to play the part of Sophie Berger.

“I really love a lot of acting,” she said.

“If you put a script in my hand, I will figure out how to do it.”

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences recognized her efforts, nominating her twice more for an Emmy for her work on “Brooklyn Bridge.”


Now in her 80s, Ross has amassed an enviably long resume of movie and TV roles (including parts on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “The Drew Carey Show,” “Touched By an Angel,” and “Gilmore Girls”).

She continues to take small parts as they come along and has found a whole new generation of fans, voicing Grandma Square Pants on Nickelodeon’s popular cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

For her 60-plus years of work, Ross has been recognized time and time again. In 2001, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Meanwhile, back in her home state of Minnesota, Ross not only has a day named after her (June 7), but also a performing arts center (in Albert Lea).

Ross has made her mark on television history and has passed on her love of acting to her two children (from her 18-year marriage to Freeman Meskimen, Jr.). Both Jim Meskimen and Ellen Plummer have made careers for themselves in Hollywood – careers Ross gladly plugs, as much the proud momma in real life as she was on “Happy Days.”

Ross is currently taking a break from acting herself as she mourns the loss of her longtime companion and fellow actor Paul Michael who passed away in July.

“My Paul…” she said, her voice catching slightly. “The wind is knocked out of me.”

The break won’t last forever, though. Next May, Ross will return to a live audience setting as she heads to Toronto to star in the stage version of “Lost in Yonkers.” She’s excited to flex her acting chops again, this time trying on a New York accent.

Ross, who resides just outside of Los Angeles at what she calls the “Happy Days Farm,” has no plans to hang up her acting hat any time soon.

“I’m not happy if I’m not being very creative, making something happen,” she said.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
March 08, 2012
Marion Ross is headed back to TV. She'll be on a future ep of "Up All Night" playing Chris's grandmother. Can't wait!
January 09, 2012
Ross' daughter Ellen Plummer is an Emmy award winning producer for "Friends" (which she also wrote for). She is now one of the creators of Fox's "I Hate My Teenage Daughter."
January 09, 2012
Ross must have passed along her vocal talents to her children. Check out this video of her son Jim Meskimen doing Shakespeare in a variety of very good celebrity voices.
January 05, 2012
I give this story an Aaaaay-plus.
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