Marion Ross is one of those veteran actors who has refused to have her career defined by her most famous role. Although she played Marion Cunningham, matriarch of the family at the center of the hit sitcom Happy Days, for 11 seasons, she has been constantly working since that series ended 31 years ago, and not every role she’s played has been as warm and gentle as Mrs. C was.
One of the roles she still relishes is the tough Eastern European Jewish grandmother Sophie Berger in the 1991-93 CBS series Brooklyn Bridge, Gary David Goldberg’s personal tribute to his childhood in 1950s Brooklyn. She’s also played roles, like Drew’s mother on The Drew Carey Show, that have poked gentle fun at her “America’s Mom” image. In the 2014 independent film A Reason, she plays Aunt Irene, a wealthy, dying elderly woman who calls her young niece and nephews to her estate to hear a reading of her will, only to manipulate them into turning on each other. Ross spoke to The A.V. Club about the movie, which is available on DVD, Video On Demand, iTunes, YouTube, and streaming services like Amazon Instant and Vudu, and how playing a Jewish grandmother helped her career after Happy Days ended.
The A.V. Club: What are you looking at in the writing of an independent film like this that makes you want to do it?
Marion Ross: What you’re looking for at my stage, being older, you want something interesting and a good role. It’s just a good role, and she’s not so sympathetic, and that’s fun for me. I can’t be Mrs. C all the time, right?
AVC: How do you take a role like that, where the woman is unlikable, and keep her from becoming a caricature?
MR: Well, there’s some part of us that no matter how villainous, even you’re playing Iago or something, you find a way to make the audience love you because that’s our self protection. We always want to be loved. We will find something, and there is always something lovable about everybody, and if you find… In fact, the name of the film is called A Reason. What’s the reason for this anger? Whose feelings are hurt so bad? What happened? And then you have a story.
AVC: What did you see in Irene that was redeemable? That was more than just a conniving old aunt trying to manipulate her family?
MR: Well, because of course, when you build a backstory for yourself, that there’s a story in everyone, everyone. No one, no one is so evil. No. And that’s the preparation for the role and that’s what makes acting so much fun for us—to be so layered. I don’t think there are any black-and-white roles ever, ever.
AVC: Even the ones on ’70s sitcoms. When you’re on long enough, there’s more layers to be discovered.
MR: The actor will tweak it. The actor will develop a limp or something. They will figure out a way because the human condition wants to be understood. “Do you understand why I’m so hurt? Can’t you see?” That’s the fun of acting, really.
AVC: What are some of the differences doing a project like this compared to what you’ve done in the past? Is it kind of a really quick, run-and-gun type of shoot?
MR: Well, you know what is fun with this one because it’s now been a couple of years, but I remember so vividly the director, Dominique Schilling, who also produced it, was… First of all, they’re so grateful to have you because I am a name that the public would know from Happy Days, so she would be beside the camera beaming at me all the time. She was so pleased with me, so pleased with me and you feel… When you’ve got all these young people around you, you feel strong. You’re like, “Yeah, I’ve been there before. I know what I’m doing,” and they’re appreciative.
AVC: The only other veteran actor there was Roxanne Hart. It seemed like everybody else was relatively unknown.
MR: Yes. They all had background. They all worked a lot, but these careers, they ebb and flow so what they want… You always want to get a name. Even with the Academy Awards, these are all names, you got to have somebody we know because the world is moving so fast now.
AVC: So you’re aware during the shoot that that you’re the name attraction on this film?
MR: Oh, absolutely. Also I became so fond of Caroline Risberg and Dominique Schilling, the young filmmakers, and God bless them. You think, “Wow. Good for you.” So we went and we won a bunch of little trophies and awards. How fun for us.
AVC: What advice or example were you able to impart on the young actors in the movie?
MR: The commitment, a very serious commitment and no funny business, but most of these young actors are pretty much on that level now. It’s so competitive that you really see what it takes and to have now spent my whole life from… I was 22, under contract to Paramount, when I started, when they would hire a whole stable of young actors. I have never stopped my career in all these 60-plus years, and that’s something, and even though I’ve had my family, my children, I’ve had a decent life. Isn’t that nice? It’s quite an achievement. The whole time I was congratulating myself.
AVC: Did the younger actors know you from things you had done in the last 30 years?
MR: Well, even Happy Days… I don’t even know that there is a generation that doesn’t even know Happy Days out there.
AVC: Did any of them recognize you and know you and say, “Hey, I remember watching you in this”?
MR: Well, of course they do, because there was quite a range of things. I played on the Gilmore Girls, and then I was Drew Carey’s mother on that series for a while, so there’s a smattering of things.
AVC: How do you deal with that as a veteran actress who’s played with everyone?
MR: I don’t try to join in with them so much. They’re all very young. I just stick to business. We’re not going to all be pals. Plus, I’m playing this very unlikable woman, but the fun of acting for us is to become somebody else that we’re not. I’m like a compulsively nice person. I can’t help it, so it’s very nice sometimes to be crabby and sharp.
AVC: Were you crabby and sharp on the set, though? Were you trying to be Aunt Irene?
MR: No. I wasn’t really. I wasn’t. I was patient with them—patient, I’ll tell you. This was a small, independent production. What was fun is we took this mansion, which was going to be torn down, and remodeled it so we could use this mansion, and make certain areas of it look really swell, but it was on the chopping board, this place so it was a fun location in Brentwood, I think. Near the Fonz’s [Henry Winkler] house really.
AVC: How long was the shoot?
MR: We had two weeks. No shoot is long anymore, you know that.
AVC: So it kind of had the speed of a single-camera TV show.
MR: Of course it was. In fact, it was wonderful. They did one scene, and we’re all at the dining room table, and the whole full cast is there, might be eight people, and these young filmmakers set up this arching track so that it would go all down one side of the table getting close up, getting like a master shot, and then as it swings around you’d get two shots, and finally you’d end up getting close up and I think, “Look at how quickly they can make films.” Got a lightweight camera, set up this track, and you get all these shots plus we don’t light these independent movies in the dazzling 20th Century Fox lighting anymore. We want people to look like they look.
AVC: You got Happy Days midway through your career. When it became a big hit three seasons in, was it a satisfying feeling? Or was there ever a case where you thought, “Oh, I may never work again after this because people are just going to know me for this”?
MR: Oh, no. No. Because every time on the break I would always go out and do a play. I would force myself to risk going out and doing a play. No, I’m a lifetime actor; also, when you’re in a series, you don’t know whether it’s going to go on. You don’t know that. One year they came to us and they said, “We’re picking you up for two years in a row.” We all went into a slight decline and depression. “What, we’ve got to do this for two years?” We so are trained to live on the edge. We’re so used to being unemployed. “What’s going to happen next? Oh my god. Oh my god. I’ll never work again. Oh, my life is over,” that kind of thing.
AVC: But when you’re in that long, what are you feeling?
MR: Oh, we cried. We cried and cried on the last show. You’ll see us all, and we certainly had had enough and we knew it was coming to an end, and the night we finished the show, the very next morning at 5 a.m., we all got on a plane and flew to Okinawa to play softball with the U.S. Marines. Can you believe that? As tired as we were, we did that. I thought, “Wow.” It was such a life, and all of us had our young children at home that we were raising, so it was a wonderful nest in which to get that job done at home. We all had homes, children, families. It’s a great luxury, you know that.
AVC: One of the more remarkable aspects to your career is that after Happy Days, there were a lot of roles, like on Brooklyn Bridge, where you were not the warm, friendly grandmother type. You were the more hard-edged Eastern European grandmother.
MR: She didn’t care about people’s feelings, no, and it was hard for me to get that part because I’m not Jewish. I’m Irish, and that’s a whole difference inside, and the competition got tougher and tougher, and at the last minute, Gary Goldberg called me. I thought I couldn’t believe that I got it, and years later, I said, “I really captured your grandmother, didn’t I?” He said, “Oh, no. She was much tougher, much tougher.” And you know that kind of tough woman. I was as tough as I could be.
AVC: Because it was such a personal project for Gary Goldberg, was there more pressure to get it right?
MR: Oh, yes. A really high point for me, doing that show.
AVC: If you did the show in the mid-’00s, do you think it would have lasted longer because people appreciated that kind of show more?
MR: I would hope so. I don’t know if you know the name A.C. Lyles. Do you know that name, A.C. Lyles? He was at Paramount forever and I said to him, “A.C., What’d the guy say at lunch? What’d they say about Brooklyn Bridge?” He said, “Oh, listen. With a hit like this, we can go bankrupt.” It’s like, “Okay. Okay. I get it.” This is not a moneymaker. This is like John Stamos’ show more that he’s doing now. Full House, Fuller House, or whatever. I was like, “See, there’s a public for that,” but there’s a public for everything and if you can’t get mass crowds with it, that’s okay. That’s not that important.
AVC: Well, yeah, this day and age, you don’t have to have a mass crowd to do well. You can have a much smaller audience now.
MR: Oh, streaming, this is the new thing, the way we merchandise things now. If you want to see this film, you can go to On Demand, and Verizon, and Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, there’s a whole bunch of places you get these things.
AVC: And it will find an audience that it wouldn’t have found in the theater because it was just an independent film.
MR: I hope it will. I hope it will for these filmmakers and boy, you’ve got to be young to keep up with all this, it’s changing so fast.
AVC: After Happy Days, did you purposely try to get roles that were different from Marion Cunningham?
MR: Yes. For me to get Brooklyn Bridge was extraordinary, extraordinary. Mostly I went out and did plays a lot.
AVC: What did Brooklyn Bridge open up for you?
MR: Well, it gave me prestige, really. Now I was a serious actress because sitcom actors are not considered… There’s quite a bit of skill and art going into a sitcom, but you are not appreciated for that in any way. You’re looked down on, really. So now I had prestige, and I was nominated several times for wonderful roles for that, and it’s so nice to be really well considered after doing a sitcom because people don’t respect you very much for that.
AVC: Especially one that was on for so long and is still being shown. You’re still very identified with the role.
MR: Well, it was about the Fonz and even Ron [Howard]… you know Ron quit early before we were finished because he had a chance to direct, and he wanted to be a director, and that was such a dramatic time because he ran the risk of crashing our show. We didn’t crash immediately, but he felt terribly responsible to all of us and we all said, “No. You go. You take your opportunity.”
AVC: What has been your favorite role, guest role, recurring role, since Brooklyn Bridge?
MR: Oh, well, The Evening Star with Shirley MacLaine, and I was nominated for a Golden Globe for that, and I was proud of what I did in that movie. I played this plain housekeeper. I got a tremendous amount of attention for that. So that’s my high point.
AVC: When you think back now, what do you want people to take away from Happy Days?
MR: Even though it was a stretch and it was a sitcom, those years in the ’50s were a sweet time. All the stirrings were happening, but it was so home centered. This was before everybody in the world got divorced and there was order. There was some order that we could hang onto and I think it made people feel safe and comfortable. Now, there’s a bit too much of everything. I love being connected to Happy Days because people respond in such a warm way, especially like 40, 50-year-olds who grew up with Happy Days or maybe the reruns. It’s a lovely feeling to be a part of the American culture. We still get fan mail, but it’s a little bit harder to find [the show]. It plays in Europe. It’s something that should happen to everybody. We should all have happy days.