By Nick Thomas
From 1974 to 1984, TV audiences knew Marion Ross as the sitcom mom dispensing patience and wisdom during the 11-season run of the ABC hit series “Happy Days.” But Marion’s days were not entirely happy.
In her March memoir, “My Days: Happy and Otherwise,” her ‘otherwise’ reminiscences include a bad first marriage and the challenges confronting an actress and single working mother. Even her early years on “Happy Days” weren’t always cheery thanks to TV hubby Tom Bosley.
“Tom didn’t particularly want me to play his wife, so he was tough on me for a while,” recalled Ross from her home in Woodland Hills, California. “I don’t think he meant too much by it, but I wasn’t well-equipped to handle it.”
She says the rough treatment lasted the first few seasons.
“There was a lot of chatter on the set and I initially found it hard to blend into the conversations, so I just stayed out of it and took up needlepoint. But eventually, I won Tom over and learned to love and admire him even though he had picked on me. That wasn’t really who he was, and I came to realize he was a fine man.”
The cast as a whole soon developed a bond that lasts to this day.
“We really were like a family growing together. I saw the kids grow up, get married, and have their own babies. It’s not uncommon to drift apart when a series ends production and you may never see the cast again, but we’ve all remained close.”
Raised in Minnesota (Watertown, Albert Lea, and Minneapolis), Ross was determined to act from an early age.
“I was a middle child and my brother was very sickly, so I didn’t get all the attention. I secretly decided I’d better become rich and famous!” she laughed. “I read all the arts and theater magazines and saw acting as a way to achieve that. At the library, I’d look up famous actors in books like ‘Who’s Who?’ I wanted to learn how they became successful.”
She recalls reading “Present Indicative,” the first volume of Noël Coward’s autobiography.
“He began on the stage as a child, so by 13 I was planning to be successful, too,” said Ross, whose family moved three years later to California where she graduated college and began to realize her dream in theater. But it soon evolved into film and television.
“At 25, I landed a role in the TV version of Noël Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ and actually I got to work with Noël Coward!” she recalled about the 1956 production. “He was quite charming, witty and sophisticated, and very nice to me although he could quickly put someone in their place if he chose to. The first reading of the script was at Humphrey Bogart’s house because Lauren Bacall (his wife) was in the production. So too was Claudette Colbert. Can you imagine being a young actress doing that on a Sunday? I just loved it!”
Ross’s film career began with Paramount, three years earlier in “Forever Female.”
“Ginger Rogers was so kind to me and gave me a bouquet of flowers on my first day. And the director kept remarking that I looked like Greer Garson. Every day he asked, ‘Miss Garson, what do you think about this part of the script?’ I eventually realized he was making fun of me, but at least I interested him enough to be noticed.”
Ross would later work with other movie legends such as Tony Curtis and Cary Grant (“Operation Petticoat”), Jimmy Stewart (“The Glenn Miller Story”), and Clark Gable.
“I played Doris Day’s secretary in ‘Teacher’s Pet’ and she was lovely, but oh, Clark Gable! Some actors just have an aurora and Gable did. It was Easter, so I colored some eggs and on one wrote ‘M.R loves C.G.’ I gave it to his assistant, a suave fellow who protected Gable from everyone. Gable eventually just said ‘Thank you very much’ to me. I’ve met a lot of people in my life but not even (Henry Winkler’s) Fonzie could bowl you over like Gable.”
It was, says Ross, a great time to be an actor.
“I remember one morning in hairdressing and Audrey Hepburn was in the chair next to me. Oh God, I wanted to die! And all the stars ate in the studio’s dining room. Marlene Dietrich would come swooping into the room and a hush would fall over the place. There were big photos of stars on the walls – a huge portrait of Victor Mature as Samson at one end of the room. Those early days in Hollywood were just so thrilling, almost more than I could bear.”
Though she has no future acting plans, she says working on the book brought back many memories.
“I had to be talked into writing the book by my family but now I’m having fun discussing it,” says Ross who turns 90 in October and is planning some book signings in the Los Angeles and New York areas. “I’ve certainly had more happy days than ‘otherwise.’”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala, and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 650 newspapers and magazines. See www.tinseltowntalks.com.