For those of you who are big fans of the “National Day of” calendars, you know that there are celebrations for National State Days. In my blog this month, we are learning about celebrities from those National State Days. We begin with National Minnesota Day and one of the stars born there is Marion Ross.
Marion was born in Watertown, MN in 1928. She moved from Waconia to Wilmar and then to Albert Lea. She must have always had stars in her eyes because at age 13 she changed the spelling of her name from Marian to Marion because she thought it would look better on a marquee. After her sophomore year in high school, she enrolled at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. A year later, her family moved to California where she graduated from Point Loma High School.
Ross was named Most Outstanding Actress at San Diego State University; however, her major was archeology. After graduating in 1950, she did some summer theater in California and then began auditioning for films. The year she graduated, she eloped with Freeman Morse. They were married for 18 years.
Marion was successful in her movie career. Her first film was Forever Female with Ginger Rogers and William Holden in 1953. She would appear in 26 movies including The Glenn Miller Story and Sabrina. Ross recalled her time in Hollywood. She says it was a great time to be an actor. “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. Those early days in Hollywood were just so thrilling, almost more than I could bear.”
Ironically, her first television role on Calvacade of America also took place in 1953. She would go on to have an amazing television career with more than 140 different roles on the small screen. While most of her appearances in the fifties were on the drama shows or westerns, she did show up on Life with Father as an Irish maid from 1953-55. She also was a teacher on The Donna Reed Show.
Ross on Perry Mason
The sixties found her primarily on dramas such as Outer Limits, Dr. Kildare, and The Fugitive. However, she also received recurring roles on three series: The Gertrude Berg Show, Mr. Novak, and Paradise Bay. She was Mary Morgan on Paradise Bay, a soap opera set in California. Although the show was only on for a year, she appeared on 158 episodes before it ended.
Her last role of that decade landed her on The Brady Bunch. When the kids get sick, Mike calls the boys’ male doctor and Carol calls the girls’ female doctor. Instead of choosing one, they decide to keep seeing their same patients.
The early seventies kept Ross busy on shows such as Hawaii Five-0, Love American Style, and Marcus Welby. In 1974 that Love American Style skit led to the show Happy Days where Marion reprised her role as Marion Cunningham. She continued her role as biological mother to Richie and Joanie (and poor Chuck occasionally) and as a surrogate mother to Fonzie for eleven years.
In May of 2020, Ross did an interview on TVLine.com with Matt Webb Mitovich. He asked if she had a favorite episode from the show. She said there were two that were definitely favorites. One was when Marion gets mad at the family because they expect so much. She stood up for herself, told Howard he could have his food and took it out uncooked and put it in front of them, then storms out the door and went to work at Arnold’s. Her other favorite was the scene when she did the tango with Fonzie. She said Henry Winkler caught on right away but she had to work with a coach for a week to get it down right.
She also discussed the softball team Garry Marshall put together to keep everyone out of trouble in the off season. She said they played all over the US and continued, “And then at one point, we were invited to go to Europe. We went to Germany and played softball with the US infantry which was incredible. And then once our show was totally over, after we did our last show at Paramount, we all got on a plane at the crack of dawn and flew to Okinawa and played softball with the US infantry there.” She played rover but said she could hit. Her strategy was to hit the ball and then run with her arms raised up. Everyone was so afraid of hitting “the old lady” she would make it on first base.
After the demise of Happy Days, Marion wasn’t content to sit back and enjoy life. She continued her television appearances and from 1984-2018 you could catch her on a variety of shows including Night Court, MacGyver,Grey’s Anatomy, and Hot in Cleveland. She had recurring roles on another six series. She played several different women named Emily on The Love Boat, as the iron-willed Jewish matriarch on Brooklyn Bridge, mean Grandmother Forman on That Seventies Show, Drew’s mother on The Drew Carey Show, Marilyn Gilmore on The Gilmore Girls, and Ida Holden on Brothers and Sisters.
Marion was also able to get back on the stage. She took roles in “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Steel Magnolias”, “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, “The Glass Menagerie”, “Pippin”, and “Barefoot in the Park.” She also toured the country in a one-woman show as poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in “A Lovely Light.”
In 2008 the Albert Lea Civic Theater in Albert Lea, Minnesota changed the name of its venue to the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center. Marion retired in 2018. She could then concentrate on some of her hobbies which include gardening, reading, spending time with family, watching movies, listening to the radio, praying, and singing. Marion’s two children are also in the entertainment business, Jim as an actor and Ellen Kreamer as a writer/producer on many shows including Friends and one of my recent favorites, Trial & Error.
In 2018 Ross published her memoir, My Days, Happy & Otherwise. The book is described as “funny, poignant, and revealing.” It features Garry Marshall’s final interview, a foreword from Ron Howard, conversations with her own children, and her entire story.
With the Covid pandemic continuing, Ross is happy to be spending her time at her California home being in her garden and spending time with family. As she put it, “It is such a wonderful time to bond and connect with family even if we are not together. I also have been calling friends to see how they are and have a little chat.” Some good motherly advice for all of us.