“These Happy Days,” the theme song went, “are yours and mine.” Indeed, they were – and still are. Marion Ross, who played the sparky housewife of the Cunningham family in the long-running TV series Happy Days in the 1970s, is one in a long line of beloved TV moms who lives on – a mother in the eyes of a generation that shared her with Ritchie, Joanie, and her own two children as well.
In Toronto for a production of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers – she plays the grandmother – Ross speaks about prime-time parenting (and frolicking with The Fonz).
You’re one of those iconic television mothers. How would you describe your relationship with fans of Happy Days?
I tell you, it’s very comfortable. No matter where I go, people kind of know you. They’re very possessive. They own you, a little bit.
You’re okay with that?
It’s a sweet thing. It doesn’t bother me, because I’m smart enough to know that you should have a handle on it. I’m not stuck in that role. There are many other things I can do.
You can play grandmothers, for instance. You’re cast as a German one here for Lost in Yonkers. How did it affect you when you first graduated from actress/mother to grandmother?
I did Brooklyn Bridge, a CBS series in the early 1990s. I played a Jewish-Polish grandmother. I wasn’t Jewish, and I wasn’t terribly old. I’m an actress. I have no trouble stepping over any of these boundaries.
Were you a mother to the cast of Happy Days?
I was. I remember being together on the set, and we were all telling stories. Tom Bosley said, “You know, your mother...,” as he started a story. I said, “Tom, you know, I’m not their real mom.” It was a shock. We forget. But I would listen to their little problems, and Tom would too. We were quite parental with them. As the show went on, the boys were growing up, getting married, buying houses, having babies. All in that 11-year span the show ran.
What about the boy with the leather jacket and motorcycle, Henry Winkler’s Fonzie?
Oh, well, we had a special relationship. I called him Arthur. And, being an Italian hoodlum, he treated a woman or a motherly figure very courtly. He treated me with great respect.
But he lived above your garage. And, I must say, Howard Cunningham, who seemed like a fine father and competent hardware merchant, didn’t seem so sexually charismatic. So....
[Laughs]Backstage we would dramatize all this fooling around. Also, I got to dance the tango with The Fonz. I will say that Henry was a very good dancer.
We’re talking about all these characters, assuming that people of a certain age will know who we’re talking about. It’s all about shared pop-culture moments. Do you think we’re losing that, with everything so spread out now?
Oh, I think so. We used to say on the set that Happy Days was something that might not happen again. It’s similar to the way we loved movies from the thirties and forties. We knew all the character actors. We cherished every one of them. But I don’t know. Mustn’t talk like old people, because everything is new and better, right?
Okay. Let’s talk about Lost in Yonkers. How did your involvement come about?
It’s because of my role in Brooklyn Bridge. It’s fun for me. My husband died last July, so I think this is very mentally healthy for me. I’ve been lonely here, but I think I should be doing it. It’s not good for you to quit or retire.
We’ve talked about your television kids, but not your real ones.
Yes. I have two children. They tell me that they watch me, how I take life on and how I keep going. It’s good to keep in the game. I think I inspire them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Lost in Yonkers runs May 17 to June 10 at the Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto (416-366-7723).