To celebrate Mother’s Day 2020, TVLine is catching up with iconic TV moms from well-remembered series of the past.
Her son Chuck may have been forgotten, but many a TV viewer of the 1970s and ’80s (and beyond) will always remember “Mrs. C,” the Happy Days matriarch played by Marion Ross across 11 seasons of the ABC sitcom. TVLine spoke with the iconic TV mom about her favorite episodes, holding a special place in the Fonz’s heart, and the show’s reputation as “Jump the Shark” bait. (Also read our Q&A with The Waltons‘ Michael Learned.)
TVLINE | Is there any specific episode that people tend to bring up when meeting you?
There are so many, there are so many…. One that comes up a lot, and that I personally loved, was the episode where Marion gets mad at Howard [in Season 4’s “Marion Rebels”]. It was the one time she stood up for herself. He wanted his dinner and I went to the refrigerator and I said, “You want your dinner?? I’ve got your dinner! [Slamming uncooked food in front of him] Here’s your salad… your potato… and your steak! Live it up!!” [Laughs] And then she storms out the door. (Watch the scene on Facebook.)
TVLINE | That’s when she went to work as a waitress at Arnold’s.
Yep. I was mad at the entire family.
Another of my favorite shows was when I got to dance the tango with the Fonz. Henry [Winkler] could do it immediately; I had to go to the coach, and the coach had to work with me for like a whole week.
TVLINE | Why was Henry so adept?
He loves to dance anyway, and he’s also very inventive. All in all, I remember Marion having such a wonderful relationship with the Fonz….
TVLINE | “Arthur.”
“Arthur,” I would call him Arthur. I was the one person that he would show that he was vulnerable, you know? Which was beautiful. And Henry and I are still very wonderful, close friends.
TVLINE | Henry Winkler is the only Happy Days cast member I have met in person, and what a lovely gentlemen he is. Such a warm, genuine human being.
He’s a heck of a guy. And I like him on [HBO’s] Barry very much!
TVLINE | When I was combing through photos, there was one scene I couldn’t quite place. You were in an Arabian Nights/harem-type outfit….
Yes! Marion was trying to perk up her marriage with Howard, after one of his friends got divorced to marry a much younger woman. I tried to do a belly dance, but he kept saying, “Stop it, Marion! Stop it!” [Laughs] I loved it.
TVLINE | That was a recurring theme for Howard and Marion, being “frisky” with one another. Sitcom parents of that time rarely ever had even a hint of such an interior life.
“Frisky” is such a perfect word for it. It’s very dear. “Howard, are you getting frisky?” “Yes, Marion.”
How old are you? I imagine you must have caught the show on repeats…?
TVLINE | No, I was a first-run kid. When that thick TV Guide fall preview issue hit the mailbox, I’d dive in and look at all the new cast photos. And then there were star-studded ABC promos each summer that teased the fall season — [Singing] “Still the one….” Happy Days was a favorite.
We had some wonderful guest stars on the show, too, like Tom Hanks…. All kinds of people. And you know, we had a softball team that would play before big league games, all over the United States. And then at one point, we were invited to go to Europe. We went to Germany and played softball with the U.S. 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 U.S. infantry there. Can you believe that?
TVLINE | Where did you play, outfield? Pitcher?
I played “rover.” Like, “Get over there, Marion! Now get over there!” [Laughs] But I could hit, and then I would then run with my arms raised up, and because they didn’t want to hit that fine old lady, they would overthrow first base. [Laughs] That’s how I got on.
TVLINE | Who were the heavy hitters? Donny Most, Anson Williams…?
Donny and Anson were terrific. Ron Howard, terrific. Now Henry, he’s a New York City boy, he had never played softball, so they said, “Don’t worry, Henry, we’ll coach you to be the pitcher. You don’t have to do any running, you don’t have to do any fielding.” The other boys were very good ballplayers.
TVLINE | What do you say to people who bring up the “Jump the Shark” episode? Do you tell them, “Sit on it”?
Ohh, that jump-the-shark episode was terrific! We had discovered that Henry was very good at waterskiing, so that was one of the reasons why it came to be. I forget how we shot it, though, because we couldn’t risk the Fonz… But you catch him mid-air, over the shark cage, and then it said “To Be Continued.”
TVLINE | I remember that like it was yesterday. “To Be Continued.” And back then you really had to wait.
Right! Instead you would talk about it when you went to school the next day,
TVLINE | Did Marion ever give parental guidance that you personally disagreed with?
No. She was an awfully nice person, and she always stayed in the home. There was that one time she said to Howard, “I’ve got to get a job. And I’ve got to learn to drive. I’ve got to get a bigger life.” But it didn’t take.
TVLINE | I was trying to recall, did Happy Days ever tackle any sort of “issue” storyline, anything that was bold for the time?
Near the end, it was getting to be a little chancey. We were choosing some difficult subjects. But that really wasn’t what we were about.
TVLINE | Joanie did once get in trouble for smoking cigarettes to hang with the “cool crowd.”
Yes, we had things like that. And the time Richie had “72 teeny-weeny glasses of beer” at a party, and got hungover and tried to hide it. But the show was never about that.
I loved the fact that the family, the at-home part, was always a part of every show. In fact, the crew loved it because they would watch to see what we were going to eat. [Laughs] “Oh, look at that meat loaf!” In those days, families sat down and had dinner every night.
TVLINE | That’s like the Tom Selleck show that is on Friday nights, Blue Bloods. They have a family dinner every episode, and the food always looks amazing.
Isn’t that something? See, we miss that. We don’t have that anymore.
TVLINE | Did you have any sense back then that Ron Howard would go on to become such an accomplished filmmaker? Did he express an interest in what was going on on-set, the process?
He was a very curious young man, but who knew that he was going to become one of the top men in town! Honestly…. It was thrilling to watch him build that life, not mess it up, and have a lovely family.
TVLINE | He wrote the foreword for your memoir, My Days: Happy & Otherwise. Your break into the business was interesting.
I’m from Minnesota, I went to college at San Diego State, and then I ran off and eloped at 21. But because I had been in all the plays at college, one of the teachers found me and said, “I’m taking you to up to Hollywood.” Her name was Rosa Choplin; she taught Spanish and I didnt even take Spanish. And that was my beginning. Wasn’t that something?
TVLINE | What was it like for your own children when you were a TV-mom?
I was not as strict with my TV-family as I was with my own children. I was very strict with my own children. But my daughter became a writer-producer on Friends, Ellen Kreamer, and now she is creating a new show. And my son, Jim Meskimen, is acting all the time on one thing or another. My children followed along in the same business, but they seen firsthand, realistically, how tough it was.
TVLINE | Before we go, is there anything else about Happy Days to share that people might find interesting or surprising?
I don’t think there is anything that people haven’t already heard over these, what, 40, 50 years…. We were in the public eye so much that people knew that we were all good friends. And how many people have a sweet life like that? Not many. Not many.
Happy Days’ Marion Ross is among the actresses participating in the Hollywood Museum’s postponed but upcoming exhibit about how the role of Mom in Hollywood takes on many different forms in film and TV.