TORONTO - Former "Happy Days" star Marion Ross has pushed through much emotional upheaval to star in an upcoming Toronto production of "Lost in Yonkers."
Nearly two years ago, when the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company first asked the legendary Los Angeles-based actress to do the play here, her longtime common-law husband Paul Michael's heart "was getting bad," she said.
"I even said to Paul at one point during last year — that was a rough year with his health — 'I'm not going to go and do that play. That's not a good idea,' and he said, 'No, it isn't a good idea,'" the redheaded Ross, 83, said in a recent interview over breakfast at a downtown diner.
"And then the next morning I woke up and thought, 'Yeah I am going to go.' You know how we are — we always want to go and we want to do something new. And 'somebody wants me to do this? You betcha!'"
It was that resilient attitude that made Ross stick to her commitment even after Michael, an actor with whom she was in a relationship for 23 years, died last July at age 84.
"I'm thrilled to be here, and it's very good for me to be here," said Ross, flashing the warm smile that lit up her happy homemaker character Marion Cunningham, mother of Richie and Joanie, on "Happy Days" from 1974 to 1984.
"If you're newly widowed, I think it's very good for you to jump into something. I have wonderful children and they're calling me all the time, but this is still good for me.
"And like the woman in the play, the grandmother, she's constantly teaching them, and I thought, 'Don't I teach my children? Look at how they watch me.' ... I'm always going for it. I want to be in the game."
Neil Simon's Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning "Lost in Yonkers" opens May 12 at the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.
Ross plays the stern grandmother to two brothers (Jesse Shimko, Alessandro Costantini) in the summer of 1942. Co-stars include Linda Kash and Sheila McCarthy.
Although Ross is known mostly for her countless film and TV roles, she's been on Broadway and has done much theatre. One of her most recent plays was "The Last Romance," in which she and Michael starred at San Diego's Globe Theatre in the summer of 2010.
Tony-winning playwright Joe DiPietro penned the play specifically for them on Ross's insistence.
"I would call him up and I would say: 'You know, you write for old people really well. Why don't you write us a play?'" recalled the five-time Emmy Award nominee, whose recent credits include "SpongeBob SquarePants" and the upcoming film "Heebie Jeebies."
"After about two years passed, he said, 'Here's your play,' — for my husband's 80th birthday.... Even though we were older people, it was a romance."
Ross lives near her children and grandchildren in Woodland Hills, L.A., where she owns two adjacent properties — one named Happy Days Farm and the other Sophie Park, after her lead character in the '90s series "Brooklyn Bridge."
"I said, 'One more series and I'm going to own this whole street,'" chuckled Ross, whose daughter, Ellen Plummer, has written and produced series including "Friends." Her son, Jim Meskimen, is an actor with credits including "Whose Line is it Anyway?"
"I have a wonderful life. I have everything."
Ross still has friends from "Happy Days," including Henry Winkler (a.k.a. The Fonz), whom she recently tried to convince to come to Toronto to see "Lost in Yonkers." He told her he couldn't because he's shooting the series "Royal Pains."
"Henry is very easy to be close to, and he was probably close to everybody, really," said Ross, who's also been nominated for a Golden Globe award. "And I was very close to little Erin (Moran) because we were the only girls on the show. But it was a life. It was a life."
And a prank-filled life at that, said Ross, noting Winkler once sprayed whip cream on her on the set.
"We had to stop and I had to go and wash my hair — stop the show — because my hair was full of whip cream," she said laughing.
"Our director, Jerry Paris, was a grownup but he was like an eight-year-old — tremendously creative, on the moment. He made so many mistakes that it was an atmosphere of, 'You can try anything because he's already made six mistakes.'"
Though Ross grew up in Watertown, Minn., she has Canadian roots — her mother was a school teacher in Tisdale, Sask.
"All the spunk and good stuff I have in me comes from her," said Ross. "It's all that Canadian person: a lot of drive in her, and you had to become somebody and get somewhere ... and probably to get her approval and attention, I would be that. I wanted to be so special, and I did. I came all the way from Minnesota, from this little town of about 15,000, and by 22 I was under contract with Paramount.
"I love looking back at my life and seeing that green, green girl, a whole different character, and how I just weaved my way through that, not knowing any better, just one thing on my mind. Isn't that something?"