From the moment Marion Ross fixes her blue eyes and her broad smile on you, you're doomed to be charmed.
It's not just that she comes prepared with little facts about the interviewer's life, asking about the baby, the husband, the job. Or that she takes you off your guard by whisking you into her car to get gas during the interview.
It's how she is constantly on, trying to influence and captivate you, working the interview.
For 11 years, the red-haired Ross charmed millions as the perfect but zany Mrs. Cunningham on TV's "Happy Days." Today, she's working her charm as the difficult but lovable and slightly plump grandmother on the series "Brooklyn Bridge."
Starting Sunday, Mother's Day, the San Diego State alum will try to enchant local audiences in the role of a most imperfect mother, the overbearing Amanda, in "The Glass Menagerie."
The show, the season opener for the La Jolla Playhouse, will play at the Mandell Weiss Theatre through June 14.
"Amanda charms you. And that's my job. That's what I do. Amanda is full of subterfuge and the oblique, guilt-inducing approach to life," Ross said with one of her frequent, brilliant smiles.
"I don't mind throwing myself 100% into this woman. I don't hold myself back a bit."
It may be hard to imagine how Ross, 63, could delight audiences with Williams' deadly portrait of a domineering mother who drives one of her children to flight and the other to near-autistic withdrawal. But Ross likes this woman. She relates to her. And she doesn't see her as the cause of her children's troubles, but as one who is desperately trying to save them.
"I'm crazy about her. I feel tremendous sympathy for her. She's trying to do a wonderful job--like all of us. We try to save our children pain and we don't prepare them well for life. But these children are willful," Ross said, starting to sound as
heated and frustrated as Amanda Wingfield herself.
"Just think about Laura (the daughter in the play). For six weeks, she pretended to go to business school and she didn't.
That child is strong and willful ."
Like Amanda, Ross, who maintains a home in Cardiff, has raised two children largely on her own, both of whom are now in the acting profession. (Ross divorced 22 years ago when the children were 5 and 8.)
Like Amanda, Ross is a child of the Depression, born in the small town of Albert Lea, Minn. Her parents moved to San Diego when she was a teen-ager.
She takes nothing for granted. And she never gives up. She has held to her dream of becoming an actress since she was 13.
"I was absolutely driven. I was a middle child. If a volunteer was asked for, I would always say, 'I'll do it,' whether I wanted to or not. I was always ready to go out and act in any little play. If it was on the moon, I would be there."
Ross speculates now that her mother, who taught acting, might have inspired her drive: Marion Ross was going to become the actress the late Ellen Ross wanted to become.
But she also thinks it was a profession she had to pursue because of her emotional makeup.
"I'm a very shallow person. I have no depth at all," Ross said. "All my emotions are right at the surface and I have to put these emotions someplace. I have more emotions than I can encompass. I get all worked up." Tears came to her eyes suddenly as she talked. And then dissolved just as quickly as they had come.
Ross won awards for acting when she attended San Diego State in the 1950s. But there was no shortage of people telling her she didn't have the glamour to make it in Hollywood.
"I was a plain-looking girl. I was always sort of plump," she said, a touch of pain in her voice.
After college, Ross did Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre and later performed at the original La Jolla Playhouse (which closed in 1965 and was revived as the current playhouse in 1983). Mel Ferrer, a playhouse founder, steered Ross to Hollywood, where she signed an acting contract with Paramount Studios. Once there, people would ask if she worked at the studio.
"They would say, 'What do you do? Are you a secretary?'
"And I would say, 'I'm an actress. I'm under contract.'
"And they would say, 'Jesus, you must be some actress!' "
Once, Ross remembers, she was sitting in a chair and a woman sitting next to her, with a long, lovely neck, stood up slowly. She was stunning. She was Audrey Hepburn.
Ross was devastated when she saw the difference between her and Hepburn up close.
"It was very painful," Ross said, the tears welling up in her eyes again.
"I went home and ate two candy bars." She held up two fingers and nodded. "Two."
But Ross persevered, getting parts in such films as "Teacher's Pet" and "Sabrina." Just before the debut of "Happy Days," she returned to the Old Globe to play another Williams' character, Alma, in "Summer and Smoke."
"Happy Days" brought Ross financial security but not complacency. She never stopped trying to show her director and producers what she could do.
"A lot of people sat around and groused and complained (about being pigeonholed). I would say, 'You're here, take advantage, get the most out of it, get ahead, for God's sake.'
"I accepted the limitations. Instead of fighting it, when they said at the readings, 'Marion, read all the girls' parts,' I was auditioning for those guys. I would give them ideas on other colors I could play."
In the meantime, she raised her children.
"I worked very hard," Ross said. "I was a tiger and I did it.
"When Amanda goes crazy, there is nothing crazy about her rage. I remember coming home roaring from 'Happy Days' and I would say, 'OUT! OUT! Everybody OUT!' "
As soon as "Happy Days" stopped taping in 1983 (the final episodes were aired in 1984), Ross was back hustling for work on a variety of television shows. She played a recurring character on "Love Boat," starred in "Arsenic and Old Lace" on Broadway and on national tour, toured in a one-woman show, "A Lovely Light," based on the life of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.
"The Glass Menagerie" fit right into her break from "Brooklyn Bridge."
After this, she thinks she may work in a vacation. Or a performance of "A Lovely Light." She worries about the ratings of "Brooklyn Bridge." She wants it to be a success. But whatever happens, she knows she will continue working. She can't imagine doing anything else. Like Amanda, she never gives up. Unlike Amanda, she points proudly to the results of her indomitable drive.
"Just look at where I am now," Ross said. "I have a wonderful life. I never quit, because I always knew I was a wonderful actress."
And then, as if checking for confirmation that her performance in the interview went well, she turned back with that irresistibly charming smile again.
"Did I amuse you? Was it fun?"
"The Glass Menagerie" opens at 8 p.m. Sunday and continues at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays, with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 through June 14. There will be an 8 p.m. Sunday performance on opening night only. Tickets are $19.75 to $29.75. At the Mandell Weiss Theatre at La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road on the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla. Call 534-3960.