Every once in a while pop culture icons converge. Such will the case tonight when Marion Ross, who played Happy Days iconic mother Mrs. Cunningham, appears on the modern family sitcom The Middle. Although she won’t be going head-to-head with the Heck matriarch, Frankie, she will be lording her Vice Principal powers over Brick.
Fans of Mrs. C shouldn’t expect the same, sweet character they’ve come to expect. In a recent exclusive interview, Marion explained laughed that she’ll be portraying “this lovely, wonderful woman who turns out to be just as mad as a hatter.”
But it seems her angst isn’t completely unwarranted. As Marion remarked, “I’m so disappointed in Brick Heck, played by Atticus Shaffer. He’s supposed to have put together this wonderful film of all his classmates, taking these pictures for the last four years. Of course, he hasn’t taken any pictures at all and it is a tremendous crisis. I can’t believe that he hasn’t done all this wonderful stuff and he’s going to get into a lot of trouble. And it’s fun for me to be so fierce and mean.”
She also enjoyed working with her teenage scene partner. No stranger to having young co-stars like Ron Howard and Erin Moran from her Happy Days years, Marion showered Atticus with praise, saying, “What a talented kid he is — wonderful, bright, disciplined, wonderful kid. And his character name is Brick Heck. How can anybody be named Brick Heck? What were they thinking of?”
Odd child names aren’t the only defining differences between sitcoms of days gone by and the modern family fare. Looking at how the genre has evolved, Marion noted, “It’s rougher and down to the nitty-gritty.”
Marion added that this edgier feel is reflected in everything from the scripts to the set design. “It really shows you how people really do live and that’s what I enjoy about their furniture in the house. Things don’t match. This is the way we do live. A house grows, stuff gathers. It’s all there, all this stuff… This stuff is tougher than when Happy Days was on. Everything was so neat and orderly.”
And while Patricia Heaton’s Frankie might go out in public in sweatpants, Mrs. C was much more demure when it came to her appearance. As Marion recounted, “I always wore my pearls.”
But Marion Cunningham also didn’t do the heavy lifting that Frankie does. “I don’t think I ever vacuumed or did anything hard like that,” Marion pointed out.
And when it came to discipline, Marion laughed about her traditional housewife character, “She would have Howard take care of it. In that family, Howard was the strong one. Everything was very much hinged on ‘your father.’ Frankie, she’s the manager in that house.”
That doesn’t mean that Marion doesn’t appreciate the modern TV mom. She acknowledged, “I admire Patricia Heaton so much. I thought she did so much with her wife and mother role on the ‘Raymond’ show, my God. I thought, ‘She’s so spunky and wonderful. She’s not like a TV mom at all.’ And then this, she isn’t either. And this show really deals with the nitty-gritty of what it’s like to be a parent and to raise these kids. This isn’t like Happy Days at all.”
But as Marion observed, the entire TV landscape has changed since her hit show was on the air. “We were very lucky. We had 11 seasons. Now this show has finished four this next year and even that’s pretty remarkable in this day and age. It’s so different out there, isn’t it? On Happy Days every Tuesday night, the whole nation was watching Happy Days. Everybody was watching. Now there’s too many choices so you end up sometimes not watching anything. It’s just too much.”
Luckily, this week there’s an obvious choice. Tune in to the season finale of The Middle tonight at 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. Central on ABC.
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