Thursday, July 14, 2011

Marion Ross Joins Roma Downey, Kayla Ewell, Thad Luckinbill in 'The Randalls'

Crown Features Syndicate™

So there are a few things we all know about Marion Ross, beginning with the fact she starred for 11 seasons as Mrs. C. on the blockbuster hit comedy series HAPPY DAYS from 1973 to ’84. We also know she was the voice of Grandma SquarePants on the cartoon SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS for the better part of the past decade. And it’s pretty well known that Ross changed the spelling of her name from “Marian” to “Marion” as a girl of 13 because she figured it would look better on a marquee.

But here is something you probably didn’t know about this perpetual redhead: she was always told as a kid that she was too nice and that it was going to prevent her from getting anywhere in life.  And this little factoid ties in to Ross’ latest role as a granny who is sweet on the outside, but mischievous on the inside in the Hallmark Channel Original Movie Keeping Up With The Randalls premieres Saturday, July 16 (9 p.m. ET/PT, 8C).

In the film, Ross stars alongside Roma Downey of TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL and plays Grandma Dorrie, who is part of a tough-as-nails family that puts her grandson’s girlfriend through the wringer to determine if she has what it takes to be a member of this energetic clan.  It’s a role that the acting legend relates to well, having grown up spending her summers in similar fashion.

“This movie has some things in common that happened during the summers my family spent on the lake in Minnesota,” Ross recalls.  “You didn’t have to be rich back then in order to have a cabin. We’d all play games and challenge each other.  It was a time of family togetherness and doing whatever you had to do to win. I remember that all so well.”

And so having a role in Keeping Up With The Randalls brought Ross more than a touch of deja-vu. Kayla Ewell of THE VAMPIRE DIARIES fame stars as a city-slicker gal from Los Angeles who is now the serious girlfriend of Will Randall (Thad Luckinbill of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS).  By day, she’s a hotshot children’s clothing designer.  But she’s totally unprepared for what awaits her on a vacation at Will’s family compound in the Midwest: a competitive tournament they call the “Randall Reunion Races.”

“Of course, the family spots Alicia as a city gal who can never be one of them,” Ross observes. “And of course, things go awry quickly when Grandma Dorrie gets paired with Alicia in a game of badminton and immediately throws out her shoulder…after Alicia accidentally hits her.  So now Grandma has to sit on the sidelines keeping score, because she was, of course, now too old for the horseshoes, the kickball and the wall-climbing.”

Grandma Dorrie then gets left behind to fend for herself after the Randalls and Alicia go off on a scavenger hunt.

“Oh, I’m just devastated,” Ross says with a chuckle.  “I have someone come and give me a manicure.  Then I get into the whiskey and the chocolate.  And I play Wii boxing. Oh, I have just a terrible time by myself!”
Finally, it’s clear that Alicia can’t do anything right and it’s left to Dorrie to take the poor woman aside and reassure her, “Listen, I married into this family, too.  It’s like being one of the Kennedys.  You’ve got to prove yourself. You’ve got to conquer ‘em.”

“And so then I’m her pal,” Ross recalls.  “I have to say, making this movie was just such amazing fun, brought back so many real memories.  And the great part is that now, in real life, I get to live the best part of this film.  I’m fortunate enough to have a tennis court, swimming pool, bocci ball court and ping pong table, and my kids are very creative.  We play a lot of charades.  Everybody watching Hallmark Channel is going to ask, ‘Why don’t I have a family like that?’, and I do.”

While Ross never really wanted for anything when she was a young girl—and indeed had family summer vacations in a place by the lake—she recalls that it wasn’t exactly all rose petals and lollypops while growing up in the small town of Albert Lea, Minnesota.  After all, she spent her earliest years during the Great Depression.

“Back then, because of the Depression, everything seemed to be a lot more serious,” Ross remembers.  “It was hard.  You learned never to expect anything, and you didn’t get anything. And that was that.  It was very good training.  But the result was I often felt bad about myself.”

Complicating things further was the fact that Ross’ brother had disability issues stemming from what she recalls as “PB of the bone.”

Ross continues, “He was crippled as a boy, always having to go to the hospital.  Ultimately, he needed to have his leg taken off below the knee.  My father would be telling me, ‘You’ve got two good legs.  Be good.  Be happy.’  So I always had to be really good.  I became this compulsively nice person.  And to some degree it was a big cover-up.  Beneath the sweetness everyone sees is a whole other person, to this day.  That’s one reason why when I starred in BROOKLYN BRIDGE (in the early 1990s), I loved it when I got to be rude, tough and mean.”

The ironies at play here, Ross admits, are many.  Start with the fact she starred for so many years on a series called HAPPY DAYS.  Then there is the fact that, despite long being told by those in her orbit that she’d never amount to much due to her inherent sweetness, she ultimately wound up being legitimately happy and successful beyond her wildest dreams.

In Keeping Up With The Randalls, Alicia proves herself in ways that have nothing to do with athletics but everything to do with caring and creativity.  And Ross had a ball being part of the whole thing.  “Roma Downey, in particular, is just a joy to be around,” she says.  “I just think the audience is going to eat this little movie up—with the house, the games, the people.  It’s a perfectly charming summer movie. Feel free to quote me on that.”

Then there is Ross herself, who is having a perfectly wonderful time being Marion Ross.

“The people who predicted nothing would come of Marion are all gone,” Ross observes, “and I’m still here.  That’s why I tell people, ‘Don’t worry.  Your time will come.’  Because I’m living proof that it does.

“Regrets?  No, I’ve got to say I’m pretty pleased with the way everything has turned out.  I had a bad patch when I was about 40.  I got divorced and everything was in the dumper.  But things turn around if you just hang in there.”

Keeping Up With The Randalls premiers Saturday, July 16 (9 p.m. ET/PT, 8C)

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