Early film and television roles, 1953–73
Ross made her 1953 film debut in Forever Female, starring Ginger Rogers and William Holden. She found steady work in film, appearing in The Glenn Miller Story (1954), Sabrina (1954), Lust for Life (1956), Lizzie (1957), Teacher’s Pet (1958), Some Came Running (1958), and Operation Petticoat (1959). She also appeared in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Honky (1971), and Grand Theft Auto (1977). Ross’ career on television also began in 1953, when she played the Irish maid on the series Life With Father for two years. In 1954, she appeared as Ginny Thorpe on The Lone Ranger, and in 1958, she appeared on NBC’s Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer as Mary Williams. In 1959, she appeared as a teacher Miss McGinnis on ABC’s The Donna Reed Show. Ross also appeared on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Millionaire (1956 episode), Steve Canyon, Perry Mason (The Case of the Romantic Rogue), Buckskin, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Father Knows Best, The Outer Limits (The Special One), Thriller (U.S. TV series) (The Prisoner in the Mirror), The Brothers Brannagan (two episodes as Diane Warren), The Eleventh Hour, Mannix, Route 66, Mr. Novak, Death Valley Days, Hawaii Five-O, The Brady Bunch, The Fugitive, and Night Court. In the 1961–62 television season, she played Gertrude Berg’s daughter on the CBS sitcom Mrs. G. Goes to College as well as starred as a mail order bride on Rawhide. Ross had an uncredited and non-speaking role as one of the hapless passengers on board Trans Global Flight #2 in Airport (1970). That year, Ross played a computer scientist opposite Eric Braeden in the sci-fi thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project.
Ross’ best known role is on the sitcom Happy Days, which aired for 11 seasons on ABC, from 1974 to 1984. She portrayed matriarch Marion Cunningham, mother of Richie, Joanie, and (briefly) Chuck. She received Primetime Emmy Award nominations for her work on the show in 1979 and 1984. Ross later reprised Marion Cunningham on the spin-off series Joanie Loves Chachi and on Family Guy. Between 1978 and 1986, she appeared as different characters on The Love Boat. In the 1986–87 television season, Ross became a series regular, playing Emily Haywood. She later starred in the short-lived, critically acclaimed comedy-drama Brooklyn Bridge, which ran on CBS from 1991 to 1993. The series won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award following its first season. Ross also appeared on the game show Password Plus in 1979.
In 1996, she starred as housekeeper Rosie Dunlop opposite Shirley MacLaine in The Evening Star, a sequel to Terms of Endearment. Despite panning the film, New York Times critic Janet Maslin enthused that, “Marion Ross does a warm, sturdy job as the devoted housekeeper who has been kept too long under Aurora’s wing.” She went on to be nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance. Ross had a recurring role on Touched by an Angel as a homeless woman and was in the final two episodes which closed the series. Additionally, she played a secretly ill mother in “The Cat”, an episode of Early Edition that first aired in April 1997. She had recurring roles as Drew Carey’s mother on The Drew Carey Show (during one episode of which she was referred to as her Happy Days character Mrs. Cunningham, a deliberate error for a contest the show was running); as mean grandmother Bernice Forman on That ’70s Show; and as Lorelai “Trix” Gilmore and Marilyn Gilmore on Gilmore Girls. She also frequently appeared on Hollywood Squares. During the 1990s, Ross became active in voice-over work. She played Ms. Wakefield on the Fox animated series King of the Hill, Grandma SquarePants on Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants, Crane’s mother on Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness and Mrs. Lopart on Handy Manny. She also guest-starred on The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries, The Wild Thornberrys, and Generator Rex. In 2007, Ross appeared in Music Within. In 2007 and 2010, she played Ida Holden on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters. In June 2008, the Albert Lea Civic Theater in Albert Lea, Minnesota changed its name to the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center. That year, Ross played Aunt Lucille in the film Superhero Movie, and in 2009 she appeared in a guest spot on The New Adventures of Old Christine. In 2010, Ross guest-starred on Nurse Jackie and Grey’s Anatomy, and appeared in the Cartoon Network television film Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster as Mrs. Trowburg. In 2013, she guest-starred on both Major Crimes and The Middle, and in 2014 on Two and a Half Men. In September 2015, she began making brief appearances on MeTV to share her memories of her Happy Days co-stars. In 2018, Ross announced that she had officially retired from acting.