RICHIE CUNNINGHAM'S MOM MAY NOT wear combat hoots, hut she can't cook either. It's true. The Donna Reed of the '70s—Happy gosh sakes—can't so much as burn a burger.

"This is about as close as I get," says Marion Ross, pouring boiling water over freshly ground coffee in the natural-wood kitchen of her airy, ranch-style suburban Los Angeles home. This seeming heresy digested, a visitor is reassured by the familiar lilt in her voice and enough sunny charm to conjure up the Marion Cunningham America knew and loved.

Harder to unearth from Ross' cheerful, radiant face is Sophie Berger, the tough Jewish grandmother she plays on CBS's Brooklyn Bridge. Sophie not only cooks, she kvetches—to her husband, Jules. She also kibbitzes with her daughter, Phyllis, and son-in-law, George, and kvells over her grandsons, Danny and Nate, all of whom share a crowded brownstone in '50s Brooklyn. Ross herself, one of three siblings raised in Albert Lea, Minn. (pop. 20,000), comes from Scottish-Irish stock and, at 63, looks about as grandmotherly as Jane Fonda. But that hasn't stopped her from earning an Emmy nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Comedy Series. (The ceremonies will air Aug. 30 on Fox.)

"She has wonderful comedic skills," says executive producer Gary David Goldberg, who based Sophie on his own grandmother and cast Ross at the urging of her friend Hennry Winkler (Happy Days' Fonzie). Still, mindful of Ross' indelible image as Richie's mom, Goldberg wasn't sure she'd succeed as Sophie, and neither was Ross. "When I first got the script," she says, "I started to cry. I thought, I can't do this.' " The problem was Sophie's Yiddish accent. "She was so concerned with it," says director Sam Weiss-man, "she wasn't anywhere near finding the character." A dialect coach helped. But to better understand Sophie herself, Ross drew upon a visit she'd made some years ago to Babi Yar, a memorial to the thousands of Russian Jews massacred in World War II. "To see what Jews have been up against," says Ross, "you realize why there is this fierce protectiveness. Sophie's such a tigress. That family—that's all that matters to her."

In that respect, Ross isn't so far removed from her character. "She's a lot more like Sophie [than Mrs. C.]," says her son, actor Jim Meskimen, 32. "Tough, resilient, resourceful and fiercely protective of her children." Adds Ross: "My toughness I gel from my mother"—Ellen, a schoolteacher who grew up on the prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada. "I was raised with the philosophy: You gotta make something of yourself."

Ross dreamed of making herself an actress. She got the chance when her parents—her father, Gordon, was an electrical engineer—moved the family to San Diego, where Ross acted in plays and TV (she was an Irish maid on Life with Father) before signing on at Paramount, nabbing supporting roles in such films as 1958's Teacher's Pet (as Doris Day's best friend). A 1950 marriage to actor Effie Meskimen produced Jim and his sister, Ellen, 29, an actress, but after 18 years Marion and Effie called it quits. "I was 40, divorced, with two small children and no money," Ross remembers.

She credits Happy Days with giving her, in addition to financial security, confidence in her comic ability. But the role also "closed a lot of doors for me," she says, "because I was so identified with that character." So in 1988, Ross returned to her first love, the stage, performing Long Day's Journey into Night in Seattle and touring in Steel Magnolias and A Lovely Light, a one-woman show in which she portrayed poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. This summer she was in The Glass Menagerie at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse.

For the last three years Ross has shared her life with actor Paul Michael, 65, who last year toured as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. "He's terribly attractive and virile," says Marion, "and then he has this immense sweetness on top of that. He makes me feel wonderful, young and beautiful."

"Marion is such an easy person to be with," says Michael, "and so down-to-earth." Yet neither feels marriage is in the offing. "I never let anybody completely into my life," Ross explains. "I like to control my whole life."

Besides, she says, "acting is so all-consuming. It's so pleasurable that nothing else can take its place." Not even, apparently, the satisfaction of tuning in each week to catch her performance as the stern, all-knowing Sophie. "Don't make me watch it," says Ross. "Just tell me how wonderful it is."

TIM ALLIS
DORIS BACON in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Doris Bacon.