By Jason Cochran
January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

Marion Ross is America’s mom — and don’t think she doesn’t milk it. ”I call the plumber,” she begins, leaning over her lunch to recount the conversation: ”’You ever watch Happy Days?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I’m Mrs. C.!’ And he’s right there. I can get anything I want!”

Perhaps even an Academy Award. Hollywood’s foreign press have already tapped Ross for a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her tearjerking turn as a lonely maid in The Evening Star. And now children of the ’70s are cornering her in a Manhattan eatery and assuring her that she’s ”Oscar bait.” Mrs. Cunningham flushes, squirms in her seat, and turns heads with a vigorous squeal before crowing ”I love it! Why not? It’s beyond my dreams.”

While her 11 years of Days weren’t much of a challenge — ”It was ‘Oh, Howard’ or ‘Richie, you’re not eating!”’ she laughs — they helped teach Ross, a long-standing member of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, to fashion throwaway lines into veritable arias. It’s a skill well suited to Rosie, the long-suffering housekeeper whose tacit affection for Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) is the glue of the Greenway family. So Ross still has her best scenes in the kitchen (her heartbreaking resignation speech is one of the movie’s few long scenes, and a crucial turning point), but with Rosie, she finally breaks out of the background. ”The whole movie, in my eyes, is a love affair between Rosie and Aurora,” says the 68-year-old. ”She only lives to make Aurora happy. She’s lived her whole life through Aurora. I can just hardly bear it, she touches me so.”

Ross herself is no dowdy homebody: She has two grown children, Jim Meskimen and Ellen Plummer, both actors, and travels extensively with her boyfriend of eight years, Broadway actor Paul Michael (Bells Are Ringing). Evening Star writer-director Robert Harling, who also wrote The First Wives Club, nabbed Ross after catching her in productions of his play Steel Magnolias. ”Rosie’s an incredibly important character. It takes a special quality to play someone who’s bitten her tongue for 40 years,” he says. ”And I can’t wait to find something else to do with her.”

He’d better pencil her in: After acing an appearance on the hot-ticket Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher in October (”Do we ever take the high road anymore?” she opined on the press’ treatment of Richard Jewell, and earned applause five times during the show), Ross hit The Drew Carey Show in a cameo as Drew’s mom, her first big-series gig since receiving Emmy nominations in both 1992 and 1993 as another matron, Sophie, on CBS’ Brooklyn Bridge. And if Oscar bites, she’ll milk that, too: ”I’m thinking I’ll just get up and say, ‘Children!’ They’ll scream. And I’ll say, ‘Just the fact you all grew up so well is enough for me. You didn’t have to give me this prize!”’