The voice doesn't just sound like Sophie Berger. It is Sophie Berger.

Well, it's really Marion Ross, first among equals in the ensemble cast of CBS' "Brooklyn Bridge," doing her own impersonation of Sophie, the series matriarch.

"Many people can do the accent," she said, slipping it on as easily as you would glide into a kidskin glove. "They fool around with it. So I don't bore friends with it."

But she did indeed slide in and out of character several times in a half-hour conversation. And there was no sign of that nice Mrs. Cunningham, whom she played on TV's "Happy Days."

Despite the series' clever writing, delightful cast and a wonderful assortment of scenes and episodes ranging from the poignant to the painfully funny, the series typically ranked in the 70s each week among the 100 or so prime time shows.

Fans of the show feared, with good reason, that such low marks would surely spell cancellation for the show. But CBS has decided to bring it back next fall, moving it to Saturday, which has become in recent years the place to find shows with strong ethnic story lines.

"Brooklyn Bridge" centers around the Berger family -- Ross, the matriarch, and Louis Zorich as her husband, Jules, immigrant Polish Jews who have established a family beachhead in Brooklyn, circa 1956. The program is the brainchild of Gary David Goldberg, who gave television one of the most popular sitcoms of the '80s, "Family Ties," which may explain CBS's willingness to string along with him for another season. The series is pegged to his own Brooklyn childhood.

The renewal will mean happy days for fans of Ross, so delightfully cast in a role that is a dramatic departure from her last high-profile TV part as Ritchie's mom. And then there's the delicate matter of playing the character patterned after the producer's real-life grandmother.

"About 20 people take credit for thinking of me for the part," said Ross. "They saw a lot of actresses. They had a casting woman in London, and New York, too. My agents didn't put me up for it, because I'm not the one you'd think about for it. 'Mrs. C. from "Happy Days" would be wonderful' -- can't you see my agents saying that to a producer?"

Among those who take bows for the unlikely casting, she said, is producer Sam Weisman. But a key suspect is the Fonz.

Henry Winkler, who etched that character into the culture during his stint on "Happy Days," is also a friend of Goldberg's. Ross recalled Goldberg's remarking once, "We had dinner with your agent, Henry Winkler."

In any event, Goldberg called, and Ross answered.

There followed about a month of auditioning, working with a dialect coach, and uncertainty.

"I never did this accent before," said Ross, whose acting career dates back to her teenage years in Minnesota, when she began studying with a drama coach in Minneapolis. Moving to California with her family, she majored in drama at San Diego State University (she was voted most outstanding actress in her freshman year), and her work at the La Jolla Playhouse prompted director Mel Ferrer to suggest she move up the coast to Hollywood. She made her film debut as Patricia Crowley's roommate in "Forever Female." Her first work in television was to be in "Life With Father," the first live network series to air in color. She played Nora, an Irish maid. She's also played Broadway, teaming in 1987 with Jean Stapleton in an "Arsenic and Old Lace" revival.

Her run as Marion Cunningham, a family matriarch of another stripe but similar era, begin in January 1974 in the "Happy Days" series. That show was set in 1950 in Milwaukee.

Now nearly 20 seasons later, here was Marion Ross trying for the part of the sage, strong-willed Sophie. In the eye of the television audience, she was changing from a delicious slice of Midwestern white bread to a tasty loaf of Jewish rye.

And first came that accent. "I invented it in the outer office waiting to see the producers," she recalled. "When I first went in, I had the heavy Russian R. They wanted her more Slavic. She's from Krakow, and is Polish."

And then there's the dicey proposition of trying to play the grandmother of the show's creator/executive producer.

"He {Goldberg} talked a little about her, but she's right there on the page," said Ross. "She fills me with so much emotion at times, I have to pause. She knocks me out. She's a fierce, wonderful woman with a lot of passion for her family, and she knows what's right."

And indeed there's a lot for Sophie to set right and keep right as the dominant character in a three-generation household.

The series unfolds largely from the standpoint of the oldest grandson in the family, the wisecracking Alan, played by Danny Gerard. But it's his younger brother, Nathaniel, played by Matthew Siegel, who holds the family position Goldberg had while growing up in Brooklyn.

"I'm struck myself by how wonderful my older brother was to me, " said Goldberg. "I'm the younger guy in the family. I took him for granted that way."

Goldberg's brother, a retired New York school principal, owns a summer camp for boys and girls. "He took me along," said Goldberg, "never tried to diminish me, always looked out for me." That's a brother-concept, he said, that many people find hard to believe, along with the idea of a closely knit, three-generational family living close together in a neighborhood where everyone knows everyone.

One of the show's most intense viewers is Goldberg's grandmother, who tunes in from Florida. "Grandmother was really awesome," said Goldberg, recalling the days in Brooklyn. "More than a person, she was a structure."

Goldberg said he avoids discussing the show with her directly. "I don't know how hard it is for her to take this," he said. "We speak on the phone every night, and the show is something that's there. She enjoys it and her friends like it, and it's a big hit in Florida. She and my brother talk about the show, and she's interested in what we remember."

As Goldberg describes the casting of Ross, he sounds like a man who had to be convinced that Mrs. Cunningham could turn into Sophie. "When I first saw her, I said, she's nice, but I couldn't think of her for the part. Out of courtesy, we met her. It was very interesting, but she was Mrs. Cunningham. But she was good. We couldn't believe what we'd seen. We asked her back, and she was better, but we were still too insecure to move. She got better, we asked her to work with a dialect coach, and in costume. She just got better."

Ross, of Scotch and Irish roots, was born in Albert Lea, Minn., 63 years ago and recalls a time when there were a lot of Sophies around, most of the ones she knew being Irish. She is divorced, has two grown children and a granddaughter, and speaks with impish delight of her boyfriend. "We might get married," she said with a giggle.

Goldberg's grandmother and Marion Ross have never met. "I don't know what that would be like," mused Goldberg. But Ross said she draws on her own mother to help flesh out the role. "I come from these Irish ancestors, and this kind of strength in a woman is not uncommon to the women who were everywhere when I was growing up. There was an era when women lived for families; there were immigrants who lived for the next generation -- women stop me on the street and say they identify with that approach to life. Now every grandmother is out doing her thing, getting divorced, getting her hair done, living for herself. I think the culture is paying a price for this."

As Ross plays her, Sophie Berger is a resourceful, assertive woman. "Sophie will use every weapon," said Ross. "Guilt -- she uses it all. She's got the power. She's older, wiser, smarter. She does heavy parenting. We don't do that anymore."