Florence Henderson — who was forever Carol Brady, TV’s most beloved and iconic mom — has died after a brief illness. She was 82.
Henderson was hospitalized Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where she died Thursday night after suffering heart failure, according to reports. Her manager, Kayla Pressman, said she was “surrounded by family and friends.”
A Broadway star, popular singer, “Today Show” “girl,” and even briefly guest host of “Tonight Show” after Jack Paar’s departure and before Johnny Carson’s arrival, there would be but one role that affixed an ineradicable image to her name, persona and career over a 50-year span: Carol Ann Brady.
As mother of a “blended family” — at the time, an emerging concept in American society — she was the mother of six children, three of them her own, on “The Brady Bunch,” which aired on ABC over five seasons and 117 episodes. It was canceled in 1974 after a relatively lackluster run, and that — of course — would be the last time “lackluster” would be applied to anything related to “The Brady Bunch.”
The series subsequently became a global syndicated phenom, which begot spinoffs, variety shows, cartoons and TV movies, also a big screen one. Carol — and Henderson — was the common thread through them all, which effectively was a tacit admission that without Henderson there might never have been a “Brady Bunch” to celebrate (or pillory, and yes there were pillories, too) in the first place. She appeared briefly in the 1995 movie, in which Shelley Long played Carol as the mother of Long’s character, also named Carol. Henderson reprised the role in “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour,” “The Brady Brides,” “The Bradys” and an arms-length list of other series, including “The Love Boat.”
Henderson even found an alternate career of sorts in the sendups, most recently the Damon Wayans spoof “Fifty Shades of Black,” in which she played a “Mrs. Robinson.”
Whether Henderson ever made an effort to distance herself from the career-defining roll is unknown. If she did, that effort clearly failed. In an interview with Newsday earlier this year, she said: “I decided a long time ago to embrace it. You gotta cherish your past. I can’t say I didn’t do it. I get more fan mail today from all over the world than I did when the show started ... The question I’m asked the most is, ‘‘Can I have a hug?’ ’’
Henderson’s appeal as the post-’50s mom was clearly rooted in another iconic role: Barbara Billingsley’s June Cleaver of “Leave It to Beaver.” Both June and Carol effectively lived in the family kitchen (although in a departure, Henderson refused to wear an apron). But Henderson captured something unique to both TV and the era — an especially tumultuous one, with riots in major U.S. cities and a war in Vietnam that reached its climax during the “Brady Bunch” run.
As Carol Brady, she was the wise, calming and generous presence. The family itself was a union of opposites, while as peacemaker, Carol bound both sides together by finding common ground. She was funny, but wasn’t almost meant to be — Ann B. Davis’s Alice Nelson, the housekeeper, was the comic relief role. Instead, she was TV character as comfort food.
The role was unashamedly atavistic — a constant source of criticism in that era of “All in the Family” and “Maude” — which also happened to be the idea. “Brady Bunch” creator Sherwood Schwartz suspected viewers craved the past as an escape from the present. As such, Carol Brady was the TV version of an escape hatch. In a later interview, Henderson said, “In a way, I became the stability of the show. I think Sherwood thought that I could be funny, but also bring the empathy that was necessary for the show (yet) still work within the framework of the idea he envisioned.”
Schwartz initially considered veteran comic actress Joyce Bulifant for the role, because “Florence can deliver jokes — or lines — but she herself is too dainty and pretty to be funny.” He later changed his mind after Henderson did a screen test with co-lead Robert Reed. Henderson was to become a calming presence on-set too, particularly because Reed could be a prickly and difficult one.
Schwartz later said Henderson “was the most wonderful performer I have worked with.”
At first, Henderson was uninterested in the role, and in TV. She was a star on Broadway, and lived in New York. She was a 19-year-old drama student in New York when she landed a one-line role in the play “Wish You Were Here.” Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were so impressed they made her the female lead in a 1952 road tour of “Oklahoma!” When the show returned to Broadway for a revival in 1954, she continued in the role and won rave reviews.
“She is the real thing,” wrote Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune.
To broaden her career, Henderson took acting, dancing, singing and guitar lessons, even studying French and Italian.
She went on to play Maria in a road production of “The Sound of Music,” was Nellie Forbush in a revival of “South Pacific” and was back on Broadway with Jose Ferrer in “The Girl Who Came to Supper” in 1963. She made her movie debut in 1970 in “Song of Norway,” based on the 1944 operetta with music by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.
Her career nearly came to an end in 1965 when she suddenly lost her hearing while appearing in “The King and I” in Los Angeles, and was diagnosed with a condition linked to heredity. “Corrective surgery in both ears restored my hearing,” she said in 2007.
As her TV career blossomed with “The Brady Bunch,” Henderson also began to make frequent TV guest appearances. She was the first woman to host “The Tonight Show” for the vacationing Johnny Carson.
For eight years she also commuted to Nashville, Tennessee, to conduct a cooking and talk series, “Country Kitchen,” on The Nashville Network. The show resulted in a book, “Florence Henderson’s Short-Cut Cooking.” After “The Brady Bunch” ended its first run, Henderson alternated her appearances in revivals of the show with guest appearances on other programs, including “Hart to Hart,” “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat.”
In later years she also made guest appearances on such shows as “Roseanne, “Ally McBeal” and “The King of Queens.”
For many years, she was also grand marshal of the Indy 500. As she told Newsday, “I’m a native Hoosier, and the youngest of 10 children from a very poor family. I never had a hope of going to the race. Then, years ago, Jim Nabors and I were working together and he said, ‘You wanna go to the race?’ ” A tradition was born.”
Florence Agnes Henderson was born Feb. 14, 1934, in the small town of Dale in southern Indiana. She was the 10th child of a tobacco sharecropper of Irish descent.
In grade school, she joined the choir at a Catholic church in Rockport, Indiana.
After high school she moved to New York, where she enrolled in a two-year program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, her studies financed by a theatrical couple who had been impressed by her singing when they saw her perform in high school.
She dropped out of the program after one year, however, to take the role in “Wish You Were There.”
Henderson married theater executive Ira Bernstein in 1956 and the couple had four children before the union ended in divorce after 29 years.
She married her second husband, John Kappas, in 1985; he died in 2002.
Pressman said Henderson is survived by her children Barbara, Joseph, Robert and Lizzie, their respective spouses and five grandchildren.
With the AP