Florence Henderson, Perky Mom on 'The Brady Bunch,' Dies at 82

Florence Henderson - Getty - H 2016
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A talented singer, she also starred on Broadway in 'Fanny' and in Noel Coward's final NYC play, and she was a 'Today Girl' on the NBC morning show.

Florence Henderson, the effervescent stage and screen performer whose sweet, starring turn on The Brady Bunch made her one of the most popular sitcom moms in television history, has died. She was 82.

Henderson, who in the 1950s originated the title role of Fanny in the Broadway musical and then served as a "Today Girl" on the popular NBC morning program, died on Thanksgiving night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a day after she was hospitalized, her publicist, David Brokaw, told the Associated Press.

Henderson had suffered heart failure, her manager Kayla Pressman said in a statement. Family and friends surrounded Henderson's hospital bedside, Pressman said.

The Indiana native also made history as The Tonight Show's first female guest host when she sat in for Johnny Carson in 1962, was a mainstay on variety and game shows and spent more than two decades singing about "Wessonality" as a pitchwoman for a vegetable cooking-oil product.

From 1969-74, Henderson played the unflappable matriarch Carol Brady on ABC's The Brady Bunch. As laid out in the show's theme song performed by Peppermint Trolley Company, Carol one day met this fellow, widowed architect Mike Brady (Robert Reed), and they married and combined her three girls from a previous marriage and his three boys into one large family. (The show never did explain just what happened to Carol's first husband.)

Brady Bunch creator Sherwood Schwartz (also the creator of Gilligan's Island) originally had cast the bubbly Joyce Bulifant to play Carol, envisioning a funnier version of the character, and comedy veteran Kathleen Freeman was tapped to play Alice, the Bradys' housekeeper. But the chemistry wasn't working, and the production started looking around for alternates. Henderson was just finishing up a guest spot on The Dean Martin Show when her agent called and asked her to go to Paramount to read for a sitcom.

Henderson, scheduled to leave for Houston for a nightclub gig, wasn't interested.

"I said, 'I don't want to do a series. I live in New York,' " Henderson said during a 1999 interview with the Archive of American Television. But her agent persisted, and the actress agreed to meet with Schwartz and director John Rich as long as she didn't miss her plane. At the meeting, they talked Henderson into doing a screen test.

"We're on the Star Trek set. They made me up in the Star Trek dressing room. Bill Shatner was in there. Not overly friendly, I might add, which I have razzed him about many times over the years," she recalled. "They made me up. I went back and did a screen test. Not with Robert Reed, with another actor. They thanked me very much. I got on my plane to Houston that night."

The next day, just before Henderson was going to take the stage, she got a call to return to L.A. to do The Brady Bunch pilot. After some juggling to find a replacement for her Houston run (Henderson believed it was singer Jerry Vale), she did exactly that.

Henderson was on location in Europe filming Song of Norway (1970) — her feature debut — when she learned The Brady Bunch had been picked to go to series. (Meanwhile, the role of the housekeeper went to Ann B. Davis.)

Most of the comedy of the sitcom's 117 episodes came from the silly, often innocuous, antics of the kids as they learned to live together under one suburban roof. But no matter what trouble the children got into, Carol and Mike always were there to come to the rescue, offering sage wisdom and loving parenting.

"There were certain things I brought to the role … my experience as a young parent, the fact that I understood kids, that I felt close to them. I was really the only one on the set who was married, who had children," Henderson said in the TV Archive interview. "In a way, I sort of became the stability of the show. I think Sherwood saw that, that I could be funny, but I could also bring the empathy or what was necessary for a show like that."

Audiences embraced the idyllic, stable and loving Brady household as much as they laughed at the show's unrealistic '70s kitschiness. It seemed like the perfect counter-programing to such adult-oriented comedies of the era as All in the Family, Maude and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Florence Henderson was born on Feb. 14, 1934, in Dale, Ind. The youngest of 10 children, she grew up in poverty as the daughter of tobacco sharecropper during the Depression. Henderson credits her mother with teaching her how to sing, boasting that by age 2 she had learned 50 songs. Her talent was undeniable, and she often performed as a child to earn extra money for her folks.

Her love of musical theater blossomed in high school. After she graduated from St. Francis Academy in Owensboro, Ky. in 1951, the wealthy family of a friend offered to sponsor Henderson's studies at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. And so, at age 17, she headed to New York.

In 1952, Henderson landed her first Broadway role, a one-line part in the musical comedy Wish You Were Here. Listed in the cast as "The New Girl," she also was a member of the chorus. It was enough to draw the attention of Richard Rodgers, who offered her the lead in the national touring company of Oklahoma!.

Wish You Were Here director Josh Logan also remembered her. Though she was only 20 at the time, Logan in 1954 cast her as Fanny in his new Marseilles-set stage musical of the same name. During the next two years, Henderson logged nearly 900 performances. (Leslie Caron starred as the title character in Logan's 1961 film adaptation.)

Henderson also started popping up regularly on television. She read the news and weather and occasionally sang on the Today show from 1959-60 and performed regularly on Jack Paar's Tonight Show. Her musical talents were on display on shows hosted by Eddie Fisher, Ed Sullivan and Bing Crosby, and she teamed with Bill Hayes to do the commercials on The Patti Page Oldsmobile Show.

Henderson also landed acting roles on The United States Steel Hour and played Meg in a 1958 television version of Little Women.

In 1961, she played Maria in the national touring company of The Sound of Music, then returned to Broadway two years later to star in the original musical The Girl Who Came to Supper, Noel Coward's last Broadway effort. She also starred in a 1967 Lincoln Center production of South Pacific.

Even after it was canceled, The Brady Bunch never really went away. Though it received only modest ratings, the sitcom was so popular in syndication, programmers kept coming up with ways to bring back the family. First came The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (1976), a comedy song and dance revue. This was followed by the 1981 TV movie The Brady Girls Get Married, which segued into the short-lived sitcom The Brady Brides. There was A Very Brady Christmas in 1988, which spawned another sitcom, The Bradys.

In each one, Henderson was there to nurture the family as Carol Brady.

And as the legend of her most famous character grew, she wasn't above poking fun at her Goody Two-shoes image. She spoofed it in everything from Police Squad! (1982), Shakes the Clown (1991) and Naked Gun 33 ?: The Final Insult (1994) to Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003) and Fifty Shades of Black (2016). She starred as an Amish mom in Weird Al Yankovic's 1996 video parody "Amish Paradise." A 2003 commercial for Pepsi Twist teamed her with Ozzy Osbourne. She appeared as herself in the 2005 reality TV program My Fair Brady, which chronicled the marriage of Christopher Knight, her TV son Peter, to America's Next Top Model winner Adrianne Curry.

In 1995, Paramount rebooted the Brady Bunch concept for a feature film in which Shelley Long played the Brady matriarch. Henderson put in a cameo as her mom.

Henderson also was a regular game-show performer on such programs as I've Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth, Password All-Stars, The Match Game and The Hollywood Squares, and she kept busy with TV guest spots, appearing on Medical Center, Hart to Hart, The Muppets Show, Alice, Murder, She Wrote, Fantasy Island and Donnie & Marie. She once joked that she couldn't remember how many times she sailed on The Love Boat.

In 2010, at age 76, she appeared as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. This week, Henderson attended a taping of the show to support contestant Maureen McCormick, who played her oldest TV daughter, Marcia Brady.

In recent years, Henderson's credits included Ally McBeal, The King of Queens, 30 Rock, Samantha Who?, Trophy Wife and Instant Mom. She hosted several shows for Retirement Living TV, including the 2007 talk show Living Live, co-hosted with former Designing Women star Meshach Taylor, and Who's Cooking With Florence Henderson, which debuted in 2013.

Henderson married Ira Bernstein, a theatrical producer, in 1956, and they had four children: Barbara (an actress and producer), Bob (a TV editor), Joseph and Elizabeth. The couple divorced in 1985. She married John Kappas, a hypnotherapist and psychologist in 1987, and they remained together until his death in 2002.

Henderson published her autobiography, Life Is Not Just a Stage: From a Broadway Baby to a Lovely Lady and Beyond, in 2011.