The Broadway star who became America’s mom
Florence Henderson 1934–2016
For a generation of Americans, Florence Henderson was the perfect mother. The blond and beaming actress played Carol Brady in The Brady Bunch, the unapologetically upbeat sitcom about a cheery widow with three daughters who marries and makes a happy California home with a widower who has three sons. On air from 1969 to 1974, The Brady Bunch was derided by many critics as a saccharine distraction during the Vietnam era. But the show was beloved by its audience as an island of innocence in a jaded time, and has since inspired countless movies, books, plays, satires, and spoofs. “Unlike real life, the Bradys’ problems were always solved in 30 minutes,” Henderson said. “I think that show had a little magic charm about it.”
Born in Dale, Ind., Henderson was the youngest of 10 children. “Her father was a sharecropper, and the family struggled financially,” said The New York Times. Henderson began working at age 8, “sometimes singing a folk or country song in exchange for groceries.” At 17, with help from the family of an affluent friend, she moved to New York City to study singing and acting, and within a year she was a chorus member on Broadway. In 1952, composer Richard Rodgers picked her for the lead role of Laurey in a touring production of Oklahoma!, said The Washington Post. “A year later, she starred in a Broadway revival of the acclaimed musical.” More star turns followed, in The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and other Broadway hits. Henderson made frequent variety show appearances and in 1962 became the first woman to guest-host The Tonight Show.
She initially refused to audition for the role of Carol Brady, because as a committed New Yorker she didn’t want to move to Los Angeles. But her agent persisted, she won the part, “and her slyly sexy chemistry with co-star Robert Reed made the show thrive,” said the Los Angeles Times. Henderson remained a bankable TV star long after The Brady Bunch went off air, appearing in shows such as The Love Boat, Ally McBeal, 30 Rock, and WWE Raw. In memoirs and interviews, she dished about a busy romantic life that belied her wholesome image. “I may have more than one friend with benefits,” the 82-year-old Henderson said earlier this year. “It’s very healthy for the heart.”