Florence Henderson, ‘Brady Bunch’ Mom and TV Icon, Dies at 82

Cynthia Littleton and Whitney Friedlander
Variety

Florence Henderson, the actress who defined the television mom of the modern era with her starring role in “The Brady Bunch,” died Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was 82.

Henderson’s manager, Kayla Pressman, confirmed the actress died on Thanksgiving night surrounded by family and friends. She’d been hospitalized the day before.

“We are heartbroken to announce the passing of our dear mother Florence Henderson from Heart Failure,” said Henderson’s family in a statement. “On this day of thanks, our beloved mother was surrounded by her devoted children and dearest friends. We thank all of her fans for their many years of love and ask that we be allowed to grieve in private.”

Henderson seen was on camera as recently as Monday when she attended the taping of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” Her one-time TV daughter, Maureen McCormick of “Brady Bunch” fame, was a contestant on the show this season. Henderson herself was a contender on the show in 2010.

Henderson had a busy career on Broadway in the 1950s and ’60s, but it was “The Brady Bunch” that turned her into a household name and face. The ABC sitcom created by the prolific Sherwood Schwartz ran from 1969 to 1974, presenting a G-rated image of an typical American family, albeit a blended one, during a turbulent period for the nation.

Henderson played the genial Carol Brady, the widow (or “lovely lady” in the words of the show’s famous theme song) with three daughters who fell in love with a widower, Mike Brady, with three sons. Henderson’s TV mom was always cheerful, always ready to soothe her children’s problems with sound advice and a warm snack.

Henderson maintained a good sense of humor about the role that set the course for the rest of her career. She never tired of participating in “Brady Bunch” revivals, whether in TV or film, and she traded on her trustworthy Carol Brady persona to become a pitchwoman for products ranging from Wesson Oil to Polident denture grip.

Henderson was well-liked by her TV family, and has often been hailed by friends and co-workers as a warm and generous actress with impeccable comedic timing. McCormick and the other five actors who played the “Brady” kids reunited to celebrate Henderson’s 80th birthday in 2014. Robert Reed, the actor who played Henderson’s on-screen husband, died in 1992.

“Brady Bunch” has endured for decades in syndication, ensuring that Henderson remained a bankable TV icon for decades. Henderson kept up a tireless schedule of guest star roles, ranging from “Ally McBeal” to “30 Rock” to “WWE Raw.” Her resume includes visits to virtually every TV game show and talk show of the past 40 years. Long before she was Carol Brady, she notched a TV milestone as the first woman to guest host “The Tonight Show” in 1969.

“Brady Bunch” also spawned “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour” in 1977, the 1981 TV movie “The Brady Girls Get Married” and subsequent “Brady Brides” TV series, followed in 1990 by another attempted revival, “The Bradys.” She played the grandmother of her original Carol Brady character in the 1995 feature “The Brady Bunch Movie,” which starred Shelley Long and Gary Cole.

More recently Henderson fronted two series of her own for Retirement Living TV: “Who’s Cooking with Florence Henderson” and “The Florence Henderson Show” talk show that earned an Emmy nomination in 2010.

A native of Dale, Ind., Henderson was the 10th child in a family of tobacco farmers. She began singing as a toddler. After graduating from high school, Henderson moved to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Henderson made her Broadway debut in the 1952 musical “Wish You Were Here.” Her stage credits also include starring in the touring production of “Oklahoma!” where she became lifelong friends with Shirley Jones, “Fanny.” She was also in Noel Coward’s last Broadway play, “The Girl Who Came to Supper.”

Her only major film role came just as she was signing on to star in “Brady Bunch.” In 1970’s “Song of Norway,” she played the wife of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

Henderson recounted her career in the 2011 memoir “Life Is Not a Stage: From Broadway Baby to a Lovely Lady and Beyond.” She detailed the drama that existed behind the scenes on “Brady Bunch” as well as in her personal life during the run of the show, including stories of fighting on the set and dealing with infidelity in her marriage to theatrical manager Ira Bernstein.

During her decades in the public eye, Henderson was an active philanthropist and prominent supporter of numerous causes including City of Hope and the House Ear Institute. (Henderson herself had to undergo surgery in the 1960s to prevent deafness). She also raised money for the Sisters of St. Benedict monastery in Ferdinand, Indiana, including through appearances as a celebrity contestant on game shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Weakest Link.”

Henderson and Bernstein had four children before divorcing in 1985. She soon married hypnotherapist John Kappas, who died of cancer in 2002. She is survived by her children Barbara, Joseph, Robert, Lizzie and their respective spouses as well as her five grandchildren.

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