Florence Henderson 1934 – 2016

Florence_henderson--300x300Here’s a strange bit of TV trivia: Florence Henderson was born on Valentine’s Day and died on Thanksgiving Day.

The actress packed a lot into the 82 years in between. Best known for her five-year run on The Brady Bunch, Henderson died Thursday in Los Angeles after suffering a heart attack. She was 82.

Her death was far from expected. Earlier this week, there she was on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, cheering on contestant and former Brady daughter Maureen McCormick. Six years earlier, despite being in her mid-seventies, Henderson had been a credible DWTS contestant herself.

Carol Brady was one of those rare characters in the late ’60s on network television: a TV mom. This was an era when moms went missing on network TV: My Three Sons, Bachelor Father, Family Affair, even The Andy Griffith Show. On The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which premiered the same fall as The Brady Bunch in 1969, little Eddie spent a great deal of time trying to hook up potential mom’s for his dad Tom Corbett. You almost had to be a witch to be a TV mom back in the ’60s.

article-2601151-1CFA193700000578-884_634x576Florence Henderson’s Carol Brady was the exception, along with Shirley Jones, the matriarch of The Partridge Family (which premiered the following year). Brady seemed decidedly out of step with the Women’s Movement. Unlike Julia, or That Girl, or, the following year, Mary Tyler Moore, she was not a career women. She had a live-in housekeeper. She had well-trained kids.

The Bradys were maybe what Donald Trump has in mind when he talks about making American great again. Dad was boss, kids did what they were told and their world was very white. Everything was perfect, right down to the astro-turf that rolled up to the fake fence in the fake backyard. The Vietnam War may have been raging, Nixon was president and African Americans and women were crusading for rights, but on The Brady Bunch, the big issues were more along the lines of what to wear for the dance or don’t tell dad about the [insert sitcom issue here].

There are no memorable storylines, aside from that time Marsha took a football to the nose. In one Christmas episode it seems as if the boys take 45 minutes to decide where to put the tree. Read colleague Marc Berman’s “11 Things You May Not Know About The Brady Bunch” here.

Story didn’t matter so much back then. The audience was probably about the age of the six toothy kids. You watched the one you had a crush on and followed them through every silly reincarnation, even when a different actress was parachuted in to play middle-child Jan. You watched to see how long the perm craze would last, or just how long and loopy Carol Brady could grow that bowl-like mullet in the back. The Brady’s kept thousands of hair salons busy in suburbs across North America.

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Henderson with McCormick this season on Dancing with the Stars

Henderson herself was not Carol Brady: she always worked. She was a Broadway star in the ’50s and early ’60s and a familiar face on several TV game shows. She worked both the Tonight Show, where she became the first female guest host in the period between Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, as well as two separate stints on The Today Show.

She kept busy with several Brady revivals, including the mind-blowingly trippy Brady Bunch Hour which was produced by puppet masters Sid and Marty Krofft in 1976-77. Henderson was the only cast member who really could sing and dance and pretty much carried this kitschy, cringe-worthy salute to the ’70s.

A real trooper, Henderson survived all that and more. She kept going, did cooking shows, spoofed her image on shows such as 30 Rock and WWE Raw, cashing in on it with DWTS. She even worked in many TV commercials.

I interviewed her on a couple of occasions, once when she was promoting a cooking show she did that was picked up in Canada. We probably could have run Celebrity Chef columns with Florence Henderson every week in TV Guide.

Henderson was likable in person as well as brattier and more adventurous than expected. She told me, for example, that she lived for years on a houseboat somewhere off the coast of California. In real life she had four children, five grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren.

Yes, after the series wrapped, she told me, she went on a date with eldest TV son Greg Brady (Barry Williams); it ended in a very chaste kiss.

That was all the dirt you could every get on Henderson, and even that seemed sweet. She was just one of those TV stars who never wore out her welcome.

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