Florence Henderson (1934-2016): America’s ’70s Mom

Every now and then, we’re reminded that television wasn’t always a world of edgy serial shows on HBO or Netflix, a world of live streaming and binge watching.

Usually, it’s because we hear word of the passing of a stellar star from the past, when network series, be they sitcoms or dramas, took up a part of our lives with the regularity of their time slots.

Florence Henderson, who starred as the effervescent mother-in-chief of a co-joined set of families in “The Brady Bunch,” an unmistakably “family” show which was a big hit and rose to weekly habit status in the teeth of the turbulent early 1970s, passed away Nov. 24 at the age of 82 due to heart failure in Los Angeles.

The stylishly blonde and slender Henderson took on the role of Carol Martin, a single mom with three daughters—Marcia, Jan and Cindy—who marries Mike Brady (the late Robert Reed), who has three sons—Greg, Peter and Bobby. All of them merged to become “The Brady  Bunch.”  The family also included the patient housekeeper, Alice, played by Ann B. Davis and a dog named Tiger, and they lived in a Mike Brady-designed two-story house in a suburb of Los Angeles.

If nothing else is remembered about the series, the three-by-three boxed intro of the cast sticks in the mind, something like a less flashy image of the game show “Hollywood Squares.” But there was a lot more to remember, actually—including the much-satirized eldest daughter Marcia (as in Marcia, Marcia, Marcia), played by Maureen McCormick, the tart comedy of Davis and the steady presence of Reed.

Henderson brought a memorable kinetic charm to her role, which lent a certain down-to-earth reality hitched to a blonde glamour to one of the last wholesome family sitcom. She was a perfect match for the more conventional Hollywood-handsome Reed.

“The Brady Bunch” was of a type—echoes and cross references can be found with “The Partridge Family,” in which Shirley Jones starred in a similar kind of family beset often by teenaged and adolescent angst. Jones and Henderson were similar—and even crossed paths—in the sense that they came from an already successful career as stars of hit Broadway musicals or their movie versions. 

Henderson’s rise is an almost classic American old-school success story. The youngest of ten children in a family, leading a hard-scrabble life  in the small town of Dale, Indiana.  She was sent to a strict Roman Catholic school where she was noticed for her singing skills. Eventually, she made her way to New York, lived in a hotel for young women and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

She got a big break cast in the successful musical, “Wish You Were Here,” and got the leading role of Laurie in the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma.” (Jones starred in the movie version.) From there, Henderson went on to star in numbers musicals, including “The King and I” as well as in the touring versions of “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music.”

Shows like “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family” and others always enjoyed a curious sort of afterlife, as did the actors and actresses who performed in them.  Not so long ago, Jones was in Washington, talking about her autobiography and spilling the beans on some backstage goings on in the show.

Henderson, after the show ended in 1974, continued to be a part of it as a kind of nostalgic burst of popularity resulted in television films, reunions and aftermaths — the kind of thing that happens often with long-running series.  She also stayed in the public eye on talk shows, shows like “Dancing with the Stars.” On the stage, she always displaying a buoyant personality, a self-deprecating humor, and a broad, fun hint of sexiness.  Even in commercials, Henderson never seemed anything less than real.  She came a long way from her beginnings in Indiana and Kentucky, but her memory—as the mother of the Brady Bunch—remains secure.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *