Florence Henderson, who starred on Broadway before making her mark on television as the ever-patient mom on the sitcom The Brady Bunch, died Thanksgiving Day at age 82 of heart failure.
Before cementing her place in the firmament of pop culture as Carol Brady, the blonde, perky mother presiding over a large blended family for 117 episodes of The Brady Bunch, nine episodes of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, five episodes of The Brady Brides, five episodes of The Bradys, and two TV movies, Henderson was born in Kentucky on February 14, 1934, the youngest of ten children.
Henderson reflected on The Brady Bunch phenomenon with Playbill.com in 2010. “If you told me that it would never be off the air in this country and be in 122 countries around the world, I would say, ‘You’re dreaming.’ But that's the way it is. It’s amazing to me,” she recalled.
In 1952—a year after moving to New York City—Henderson made her Broadway debut speaking a single line of dialogue in the Harold Rome musical Wish You Were Here. She was noticed by composer Richard Rodgers, who cast her as Laurey in the national tour of Oklahoma! (The role of Laurey was played on film by Shirley Jones, who would go on to turn down the role of Carol Brady). In 1954, she returned to Broadway and Rome for her biggest Broadway part—playing the title role in Fanny, opposite Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak.
“I just loved the whole idea of musical comedy and musical theatre,” Henderson told Playbill.com in 2010. “I grew up in a very large, poor family, and to go to a movie musical was like heaven on earth for me. Because I could always sing, I thought, ‘This is what I must do! This is my vocation.’”
“I came to New York right out of high school,” she added. “I got sponsored to study at the American Academy. That was in 1951. In 1952, at the end of the first year, I went to an open call and got a small part in Wish You Were Here and was in the chorus. Of course, Josh Logan directed that as well as Fanny. I stayed with that for a couple of months and then went to another audition and wound up with the lead in the last national company of Oklahoma.”
Operation on a bone deformation in her inner ear put a brief stop to her career, but then she took on the part of Maria in the national tour of The Sound of Music in 1961, before returning to Broadway in 1963 for a brief run opposite José Ferrer in Noël Coward’s The Girl Who Came to Supper, she left Broadway for the West Coast. She achieved national fame when she left the ingenue roles behind and become a TV icon as Carol Brady. Most recently, Henderson revived her Broadway song and dance skills as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars
Henderson married her first husband, Ira Bernstein, in 1956. They had four children together before divorcing in 1985. Henderson then married Dr. John Kappas in 1987. Long described as one of the warmest and kindest women in Hollywood, when asked for advice in a 2012 interview, Henderson replied, “Keep a cool head and keep a warm heart. And always remember those who helped you on the way up.”
Henderson regularly returned to the Broadway stage as part of the annual fundraiser Broadway Backwards, a one-night-only event in which traditional Broadway songs are reimagined for the LGBT community. Proceeds benefitted BC/EFA and the Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.