Florence Henderson was born in Indiana on Valentine’s Day, 1934. She started performing as a singer at 12, and by 20 she was the original lead of “Fanny” on Broadway. In 1969, she created matriarch Carol Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” after her best friend Shirley Jones turned down the role – only to accept “The Partridge Family” a year later – and over the next five years, Henderson revolutionized not just the “sitcom mom,” but women’s roles on television, forever.
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Henderson passed away on Friday morning at a fresh 82, three days after attending a live taping of “Dancing with the Stars” in support of her friend and former on-screen daughter, Maureen McCormick. Here she is tearing it up on the show with the “Brady Bunch” theme in 2010:
It’s been one of the coolest – not to mention most consistent – themes over the course of her career: This complete willingness to own and celebrate every part of her life. Even in grief and medical complications and the normal turbulence of a life well-lived, Henderson never took anything for granted. A lot of what she says, and we say about her, has the ring of cliché – but it’s one of those cases where you’re looking at the real thing, not a cavewall reflection, and that means what you’re hearing is the ring of truth. In 2012, Henderson told the Philadelphia paper “U.S. 1”:
“I firmly believe … you have to cherish your past. If you did it, it’s part of you. I would be foolish to ignore that or go, ‘I wish I’d never done it, I hate it’… I receive so much affection from people, and respect and admiration for playing Carol Brady. I could be remembered for being a terrible bitch or a nasty person, so I don’t mind.”
In 1977, America’s family started a short-running series based on their hit special, 1976’s “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour,” giving us this tear-jerking performance and reminding us just how much of a star Henderson always was:
On that note, there is another, earlier performance — from 1967’s variety show “Hollywood Palace” – that immediately came to mind when we heard the news of her passing:
Henderson, as in the quote above, has always been known for her affection (and lack of illusions) about Carol and the Brady family’s place in American history. She also effortlessly threaded the needle of poking gentle fun at the phenomenon, risking and nailing outrageous comedy in a style we now associate with Betty White, Katey Sagal and only a few other pop culture grand dames.
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So many times we see stars pushing back brutally against the prison of their past successes, but Henderson truly loved her life and history, and showed us we had nothing to fear. Here she is enjoying that legacy on 2002’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” with Brad Sherwood, Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, and host Drew Carey:
1976, as “The Brady Bunch” was coming to its end, was a banner year. Here’s a frankly amazing number from “Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special,” the mere existence of which remains an amazing testament to the weirdness and vintage wonder of 1970s TV.
Our nation’s bicentennial also, of course, marked the debut of “The Muppet Show,” the first season of which included a performance by Henderson that set the bar for all celebrity guests to follow:
And while many of us have enjoyed the not-quite-prurient stories about Henderson dating her real-life costar, onscreen son Barry Williams, the way she tells the story is so sweet it still brings tears to our eyes.
Florence Henderson means a lot, to a lot of people. She remains more than just another “’80s Kids Remember” nostalgia achievement, because she never peaked: She kept rocking, and shocking, and surprising us at every turn with her clear-eyed Indiana values and street-savvy show business know-how.
When Carol Brady told her beloved children the way the world worked – the way men and women should treat each other, the way young women should appreciate and celebrate their bodies, the way our choices and actions have consequences – it wasn’t just the show’s writing that drove it home. It was the wisdom and cheerful calm in Henderson’s eyes…
…And maybe just a little bit of that mischievous twinkle, that never quite went away.
We want to remember her in all her glory – gorgeous magnetic star, passionate singer, centered and nurturing mother, and takes-no-crap wife – and we also want to remember how gracefully she reminded us that nobody is ever just one thing. Check out this “Chicago” number for the 2013 S.T.A.G.E. benefit “Broadway My Way,” to see just how canny — and funny! — she was able to remain, and always will.
We don’t want to say goodbye, in this year that’s already taken so much. But let Florence Henderson’s wisdom comfort and guide you — now and as it always has– from this highly intense, super readable profile of the gang from 2004:
“It takes a lot of courage to be happy. But I’ve got courage — so I think I will be happy again.”