Florence Henderson, upbeat mum of The Brady Bunch, dies at 82

Actress Florence Henderson on July 28, 2014. She died on Thursday (Nov 24) at the age of 82.
Actress Florence Henderson on July 28, 2014. She died on Thursday (Nov 24) at the age of 82.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Florence Henderson, who began her career as an ingénue soprano in stage musicals in the 1950s but made a more lasting impression on television, as the perky 1970s sitcom mom on The Brady Bunch, died on Thursday (Nov 24). She was 82.

Her death was reported by The Associated Press, citing a statement from Henderson's manager, Kayla Pressman, and an interview with her publicist, David Brokaw.

Henderson was making a film in Norway in 1969 when she was asked to appear in the pilot episode of The Brady Bunch, an unapologetically upbeat comedy about a widow with three daughters who meets, marries and makes a sunny suburban California home with a widower who has three sons. The series ran from September 1969 to March 1974, attracting viewers during a period of extreme social change and the Vietnam War, neither of which touched the Bradys' world.

The show took on new life in syndication. In the end, it spawned television movies and reunion specials, short-lived spinoffs (including The Brady Bunch Variety Hour in the mid-70s) and eventually two feature films.

Henderson defended the original television show from its detractors, who ridiculed it for its simplistic, impossibly wholesome plots and its idealised portrait of family life.

"It was really a show that was seen through the eyes of a child," she said, "and it was supposed to have a little soft glow about it." Before the series, Henderson had built an impressive reputation with stage work. She starred in Fanny on Broadway in the mid-1950s, when she was in her early 20s; The King And I at the Los Angeles Music Center; South Pacific at Lincoln Center; national tours of Oklahoma! and The Sound Of Music; and The Girl Who Came To Supper (1963), Noel Coward's last original Broadway musical.

Florence Agnes Henderson was born on Feb 14, 1934, the youngest of Joseph and Elizabeth Henderson's 10 children, in Dale, Indiana, near the Kentucky border. Her father was a sharecropper, and the family struggled financially. Henderson recalled working from the age of eight, baby-sitting and cleaning other people's homes, and sometimes singing a folk or country song in exchange for groceries.

She had a strict Roman Catholic upbringing and was sent to St. Frances Academy in Owensboro, Kentucky, for her high school education. There, the Benedictine nuns taught her to sing Latin Masses and Gregorian chants.

By the time she graduated, she had been befriended by two important people in her life: Christine Johnson, a former Broadway actress who suggested that Henderson study acting as well as singing, and the affluent father of a school friend who helped her get to New York.

She lived at the Three Arts Club, an Upper West Side women's hotel, and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for a year before being cast in Wish You Were Here, a musical comedy about a summer camp for grown-ups, in 1952. The show was a hit, but Henderson left early when she was cast as the female lead, Laurey, in the national tour of Oklahoma!

The movie role went to Shirley Jones, but her theatre and television careers took off from there. And Jones turned up as a sitcom mom with five children on The Partridge Family at the same time the Bradys were on the air.

In 1974, when The Brady Bunch had ended its run, prime-time television had changed. With few if any music or variety series on the schedule, Henderson turned to guest appearances on a wide range of series, including Medical Center, Ally McBeal, Happily Divorced and 30 Rock. She made multiple appearances on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, which specialised in guest-star ensembles, and in television movies.

She married Ira Bernstein, a Broadway casting director and general manager, in 1956, when she was starring in Fanny. They had four children but divorced in 1985. In 1987, she married Dr. John Kappas, who had introduced her to hypnotherapy. He died in 2002.

Henderson was asked in a 1999 Archive of American Television interview how she would like to be remembered. She answered: "Probably as someone who survived for a long time in a very tough business and, hopefully, managed to retain a sense of humanity."