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December 15, 2016

Florence Henderson: A Superior Mother

A tribute to Florence Henderson by those who knew her best.

Herbie J Pilato

She was television's top stay-at-home-mom who helped to raise countless viewers of all ages, while her carefree and unassuming spirit was revered within and outside the entertainment industry. 

She was a virtual maternal presence from a distance, yet no less sincere, far or near, through the looking glass of family television.  She was as a fine tapestry in a media mosaic of motherhood, as we watched her on the TV set and, in turn, became the "TV set" she helped to shape.

An actress who sang, and a singer who acted, she was first and foremost adored as Carol Brady on the long-running, multi-sequel-making sitcom The Brady Bunch, which aired on ABC Friday nights from 1969 to 1974. 

She was Florence Henderson, born on Valentine's Day, and who left us on Thanksgiving.  Kayla Pressman, Henderson's manager for over 40 years, spoke for millions of Henderson's fans when she told CNN the day after her dear client and friend succumbed to heart failure at age 82, "We are all in a state of shock."

Christopher Knight was middle son Peter Brady in the famed Brady brood headed by Henderson and her TV husband Mike Brady (portrayed by Robert Reed, who died in 1994), and helped along by live-in maid Alice Nelson (played by Ann B. Davis, who died in 2014).

As Knight told People Magazine, "I may have lost a cast mate, a good friend and a role model, and really my second mom - but so did the rest of America. We all lost her in the same way. Everybody is mourning in the same way."

"Her opinion mattered," he continued.  "Pleasing her and having her respect and her guidance is something I always sought. I didn't always get my guidance from her directly or verbally, but just through watching her and by letting her guide me through behavior. For a long time, she probably didn't know how much she meant to me.

"I didn't even know what I was doing - there was some difficulty in my own family with my own mom - and I had an alternate mom that I could use at moments when my own wasn't working for me."

Mike Lookinland was only 8 years old when he began playing Bobby, the youngest Brady boy.  At 55, he, too, was stunned upon hearing of Henderson's death, telling The Daily News, "[Florence] was the kind of person that is just great to be around. Just to be in the same room with her was a pleasure. You can't say that about most people."

"I have not had many people this close to me pass," Barry Williams, who played eldest Brady son Greg, also relayed to The Daily News. "I would go to her sometimes when I was struggling with issues.  [She was] very wise, worldly and helpful."

Maureen McCormick portrayed eldest Brady daughter Marcia, and recently performed with Henderson during McCormick's stint on Dancing with the Stars, on which Henderson herself had also been a participant six years prior.

On Thanksgiving Day, McCormick shared a Twitter photo of her and Henderson with the sentiment, "You are in my heart forever, Florence."

That same day, Eve Plumb, the middle Brady sister Jan, also shared a social media message about Henderson: 

"Florence was a wonderful role model for me and all of us 'kids.' She taught me how to be a professional actor by her example of preparedness and respect for the work and her fellow cast and crew members.  She was what I came to call a 'good celebrity,' in that she would always pose for a picture, sign an autograph, and was always very attentive to her fans. 

"She was also loving, warm, generous, and could tell a funny, dirty joke.  I'm fortunate to have been able to know and to work with her. She will be missed by her children, grandchildren, and us 'kids.'"

The seeds of Henderson's seemingly perennial career were firmly planted when she, as a kid herself, at 17, enrolled at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which she soon exited to make her Broadway debut in the chorus of Wish You Were Here.  Over 1000 Broadway performances followed, including her starring role in Fanny, and Noel Coward's last musical, The Girl Who Came To Supper, in 1963.

From 1959 to 1960 she was the "Today Girl" on NBC's Today Show, making her the first female presence on network morning television.

A decade or so later, she switched gears to late-night television, and became the first female guest-host on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.  She then hosted several of her own talk shows, such as Country Kitchen and The Florence Henderson Show and Who's Cooking with Florence, both airing on the Retirement Living TV network,  and the short-lived Later Today, while her TV commercials for Wesson Oil became the additional stuff of legends (from 1974 to 1996).

But it was with The Brady Bunch that she made her indelible mark, time and again, even more so after the original edition of the show ended in the spring of 1974.

The series, never a top-10 hit during its initial run, found a new life and increasing popularity in syndicated reruns, igniting a franchise with one fresh follow-up series after the next, covering all three major original networks, and mostly every genre, each edition of which (excluding The Brady Kids animated series) featured Henderson front and center.

There were countless documentaries, and guest-star and mini-Brady-related productions before, during and after the original Brady brainstorm including:

The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, and The Brady Girls Get Married TV-movie, which spawned The Brady Brides sitcom, and which was filmed in front of a live audience, unlike the initial ABC series); and A Very Brady Christmas, one of the highest-rated TV-movies in history, which in turn inspired the thirstysomething-like one-hour dramedy The Bradys (indeed nicknamed by some as bradysomething.

Henderson even appeared in The Brady Bunch Movie as the satirical saucy Grandma to Shelley Long's affectionate double-take interpretation of the cinematic Carol Brady (with shag hair-flip, and all), who oversaw an all-new generation of pubescent and teenage Bradys.

Actress Caryn Richman was cast as Nora Brady, wife to Williams' now-Dr. Greg Brady in A Very Brady Christmas and The Bradys, and is best known for the 1980s small-screen cult classic, The New Gidget, in which she played daughter to another TV parental legend William Schallert . 

Upon hearing of Henderson's passing, Richman says, "I was so very sad.  She was so vibrant and full of life.  I can't help but feel the loss of both my TV dad [Schallert] and mom-in-law all in the same year."

"Her warmth, her openness" is what Richman will miss most about Henderson.  "She was so welcoming to those of us that were not really part of the original Brady Bunch early sanctum.  She truly was 'Mom' to everybody in the most beautiful sense.  You just wanted to hug her, or go to her for support and comfort.  She was herself just like a big warm, wonderful hug.

"She had that twinkle in her eye, and any Brady Bunch set was her domain.  She set the tone.   Certainly, that was the case for me on the Bradys set.  She was happiness itself, and was very much aware of the Brady Bunch image, and felt that we all had to reflect that."

That summation, Richman explains, was a combination key of sorts to Henderson's acting style and general appeal.  "Florence was so real, so down to earth, so adorable, so approachable and available as an actress and as a person, and all of that just seeped into her performance as Carol Brady.  She was an extremely beautiful woman, but not intimidating in any way, and that was helped along by her wicked and wonderful sense of humor."

"As actors," Richman continues, "the only thing you have to bring to the table is yourself and Florence was a person who was always comfortable with herself.  I watched her perform in many different productions over the years - acting, dancing and singing with that gorgeous voice of hers.  And each time, she was playful and was never afraid to make a fool of herself, which, as any actor will tell you, is a key ingredient when doing comedy in particular."

The last time Richman saw Henderson was for a recent animal rescue charity event held at the Creative Artists Agency, which Richman produced for the Stray Cat Alliance nonprofit organization. 

The live-benefit titled, "Celebrity Autobiography," featured actors reading the published memoirs of other actors, with Henderson reciting passages from works by the likes of TV's Jersey Shore reality star Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, Elizabeth Taylor, and football superstar Brian "The Boz" Bothworth. 

"Florence was brave and kind enough to participate in the festivities," Richman recalls, "but for me, reuniting with my on-screen mother-in-law in a different way was the best part."

"Celebrity Autobiography" was presented as "all very tongue-in-cheek and very funny," Richman reveals, "and Florence was hilarious.  She let loose, and was fearless and bawdy."

Richman's only regret was not getting a reunion photo with Henderson.  "I remember reminding her about that all night long, but we just didn't have a chance to make that picture happen.  And yet, knowing Florence, she'd say, "Appreciate yesterday, embrace it, but more than anything have no regrets, and just be happy today." 

In 2012, Henderson relayed a similar timeless tone to 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."

How is it that someone with her level of success and stature was able to retain such a balanced demeanor and a solid sense of humility, priorities and yes, family values?

Brady Bunch producer Lloyd J. Schwartz, son of Sherwood Schwartz, the show's creator, and now franchise-producing keeper of the flame, believes it had something to do with Henderson's humble upbringing, as she was born into a struggling family of 10 children, when her father was 62-years-old. 

When the time arrived for Henderson to pursue her career, she received a financial gift from the family of her close friend Ruth Helen O'Brien, today known as Ruth Helen Wright, with whom Henderson remained close for her entire life.

As Schwartz perceives it, Henderson never forgot that generosity, which he feels instilled in her the same kind of "pay-it-forward" approach to life that she would later utilize with others in need for the rest of her life. 

"She was just fabulous with everybody," he says.  "She had a photographic memory for people's names…even for people in my own family, who she met maybe only once or twice.  She'd approach them and know their names.  It was incredible…and immediately endearing."

"When you think about people getting older and dying which we've all experienced with family and friends, there was no room for that in any of our minds, that Florence would die.  That was not part of the equation because she really did never get old, certainly not when it came to her attitude towards life."

Schwartz had recently talked with Henderson about a potential new Brady series, one in which Carol Brady, with Reed's Mike now gone, would date and marry a friend to one of the Brady children.  "And that was because," Schwartz smiles, "I had read on Facebook that Florence was doing just that in real life.  She was dating guys who were 50-years-old when she was 80!"

As Schwartz recalls, Henderson "loved the idea" for the new "Carol-Brady-As-Cougar"-type show, which was taking shape right around the time a 60-year-old male suitor approached her and said, "You know, Florence, if you were ten years younger I would date you." 
To which the actress responded with her trademark wit, "And if only you were ten years younger I would date you."

Such was Henderson's vivacious spirit.  "She would brighten every room she entered," says Schwartz, even when she wasn't in the room.

Case in point:  Schwartz never talked politics with Henderson, but remembers how once, while filming the original series, on which he served as producer, she had requested time off to do a benefit for a then-campaigning Mayor John Lindsay in New York. 

Schwartz agreed on one condition:  Henderson had to promise that Lindsay would phone Schwartz's mom, who was a big supporter of the mayor-elect.

Henderson, a woman of her word, did not disappoint; Lindsay made the call.

With her surreal performance as the near-perfect Carol Brady, Henderson knew she was held to a certain standard, on and off-screen with her TV children, and in public and at home with her real children.  Sometimes, she was between a rock and hard place.

As Henderson explained to People Magazine in 2015, she felt like a mother to her Brady kids.  "We spent so many hours together…and I sort of became like a second mother to them. We all just kind of loved each other."

Conversely, she told NPR in 2014, "Sometimes my kids would say to me, 'You know – how come you don't scream at those kids on television like you do us?'"

"Because they're not my real kids and you are," she'd reply, "and I want you to turn out to be wonderful human beings."

"And they have," she then admitted.   "I have four of the most incredible children," those being Elizabeth, Joseph, Robert and Barbara Bernstein, all of whom were from Henderson's first marriage to theatrical producer Ira Bernstein from 1956 to 1985 (she was wed to physician John Kappas from 1987 until his death in 2002).

Barbara Bernstein, now Barbara Chase, is today the Senior Director for Event Production at the Television Academy.  As a child, she made periodic appearances on the original Brady Bunch series in the episodes "The Slumber Capper." "Everyone Can't Be George Washington," and "The Hair-Brained Scheme," which was the final segment of the show. 

Riterating Schwartz's sentiment, the loss of her mother was something she and her siblings "never thought was going to happen…at all.  As far as we were concerned, she was going to live forever…certainly outlive all of us."

"Losing her is hard," Chase goes on to admit, "but it's comforting to know that she left us on her own terms."

Chase accompanied Henderson for the taping of Dancing with the Stars, which featured Maureen McCormick, that Monday before Thanksgiving. "And Mom had taken a friend out for her birthday on Tuesday night.  And she had just returned from a trip to New York.  So, it wasn't like she was slowing down.  She was living her life fully to the last moment."

Elizabeth, the youngest of Henderson's children, remembers her mother's warmth and sense and humor which, as she says, "was always so vital and important," along with music and movement. 

"There was always singing, dancing and laughing in our house," Elizabeth recalls. At times, she and her mom would even parody television ads.  "We used to perform those old Jordache commercials that used to say, 'We've got the look you want to know better.' We did that when I was young, and we did that every time we got together.  She loved to make all of us and everyone laugh."

"She was always honest about who she was, and she never put on airs of any kind. She was always approachable, accessible, accepting and loving" within her family - and with her fans.  "Just the fact that my father was Jewish, and my mother was Catholic," Elizabeth goes on to state, "proved that "we grew up outside the box in our family. 

"Wherever my Mom went, she always brought nothing but joy.  People would constantly approach, and she was never rude one person, or turn away anyone.

"She would say, 'You never know what other people are going through.  She appreciated every person she met, and always considered the feelings of others, every single time.  And if they had a story to tell or share with her about how much The Brady Bunch meant to them, she would listen.  And her response would always be heartfelt and sincere, and never about show business. 

"For her, it was always about encountering another human being and in the process of doing that she taught all of us about priorities and the sincerest qualities of life, which is a rare way to be.

"And she brought that truth and sincerity into playing Carol Brady and everything she did.  And I think that's why she touched so many people for so long and how 'accepting' was one of her favorite words.  She was accepting of all people.  She was ahead of her time in that way for certain.  Ours was not like a regular Hollywood upbringing at all."

Family friend Sandy Grushow agrees, confirming Henderson's integrity as a parent – and as a human being.

The CEO of Phase2Media, and the former Chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group, Grushow attended and ran track at Beverly Hills High School from 1975 to 1978 with Henderson's son, Joseph. 

"If you grew up in Beverly Hills in the '70s," he says, "you knew Florence Henderson less as 'Mrs. Brady' and more as Mrs. Bernstein, or in my case, Joe Bernstein's mother.  And if you knew Joe back then, you'd conclude that she was even more successful playing a mother in real life than she was playing one on television.  And that's the most important legacy of all."

"She was as sincere a mother off-screen as she was on," confirms son Joseph, who in turn echoes Elizabeth's thoughts.  "As children we all had a sense of humor about the difference between Carol Brady and our real Mom.  But it was so important to her that the four of us were supportive of each other, and that we stayed together as a family.  She did a great job in raising us."

Joseph recalls the first time he became "cognizant of the effect" his mother had on her fans, when she was hosting NBC's Later Today from 1999 to 2000.  "By then I had been recently married, and I saw with adult and objective eyes just how deeply and sincerely people responded to her," as opposed to when he and his siblings were witness to their mother's work through the eyes of a child growing up on set of The Brady Bunch.

"My Mom always brought us to the set," Joseph continues.  "It was important to her to have her kids with her, and we knew how to behave on the set.  Maybe other people in her position would see kids [on the set] as a distraction or wouldn't even think to bring kids on the set.  But she wanted us there and to be part of it all."

According to Joseph, Henderson loved him and his siblings because she loved life, and appreciated her career and position in life, and never for a moment took any of it for granted, all of which her children discussed shortly after she passed away.  "The fact that she was born on Valentine's Day is a pretty obvious nod to her beautiful heart, which was as big as they come," Joseph says.

Leaving this world on Thanksgiving Day then became the final and most touching significant lesson.  "One of her mantras was 'Be Grateful,'" Joseph relays.  "Always be grateful…for every good thing, big or small."      

Following Henderson's passing, Susan Olsen, who played the youngest Brady daughter Cindy, expressed to Variety the measure of guilt she felt when comparing the time and attention Henderson spent with her Brady off-spring as opposed to her real-life children.  "My heart right now is going out to her four children," Olsen said.  "I always felt we stole the limelight from them."

Olsen recalled being with Henderson and Elizabeth when they were very young and   approached by a man who told Olsen, "You must be her real daughter."

Henderson's youngest in real life was heartbroken.  "Yes," Elizabeth says today, "I was upset, having to share my Mom as a child.  But in time, I understood the situation, and that being Carol Brady away from the set was also part of the job.  We learned to live with that part of her life because we all knew and respected how important that part of her life was to her."

Additionally, Elizabeth wants to clarify "just how much I care about Susan," who she believes is "deeply grieving" Henderson's passing.  "She is the sweetest, most loving friend.  And I love her and all the Brady children, always have and always will.  If my Mom was going to play the mother of any kids on television, I'm glad it as them, because they are each wonderful people."

As Olsen explained to Variety, she was sensitive to the needs of Henderson's children.  "They had to share her so much."

Years after The Brady Bunch, Olsen and her first husband spent time with Henderson's sons, and he remarked to Olsen, "Her kids are terrific."

"That's how you know how good a mom she was," Olsen rallied. "Two families and a career, and her kids still turned out terrific."

While filming the original Brady Bunch, Henderson would invite Olsen for sleepovers with young Elizabeth, and even host combined birthday celebrations for Olsen and Henderson's son Robert.  Olsen found that intriguing because, in those moments, she would perceive Henderson as a real mom, minus the Brady make-up and Carol-persona. 

"[Elizabeth] and I had made a mess in the bathroom, I think," Olsen explained, "and I got to see [Florence] get mad at us. It was neat," she smiled.

During those early Brady days, there were a mix of various experiences, some even life-threatening. 

Case in point:  when the cast filmed the now-famous first three Hawaii episodes of The Brady Bunch, they found themselves situated on outriggers, one of which had bumped Olsen overboard.  Knowing Olsen was not a strong swimmer, Henderson, as Variety reported, "…hooked her ankles under the seat in front of her and drew Olsen out of the sea, mothering her until she stopped shaking."

"I didn't have any family on that outrigger to calm me down," Olsen said, "…except for Florence."

But the Brady cast and crew could always depend on Henderson in a pinch - or as a pinch-hitter.  Lloyd Schwartz explains, with a reference to the first season episode, "The Grass Is Always Greener," in which Mike and Carol Brady switch parental roles.

"Mike takes on the household chores with the girls, and Carol did things like play baseball with the boys.  We used to dress Florence very sharp on the show.  But she said this time, 'I'm not going to dress sharp if I'm going to play baseball.'  So, she looked around the set, and noticed that I was wearing a plaid shirt, and she said, "Give me your shirt!' 

I then literally gave her the shirt off my back, was left standing bare-chested on the set, while she filmed the scene perfectly."

Henderson's quick-thinking and improvisation skills while filming "Grass" was a mere foreshadowing of things to come on the set.  When first cast in the series, she had just finished filming The Song of Norway, which was released theatrically in 1970, and for which she retained a short hair-style.  As a result, in the initial Brady Bunch episodes, Henderson donned a blond wig, which in some ways, tamed her performance as Carol. 

Once her hair grew in, and as the series continued, Henderson injected more of her real-life vibrant personality into playing Mrs. Brady.  Or as Schwartz says, "Carol became much more like Florence."

That dichotomy was never more evident as when comparing the first season episode, "The Voice of Christmas," when Carol loses her voice and little Cindy asks Santa to have it return for Christmas, to the fourth season segment, "The Show Must Go On," in which Carol sings once more, this time, with McCormick's Marcia.

In "Christmas," Henderson performs the reverent Christmas carol, "O Come All Ye Faithful," while in "The Show," she and McCormick pipe out a rousing rendition of "Together Wherever We Go," the hit number from Broadway's legendary musical Gypsy.

In both episodes, as in every Brady Bunch escapade, or as with any appearance or performance Henderson made, on screen or off, her versatility, winning personality, talent, and warm heart shined through.   

Jennifer Runyon (now Runyon Corman), Geri Reischl, and Leah Ayres portrayed alternate Brady daughters in various incarnations of the franchise.  Reischl performed as Jan in The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, while Ayres later played Marcia in The Bradys, the dramedy off-shoot that followed A Very Brady Christmas, in which Runyon stepped in as Cindy.   

Runyon recalls what it was like to take part in one of the most popular cultural sensations of the century, allowing her in the process the "honor of working with Florence Henderson":

"Growing up in my family, life was a bit crazy.  TV was my comfort zone.  I could escape from everything. I'll never forget the night The Brady Bunch aired.  I was in heaven. This was the ideal family.  They were kind, loving, and always found solutions to whatever situations came their way.

"So, you can only imagine how blown away I was to be cast as Cindy in A Very Brady Christmas.  The entire experience was unreal.  I was in awe of Florence Henderson.  The camaraderie, love, and respect I witnessed between she and the cast was wonderful.  You could tell how much she loved her TV children and Robert Reed."

Echoing fellow Brady newbie Caryn Richman, Runyon adds of Henderson, "Her energy set the tone of the set, and she was adored by everyone. I cherish that experience.  How often does one get to play Florence Henderson's daughter, except maybe in their dreams."

Actor/voice-over artist Jerry Houser joined the Brady brigade of shows with The Brady Girls Get Married in 1981 as Wally Logan, Marcia's fiancé-turned-husband.  He recalls Henderson as "a smart, lovely, funny, terrific, talented, and wonderfully bawdy and delightful woman," adding, "She was not only a friend but the consummate professional and a total pleasure to work with."

For Houser, one vivid humorous memory of working with Henderson stands apart from the rest:

"During the wedding scene in The Brady Girls Get Married she sang a song ["Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel], which was prerecorded, and which she then she lip-synced.  For whatever reason they had her holding a round speaker in front of her about waist-high while she sang.  The camera obviously couldn't see it but we sure could.

"The sight of her standing there with that song coming out of her stomach while she sang away was absolutely hilarious.  True to form she didn't break.  She sang with sincerity and commitment while we all stood in front of her with huge smiles on our faces trying our best not to laugh out loud."

With laughter and tears, in drama or comedy, Houser "had the chance to do two movies and two series with Florence.  Throughout all those shows she was consistently herself, as with everything she did, and she cared.  She cared about the people around her, the work she was doing and definitely her family.  I feel blessed to have had the chance to work with her and to call her my TV mother-in-law."

Fellow Houser and Henderson TV-in-law Richman encapsulates the thoughts and emotions of everyone who worked with, knew or knew of the iconic actress, who clearly leaves behind a tremendous void across The Brady Bunch board and beyond.

"I feel for her real family and for those that were her nearest and dearest.  She spread joy and touched so many people. Hers was a life well-lived and loved by so many."   

According to Henderson's daughter Barbara Chase, "We all treasure now more than ever just how consistent and true she was to herself and all of us.  She worked all those hours on The Brady Bunch, and then was able put that aside when she came home and be Mom."   

Henderson's parenting skills,  Chase says "came from a place within her.  She was born into this world with a special spirit.  She had a resiliency and a faith to do great things," which Henderson accomplished by literally embracing everyone she met along the way. 

"I would see her at many events, which she couldn't leave because everyone wanted to talk with her.  And she would say the one thing that everyone wanted was a hug, and she obliged every time, and I think she got just as much out of it as they did."

"She always talked with everyone who approached her," adds son Robert Bernstein.  "And she was just as much a fan of entertainment, and actors and performers as anyone else.  She could be just as star struck of celebrities, as her fans were of her."

In the summer of 2014, Robert was excited to visit with his mom when in St. Louis she was shooting a film there called Grandmothers Murder Club. "And when she was doing that movie," he explains, "it was in the brutal summer heat and humidity of St. Louis.  For one scene, she was filming in a garage with no air conditioning.  She would talk about how intense it was, but she never complained.  That wasn't her style."

Decades before, Robert and his siblings had spent many of their summer vacations on the set of The Brady Bunch where he says, "We were made to feel very welcome."

Doing so also allowed Henderson's children what Robert calls "perspective" in viewing his real mom in comparison to Carol Brady.   

"She had many amazing qualities," Robert concludes.  "And she stayed the course in her life and career with style and grace, and achieved what she did because she was always genuine, and she was simply born to do what she did."


For memories from Television Academy members and staff, click here.

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