Florence Henderson was known for her iconic role as everyone’s favorite TV mom, Carol Brady, on The Brady Bunch — but the star, who died Thursday at the age of 82, didn’t initially want to audition for the part.
Prior to scoring the leading role that would propel her to international stardom on the 1969 sitcom, Henderson had a successful career on the Broadway stage — appearing in Wish You Were Here (1952), Fanny (1954), The Girl Who Came to Supper (1963) and South Pacific (1967).
The American Academy of Dramatic Arts graduate was living in New York City when the audition for The Brady Bunch came up — and she wasn’t exactly thrilled about moving to California to film a TV series.
“My agent called and they said, ‘They’re doing this new series and they want you to come to Paramount and read for it,’ ” she told the Archive of American Television in 2010. “And I said, ‘I don’t want to do a series — I live in New York!’ ”
Her agents eventually convinced her to go to the audition, as she was performing in California at the time. So she went to Paramount Studios, where she met with Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of The Brady Bunch; John Rich, one of the most known directors in television at the time, and producer Doug Kramer.
“I had no idea who they were,” she joked. “But they said you me, ‘Would you mind learning this scene and coming back a little later and doing a screen test for me?’ ”
Henderson did just that — filming the screen test on the Star Trek set. “They made me up in the Star Trek dressing room,” she explained. “William Shatner was there — not overly friendly, I might add. I’ve razzed him about that many times over the years.”
After her screen test, Henderson flew off to Houston, Texas — where she had a scheduled engagement at the famed Shamrock Hotel that begin the next day. But before she could begin, she learned she had won the role and was needed back in Los Angeles to do the pilot.
“I went to the gentleman who ran the room at the hotel and explained what the deal was,” Henderson said. “And I said, ‘If this show becomes a hit, I’ll come back at the same money and make up this engagement.’ So they let me out, they got another entertainer — I believe Jerry Vale came and filled in for me. And I went back and did the pilot.”
Her engagement in Houston wouldn’t be the only time another gig would nearly take her away from The Brady Bunch. Before the show was picked up, Henderson was cast in the big picture musical The Song of Norway — which told the story of Norway’s greatest composer, Edvard Greig. Henderson played his wife, Nina.
The movie was only supposed to take a few weeks to film, but production delays turned it into months. Lo and behold, The Brady Bunch was picked up — but Henderson wasn’t there to play Carol Brady.
“It was really a chaotic time,” she said. “They were screaming for me to leave the movie. I had to fly back and go right to L.A.”
It’s a wonder she wasn’t recast — but Schwartz truly believed in her. So instead of delaying production, they did something unheard of: they shot around Henderson for the show’s first six episodes.
“I had to catch up,” Henderson said. “I was meeting myself coming and going for days until I caught up with them. The rest is TV history. I don’t quite understand it, but there you have it!”
Henderson brought a lot of things to the role. The youngest of 10 children, she said she always felt like she was the mother of her siblings. She was also married and a young parent to four kids herself — Barbara, Joseph, Bob and Elizabeth.
“I understood kids — I think I felt close to them,” she explained. “I was the only one on the set who was married — who had children, who had an ongoing relationship. The others didn’t.”
“In a way, I became sort of the stability of the show,” she added. “And I think Sherwood saw that — that I could be very funny but also bring the empathy or what is necessary for a show like that to make it. That the audience really cares about these people. I think that’s what I was able to bring and still stay within the framework of what he envisioned for the show.”
It was a collaborative effort — though sometimes Henderson had to put her foot down.
She insisted Carol was painted as a relatable character for young mothers out there, and pushed for progressive scenes not often seen on television. “For instance, I would never wear an apron,” she said. “They tried to make me wear an apron. I wanted to wear sexy nightgowns because we were the first couple to sleep in the same bed on television, so I wanted to make her as human as possible.”
There was also one time she fought to have speaking roles for two child actors who played friends of Marcia (Maureen McCormick). “I called Sherwood and I said ‘This is absolutely stupid. Kids don’t come into your house and don’t say anything. Let the kids say hi to me and act like normal kids. I’ll pay for it. I don’t want to be in a scene that’s so totally unbelievable.’ ”
Schwartz let the kids speak. “And [the show] paid for it,” Henderson said, laughing.
Henderson starred in every episode of all five seasons of The Brady Bunch and later appeared as Carol Brady in spin-offs The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, The Brady Girls Get Married, The Brady Brides, The Bradys and The Brady Bunch Movie.
She said she was very close to the kids on the show — actors McCormick, Barry Williams, Eve Plumb, Christopher Night, Susan Olsen and Mike Lookinland.
“We liked each other,” she gushed. “I think professionally we respected each other. And it just kind of took off… It was the time we spent trying to rehearse a scene, or preparing, or having lunch together, or the kids would come over to my house, or my kids would go to their houses — those kind of things built up [a family] over the years.”
There was one challenge — remembering everyone’s on-screen and off-screen names. “That was hard,” she laughed. “Just learning everybody’s names! Very difficult.”
And she wasn’t just protective of her own on-set children either. She would mother the kids of celebrities like John Wayne and Henry Kissinger when they brought them to visit the set.
“They would all want to go up those stairs and see what’s upstairs. And I would go ‘Oh no, I don’t think you want to go up there. The rooms are a mess!’ Because I didn’t want to disappoint these little kids,” Henderson explained. “‘Cause you’d climb the flight of stairs and you’d get up there and there was nothing. Except a lot of lights and wires. So I’d try to preserve their fantasies.”
In the end, Henderson said she loved being TV’s favorite mom.
“I think The Brady Bunch reflects an ideal version of a family,” she said. “It was very pure, very innocent and very much in its own category. It’s not your average sitcom. It’s just something that strikes a chord in people’s hearts.”