Florence Henderson, Upbeat Mom of ‘The Brady Bunch,’ Dies at 82

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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 in Los Angeles. She was 82.

Her death was confirmed by David Brokaw, her publicist. He said that she died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and that her family said the cause was heart failure.

“She was quite active until she started not feeling well several days ago,” Mr. Brokaw said. “It was felt that she would just bounce back from it.”

Ms. 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.

Ms. Henderson defended the original television show from its detractors, who ridiculed it for its simplistic, impossibly wholesome plots and its idealized 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, Ms. 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), Noël Coward’s last original Broadway musical.

Theater roles had led her to television in its early days, mostly as a singer. On “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1955, she and John Raitt sang a duet, “People Will Say We’re in Love,” as part of a two-hour television tribute to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

In the 1950s and ’60s she appeared on music-driven series like “The Bell Telephone Hour,” “Oldsmobile Music Theater” and “The Dean Martin Show.” She also appeared on a 1958 audience participation series, “Sing Along,” and game shows like “The Match Game” and “Password.”

She was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show” during both Jack Paar’s and Johnny Carson’s eras as host. And in 1962, after Paar left and before Carson arrived, she became the first woman to be the show’s guest host.

NBC’s venerable morning news and entertainment series “Today” was a part of her career twice. From 1959 to 1960, she was the so-called Today Girl, doing fashion stories and other light-news segments. Four decades later, she was a co-host of an offshoot, “Later Today,” but that series lasted less than a year.

Florence Agnes Henderson was born on Feb. 14, 1934, the youngest of Joseph and Elizabeth Henderson’s 10 children, in Dale, Ind., near the Kentucky border. Her father was a sharecropper, and the family struggled financially. Ms. Henderson recalled working from the age of 8, babysitting 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, Ky., 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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 theater and television careers took off from there. And Ms. 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, Ms. 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 specialized in guest-star ensembles, and in television movies.

She was host of “Country Kitchen,” a cooking show on TNN, for nine years beginning in 1985. When prime time entered its reality-series phase, she found a place on “My Fair Brady,” which starred Christopher Knight (a.k.a. Peter Brady) and his girlfriend, and as a font of maternal wisdom on “The Surreal Life.” In 2007, she became the host of a Hollywood-talk show, “The Florence Henderson Show,” on the cable channel RLTV. She also appeared in television commercials for decades and refused to apologize for doing them, referring to the form as a serious acting challenge.

After a bad beginning in “Song of Norway” (1970), a poorly received musical biography of the composer Edvard Grieg, Ms. Henderson made few feature films. Her later movies, like Bobcat Goldthwait’s “Shakes the Clown” (1997), in which she played an unnamed woman who has a one-night stand with the title character, and “For Heaven’s Sake” (2008), in which she played a grandmother who dies on a roller coaster, did nothing to advance that side of her career. On the other hand, her appearance as part of the superstar ensemble cast of the 2007 television special “Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age” reminded audiences of both her stage and television skills.

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.

She is survived by two daughters, Barbara and Elizabeth; two sons, Joseph and Robert; and five grandchildren. Ms. 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.”