Florence Henderson (b. Dale, IN, Feb. 14, 1934) is best known to television audiences as the mother and housekeeper, Carol Brady, on the series The Brady Bunch, which ran originally from 1969 to 1974 and is still frequently rerun. But she had an important career starring on Broadway in the early 1950s, has continued to appear on stage and screen as a singer, often takes part in variety and panel shows on TV, and serves as a spokesperson for several products and charities.
Henderson was the last of ten children born to an Indiana tobacco sharecropper and his busy wife. The family was Roman Catholic, and Florence was sent to school at St. Francis Academy in Owensboro, Kentucky, graduating in 1951; shortly thereafter, she went to New York City on scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The next year she made her Broadway debut – with one spoken line – in the chorus of Wish You Were Here, and landed the leading ingenue role in Oklahoma! with the national touring company. She was soon snapped up to star at the Civic Light Opera of Los Angeles in The Great Waltz.
Florence Henderson’s first star turn on Broadway was at the age of nineteen, in the title role of Fanny (1954), which ran for over two years. Her blossoming career was interrupted, however, when a bone deformation in her inner ear was diagnosed, and she had to undergo surgery in order to prevent deafness. In January of 1956 she married Ira Bernstein; the marriage would produce four children and would last for twenty-nine years.
In 1961 she returned to the stage as Maria in the national touring company of The Sound of Music. She spent some time working in Chicago Theatre, winning a Sarah Siddons Award for her efforts, and had the honor of being the first woman to host The Johnny Carson Show. By 1963 she was starring on Broadway again in Noel Coward’s musical The Girl Who Came to Supper. In 1967 Henderson lit up the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific.
The Brady Bunch, which occupied Henderson full-time for six years from 1968, was an instant worldwide success (owing largely to her ability to communicate warmth and affection while surrounded by chaos), elevating her to the rank – according to TV Land and Entertainment Weekly – of one of the 100 Greatest TV Icons. While the series was being filmed in Los Angeles, she would fly back to New York every weekend to spend time with her own family.
Henderson began being a television spokesperson for products and companies in the mid-1970s, and has emerged as one of the top ten advertising endorsers in the country, vouching for Wesson Oil, Polident, RainSoft Water Treatment Systems, Pepsi Twist, and various charities. She appeared with increasing frequency on game shows (Hollywood Squares, The Weakest Link, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?) and as a talk-show hostess (Country Kitchen, Generations, Later Today, Living Live, The Florence Henderson Show).
In the mid-1980s, she divorced her husband, and struggling with depression sought help in hypnotherapy. Henderson herself became a licensed therapist in that field. She married Dr. John Kappas, also a hypnotherapist, who died in 2002.
In the sixth season (2006) of VH1’s The Surreal Life, Florence Henderson appeared as “Dr. Flo,” the on-call guidance counselor and therapist. She is familiar to young viewers as well, as the beguiling voice of the evil “Mastermind” on Loonatics Unleashed. In the recently released film comedy Venus and Vegas, Henderson appears as a “hot” vamp. She still tours regularly as a singer.
Recalling occasional clashes with the producers of The Brady Bunch, Henderson once revealed: “I begged them to give Carol Brady a job. They wouldn’t do that. . . . I said, ‘Can I just hit the kids every now and then? I mean, real life!’ They wouldn’t let me.”