After Florence Henderson starred as Carol Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” her fate was sealed. The former Broadway star became more than a mom on television, she became the mom on television. She gave us an idealized template for how a matriarch should be — patient and loving with an on-trend wardrobe and just a hint of sternness when her kids were “taking a joke too far.”
She became synonymous with wholesomeness, and that led to endless job opportunities, whether she was embracing or poking fun at the squeaky-clean reputation of her most famous character. She was the face of Wesson vegetable oil and hosted multiple cooking shows; she also starred in the video for Weird Al Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise” and played versions of Carol on “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” and countless commercials.
But stereotyping Henderson as the most traditional of mothers misses something big about the actress, who died yesterday at the age of 82. She was actually very progressive — starting with her role on “The Brady Bunch,” which first aired in 1969.
Carol was a single mother raising her girls alone when she met Mike Brady, and their union provided television with one of its first blended families. Before that, television sitcoms focused on the traditional, nuclear clan: Ozzy and Harriet, raising their two sons, or Wally, the Beaver and the rest of the Cleavers. But the “Brady Bunch” show creator Sherwood Schwartz was responding to changing demographics when he penned his famous sitcom. The kernel of the idea came from a news article Schwartz read about how 30 percent of American families included at least one child from a previous marriage.
The Bradys looked a lot like other television families, normalizing the second-marriage family and paving the way for other less traditional homes, like the ones in “Who’s the Boss?” “Full House,” and “Modern Family.”
After the show, Henderson never stopped working and she was a remarkably good sport about living in the shadow of Carol Brady and her flippy blonde ‘do. The actress’s incredible talent was subsumed by a single character, despite the fact that she had once so impressed Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that they cast her as the lead in “Oklahoma!” She could sing, play the guitar and dance, and that last talent served her well in 2010, when she competed on “Dancing With the Stars.” (She came in eighth, beating out Michael Bolton and David Hasselhoff, among others.)
She took her elimination in stride, as she seemed to do with most things. “I hope I’ve inspired people to get off their behinds and move and dance and live and enjoy life,” she said at the end of the episode, prompting fellow competitor Brandy to start crying. Henderson returned to the set a few days ago to cheer on her television daughter, Maureen McCormick, who played Marcia.
And just as she reframed how society saw single moms, she also showed how full life can be for an octogenarian. Last year she sat down with Matt Lauer on “Today,” where she talked about exercise, sex and gratitude.
“There are some things that, at 81, we can’t do,” Lauer said at one point during the interview.
“I didn’t get that memo,” Henderson interjected.
She hadn’t given anything up, she insisted. She still had a trainer, did Pilates and danced.
“I do a lot of fun things,” she added suggestively, proving that you can be sex positive at any age. Then she told Lauer about her long-distance “friend with benefits,” who lived in Florida at the time, while she lived in L.A. And, no, she wasn’t interested in getting married again.
She was clearly done with being stereotyped — not as Mrs. Brady, which she never seemed to mind, but as an old lady.
“Things don’t stop working in your body or your mind,” she said.
Then she delivered a line that seems especially poignant now.
“If we’re lucky, we all get older,” she told Lauer. “But we don’t have to get old.”
Henderson never did.