LOS ANGELES - Florence Henderson, who played the cheerful mom in the 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch, has died, her manager told the Associated Press. She was 82.
Kayla Pressman said in a statement late Thursday that Henderson passed away surrounded by family and friends. Entertainment Tonight reported that she died from heart failure, surrounded by her four children.
Family and friends had surrounded Henderson’s hospital bedside, Pressman said.
And although her best-known role as the cheerful matriarch of The Brady Bunch, only ran for five seasons, it lived on in syndication for decades, cementing Henderson's status as one of TV's most beloved moms.
There were also spinoffs and reunion specials like 1977's The Brady Bunch Hour, 1981's The Brady Brides and The Bradys in 1990, a Fuller House-style outing which featured the marriages and families of the six grown Brady children. She also joined the cast of the 1995 spoof The Brady Bunch Movie, playing Grandma Brady opposite Cheers star Shelley Long as Carol.
The Brady Bunch "represents what people always wanted: a loving family. It’s such a gentle, innocent, sweet show, and I guess it proved there’s always an audience for that,” Henderson told the Associated Press in 1999.
Premiering in 1969, it also was among the first shows to introduce to television the blended family. As its theme song reminded viewers each week, Henderson’s Carol was a single mother raising three daughters when she met her TV husband, Robert Reed’s Mike Brady, a single father who was raising three boys. The eight of them became The Brady Bunch with a quirky housekeeper, played by Ann B. Davis, thrown into the mix.
Henderson and her castmates weren't quite prepared for how famous they would become.
“We had to have security guards with us. Fans were hanging on our doors. We couldn’t go out by ourselves. We were like the Beatles!” she said of the attention the show brought the cast.
Numerous memoirs also kept interest in the show alive, as cast members revealed they were more than just siblings off camera. Barry Williams, who played eldest son Greg Brady, would confess to having a crush on his TV stepmom. Henderson, in her own book, denied having any relationship with Williams, but did acknowledge a fling with former New York City mayor John Lindsay.
The woman who would become America's TV mom was born Feb. 14, 1934, in the small town of Dale in southern Indiana. She was the 10th child of a tobacco sharecropper of Irish descent. The proud Hoosier would later return to Indiana to sing at 23 runnings of the Indianapolis 500 and served as the grand marshal at the 100th edition.
After high school, Henderson moved to New York, where she enrolled in a two-year program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, her studies financed by a theatrical couple who had been impressed by her singing when they saw her perform in high school.
Henderson was a 19-year-old drama student in New York when she landed a one-line role in the play Wish You Were Here.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were so impressed they made her the female lead in a 1952 road tour of Oklahoma!. When the show returned to Broadway for a revival in 1954, she continued in the role and won rave reviews.
“She is the real thing,” wrote Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune.
To broaden her career, Henderson took acting, dancing, singing and guitar lessons, even studying French and Italian.
She originated the title role in Fanny in the mid-1950s and went on to play Maria in a road production of The Sound of Music. She also played Nellie Forbush in a revival of South Pacific and returned to Broadway with Jose Ferrer in The Girl Who Came to Supper in 1963.
Her career nearly came to an end in 1965 when she suddenly lost her hearing while appearing in The King and I in Los Angeles, and was diagnosed with a condition linked to heredity. “Corrective surgery in both ears restored my hearing,” she said in 2007.
She made her movie debut in 1970 in Song of Norway, based on the 1944 operetta with music by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.
As her TV career blossomed with The Brady Bunch, Henderson also began to make frequent TV guest appearances. She was the first woman to host The Tonight Show for the vacationing Johnny Carson.
For eight years she also commuted to Nashville to conduct a cooking and talk series, Country Kitchen, on The Nashville Network. The show resulted in a book, Florence Henderson’s Short Cut Cooking.
After The Brady Bunch ended its first run, Henderson alternated her appearances in revivals of the show with guest appearances on other programs, including Hart to Hart, Fantasy Island and The Love Boat.
In later years she also made guest appearances on such shows as Roseanne, Ally McBeal and The King of Queens.
Henderson married theater executive Ira Bernstein and the couple had four children before the union ended in divorce after 29 years.
Her second husband, John Kappas, died in 2002.
Pressman said she is survived by her children; Barbara, Joseph, Robert and Lizzie, their respective spouses, and five grandchildren.
Contributing: The Associated Press