By the time she was two, Florence Agnes Henderson could sing 50 songs — perfectly.
The daughter of an Indiana farmer and a housewife, Henderson was the youngest of 10 children growing up poor during the Great Depression. To help support the family, she and her siblings would sing for crowds and pass the hat.
As a teen she attended the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and soon segued into roles on Broadway, notably starring as Laurey, the farmer’s daughter, in the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
While her work on stage would eventually lead to television — she had early recurring roles on shows like CBS’s Sing Along and ABC’s The Voice of Firestone — it wasn’t until she became a regular guest on The Jack Paar Show (a.k.a. The Tonight Show) that she became well known to TV audiences.
In 1969, her fame rose when she was cast as mom Carol Brady in ABC’s The Brady Bunch, a gentle family comedy (“Here’s the story, of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls …”).
The series ran for five seasons and, in subsequent years, spawned sequels and a fervent fan base that continues to this day. Henderson, who died in 2016, was the mother of four. Her daughter, Barbara Chase, is senior director of event production at the Television Academy.
The actress was interviewed for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television in 1999 by Michael Rosen. The following is an edited excerpt of that discussion; the entire interview can be viewed at TelevisionAcademy.com/archive.
Q: How did you become a regular on The Jack Paar Show?
A: I was doing an act with Bill Hayes at the time. We were “Johnny and Lucille” for Oldsmobile. We would do a stage show every year for them — every gypsy in New York wanted to be in this show. Then we got called to be on The Jack Paar Show.
Somebody said to me, “Oh, you know, Jack’s very nervous, and he’s kind of difficult.” But I watched his show and I thought, “I would work incredibly well with him. I just know that he would like my humor.”
So that night on the show, either I knocked something over or something spilled, and I started cleaning up the desk. I did something that was funny and he liked it, and he worked with it. From then on, I was a regular.
Q: How did that feel?
A: I loved Jack Paar. He is a clear demonstration of what television is at its best, because he was always himself. He didn’t change for the camera, and that translates well when you go into someone’s home. They know who you are.
Everyone got used to Jack being so emotional…. I remember one night, he loved this particular song from the show Good News, called “Just Imagine.” I sang it and it got a huge hand, and he let it stop the show. He made me sing it again, and he made me sing it three times before the night was over.
People remembered things like that. It was like, “To heck with the show! This is the moment that’s working — let’s go with this.” So many funny, spontaneous things happened. He was just fascinating. I owe so much of my television career to him.
Q: You became the first woman to guest-host The Tonight Show….
A: Yes, I think Johnny Carson had taken over by then. That was also when I learned to trust people in television. They had a great staff — great writers who would interview people and help you get prepared. I was very lucky to have that experience, and then at the same time be asked to do The Today Show. I was beginning to get into these other areas of the business.
Q: You joined The Today Show in 1959 as the “Today Girl.” What did that entail?
A: A Today Girl, when I did it, was a very limited version of what Katie Couric does. You did interviews. You weren’t quite the equal of Dave Garroway, but you were very visible. In my case, I also sang on the show.
The show was taped the evening before, a fact that was not very well known. No one ever talked about it, nor tried to hide it — it just wasn’t discussed. Then the news would be inserted live.
Dave Garroway had done the show for so long and was so sleep-deprived — I think he wanted to have another kind of life. It was great for me, because having started out in the theater and done so many nightclubs, mornings were difficult.
Q: Did you take time off when you had your children?
A: I didn’t stay home very much. Through my pregnancies, I always did television — again, I was doing Jack Paar. I was kind of a pioneer in that respect because I worked through all my pregnancies. There was no women’s lib, there was no one going, “Yeah, you go for it! You deserve a career just like your husband.”
It was a tough time for me, because I wanted desperately to be a mother. I loved that. But I desperately wanted my career as well. It was a fine line to walk. I could have used some of those women at that time.
Q: You appeared on a number of game shows….
A: Password stands out for me. That was always so much fun. I loved Allen Ludden. I thought he was a wonderful host. I was pregnant with my third child on one of the shows, and I went into labor. I said to Allen, “Don’t get nervous, but I am in the early stages of labor.” I thought he was going to have a heart attack.
Q: How did you get cast on The Brady Bunch?
A: I was in California doing The Dean Martin Show and I was supposed to fly to Houston to appear at the Shamrock Hotel, a big place with a supper club. My agent called and said, “They are doing this new series and they want you to come to Paramount and read for it.” I said, “I don’t want to do a series. I live in New York.” He said, “Well, just go meet the people.”
So I went and met the people. I had no idea who they were — Sherwood Schwartz, who created The Brady Bunch; John Rich, one of the most well-known directors in television; and production executive Doug Cramer. They said, “Would you mind learning this scene and coming back later to do a scene test?”
When I came back, it was to the Star Trek set. They made me up in the Star Trek dressing room. I did a screen test, not with Robert Reed, but with another actor. They thanked me very much. I got on my plane and flew to Houston.
Q: When did you hear back from them?
A: The next day. I was getting ready to go on stage for the first performance and there was a call saying, “They want you to come right back to L.A. to do the pilot.” I went back, did the pilot, thought no more of it.
I wound up going to London shortly after that and doing the screen test for The Song of Norway, to play Edvard Grieg’s wife, Nina, and lo and behold, I got that. So we’re in production on Norway, and The Brady Bunch was picked up. They’re screaming for me to leave the movie — it was really a chaotic time.
I had to go to L.A., as they had already shot around me for six episodes and I had to catch up. The rest is TV history. I don’t quite understand it. But there you have it. Carol Brady.
Q: How involved was Sherwood Schwartz in the day-to-day of the show?
A: He was very, very involved. Very hands-on. Very territorial, I think. He was open to ideas. It’s widely recorded how much he and Robert Reed, who played my husband Mike, fought.
The only negative thing about the show was that Bob, Sherwood and John Rich did not get along. Bob was very condescending to writers and directors, especially Sherwood and his son Lloyd Schwartz, who worked on the show a lot.
But it was Sherwood’s creation, and he had a very definite idea about what he wanted. It was a show seen through the eyes of a child; it was supposed to have a soft glow about it. I understood what he was going for, maybe because I had children.
Q: Why do you think Robert Reed was displeased?
A: It was a sitcom, but it was just more stylized, and I don’t think Robert Reed ever understood that. I’d have to go, every so often, “Bob, this is comedy. This is not Shakespeare. It’s a situation comedy for television.”
For what it was, it was good. We believed every word we said, and I don’t think you can parody something unless it has been done incredibly truthfully. You can only parody something that is so on-the-nose. We really worked to improve those lines, make them better, improve the scenes; we took it very seriously.
As I look back and see the hairdos and those clothes, I think, “My gosh!” But that’s one of the reasons it works years later.
Q: Did you feel comfortable making suggestions to Sherwood about Carol Brady?
A: Yes. For instance, I would never wear an apron. I wanted to wear sexy nightgowns, because we were [one of] the first couples to sleep in the same bed on television. I wanted to make her as human as possible. Sherwood would kind of go along with that.
Q: Did you ever ask the writers to change lines?
A: I remember one scene with two young kids who were coming home with Marcia [Maureen McCormick]. The kids were not wired for sound, which meant they could not speak, because if they spoke, they got paid a little more money. I said to the director, “This is stupid. Kids don’t come into your house and not say anything. They would go, ‘Hi, Mrs. Brady,’ or whatever.”
And they said, “Well, we’re sorry, but they’re not wired for sound.” I said, “That’s it. Stop.” So seldom did I ever raise my voice, or say, “Unacceptable.” I went to the phone and called Sherwood. I said, “This is absolutely stupid. Let the kids say hi to me and let them act like normal kids. I’ll pay for it. I don’t want to be in a scene that is so totally unbelievable.”
So they let the kids speak, and they paid for it. If you don’t do that very often, people listen. Luckily, I didn’t have to do it very often.
Q: What was it like to work with Ann B. Davis, who played the housekeeper, Alice?
A: She was the best. She was an incredible pro. Ann B. and I had great mutual respect. Became friends. She taught me how to do needlepoint, because she felt I was always jumping around the set and wasting energy. She was kind of a loner. Didn’t give her friendship easily, so I valued it a lot.
Q: What can you tell us about the casting of the kids?
A: I think Sherwood saw hundreds of kids for these roles. One that made it early was Susan Olsen, as Cindy. My goodness, what a stroke of luck that they wound up with those particular kids! Another reason the show has lasted was that the initial chemistry between Bob and Ann and me and the six kids worked. Everybody on that set was a pro from the beginning.
Q: How would you describe Carol?
A: She was the kind of mother everyone wishes they had. That was the way I portrayed her, anyway. So totally different from my mother, who was very tough and not very affectionate.
Q: Being typecast hasn’t become an issue?
A: It’s only an issue in that people love the show so much and want to talk about it all the time. Maybe it did keep me from getting a job, but I always found other venues. I think you limit yourself if you let it limit you. If I sat home and went, “Oh, I can’t get another job because everybody thinks I should be Carol Brady,” that would be my fault. I just never allowed that to happen.
Q: Tell us about working with Barry Williams, who played eldest son Greg.
A: Barry, from the beginning, I think had a big crush on me. A delightful young man with these big green eyes, great big hands and feet — he hadn’t grown into himself, kind of awkward and gangly. He was always tripping over himself. But he loved music and loved hearing about the musical theater and nightclubs and all of those things — that’s what precipitated our date.
Q: Want to tell us about that?
A: People are so fascinated by this. Of course, Barry wrote about it in his book. When people buy the book, they will see how innocent and how sweet it was. I had a date with him, and I kind of felt like we were in school and I was the teacher. He loved that I could sing and knew a lot about music. He was really drawn to me for that reason. But he was a cute kid. And he’s a very attractive grown man.
Q: So you went out on this date. Did a romance develop? There’s an odd folklore about this.
A: It’s very strange. I think secretly people wish that something had happened — that we really did have an affair or something. That was never the intention. Thank God, I had enough brains not to even consider something like that. But I think because he was my step-son on the show — people just wanted to believe that something happened. But, no. That was our one date.
Q: How did everyone take the cancellation of the show?
A: A lot of people were disappointed. I wasn’t. We had five great years. I was surprised because I thought the show was still doing extremely well, and in retrospect, ABC probably felt they made a mistake. But at the time I had so many other things going that it was fine with me.
A lot of people wished that it had gone on, and as it turns out, we did go on. We got back together, and together, and together. We had all our reunions. A couple of years after the show ended we did our Brady Bunch Hour, which consisted of endless hours of rehearsal, because we did a lot of musical numbers.
Q: In 1981 Sherwood produced The Brady Girls Get Married. How did that come about?
A: Sherwood pitched an idea and Paramount bought it. It was a two-hour movie that was a huge ratings winner. He tried to spin that off into a series, so we did 10 episodes [The Brady Brides] around the two girls and their husbands. I think I played a real estate agent. I said, “Carol Brady has to have a job by this time. She’s been sitting around for too many years.”
That lasted about 10 episodes. But we had a live audience. That was the first time that we worked with five cameras, and that was fun.
Q: The Brady family later returned in The Bradys. Was that any different from the other Brady shows?
A: It started out as a two-hour movie, and then Paramount wanted us to do 10 episodes — it was kind of a drama, too serious, I think, for The Brady Bunch. I think it was the wrong thing to do. But the numbers were not that bad, when you look at the ratings now that they rave over. We certainly were never that low, even with that series. But I do think it needed a lot of work.
Q: You also became a longtime spokesperson for Wesson Oil….
A: It came about during the later years of The Brady Bunch. I don’t remember the exact year that I started, but I was with them for about 22 years, which is an amazing record. We did musical commercials. We did straight commercials.
A lot of actors are very condescending when it comes to commercials. I think that’s a big mistake. There are so few venues today for young actors to work, to make some money to pay for classes, for music, for clothes, and commercials are not easy to do.
It takes a lot of skill to hit a mark every time, to hold a bottle, make it believable, have everyone out there in their homes feel that you are talking to them and that they can trust you. It’s some of the toughest acting in the world, but it’s very lucrative.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: As someone who survived for a long time in a very tough business and hopefully managed to retain a sense of humanity. That’s how I’d like to be remembered.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017