Florence Henderson Was a Dedicated Mom on and off the Screen: ‘Her Kids Turned Out Terrific’
Florence Henderson’s youngest daughter remembers becoming annoyed when a stranger assumed that Susan Olsen, who played Cindy Brady, was her mother’s daughter. “I was upset, having to share my mom,” admits Elizabeth Bernstein. “But in time, I understood the situation, and that being Carol Brady away from the set was also part of the job.”
From 1969 to 1974, Florence played The Brady Bunch matriarch with such warmth, humor and empathy that she quickly became the parent every child wished they had.
“I understood kids — I think I felt close to them,” said Florence, who had four children with her first husband, Ira Bernstein. “I was the only one on the set who was married — who had children.”
In many ways, the role of upbeat Carol Brady was an offshoot of Florence’s own personality. “Wherever my mom went, she always brought nothing but joy,” Elizabeth recalls. “There was always singing, dancing and laughing in our house.”
Florence also created Carol to be a stable, dependable mother, the kind she wished she had growing up as the youngest of 10 kids in Indiana. “I was about 12 when my mother left us. My dad was a periodic alcoholic,” Florence told Closer in 2015. “It was such a difficult time in my life, but I learned not to judge or blame people for their situations.”
In 1952, Florence made her Broadway debut, and for the next 14 years divided her time between theater, commercials and TV gigs. But she wasn’t looking to star in a series, and she turned down the opportunity to audition for The Brady Bunch in 1969. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do a series — I live in New York!’ ” she recalled. Of course, Florence eventually agreed to try out and got the job.
As they’d done throughout her career, Florence’s kids often accompanied her to the Brady Bunch set. “It was important to her to have her kids with her, and we knew how to behave on the set,” explains her eldest, Joseph Bernstein. “She wanted us there and to be part of it all.” Her kids even appeared as extras on episodes. “We were made to feel very welcome,” son Robert Bernstein recalls. For Florence, it was all about sharing her love of performing with her family. “I tried to make them a part of my life because show business has been very good to me,” she said. “And, hopefully, teach them that you could retain some humanity and do those things for a living.”
Along the way, Florence also blended the Brady actors into her home bunch. Susan Olsen became close friends with her daughter Elizabeth and often slept over. Florence also hosted an annual joint birthday party for her son Robert and Susan because their birthdays were close. “We spent so many hours together with the kids, and I sort of became like a second mother to them,” she said.
For Barry Williams, who played Greg, Florence was at her best during the show’s famed Hawaii episodes. “We were together for a couple of weeks, even at meals. We would wake up, go to work and have fun,” he recalled. “Florence always made everything, especially that trip, extra fun.”
Despite her best efforts, it wasn’t always easy to be Florence’s children. “I always felt we stole the limelight from [her real kids],” admits Susan. And as the show’s popularity grew, more people recognized Florence as Carol.
“Fans were only interested in seeing her with her TV children,” explains a friend. “Florence shared a story of how Elizabeth pulled on her skirt and pleaded with her to tell fans that she was her real daughter.” Their school friends also clamored to meet Mrs. Brady. “Their peers kind of confused ideas about who I was and what I was,” Florence said. “It was a tough experience for them at times.”
After The Brady Bunch was canceled in 1974, Florence struggled with stage fright but eventually returned to performing. She never found another role that could eclipse Carol Brady, who became even more popular in syndication. “People would constantly approach, and she was never rude to one person or turn away anyone,” says Elizabeth. “And if they had a story to tell or share with her about how much The Brady Bunch meant to them, she would listen. And her response would always be heartfelt and sincere.”
In later life, Florence, who died in 2016 at age 82, remained energetic and upbeat. “She was living her life fully to the last moment,” says daughter Barbara Chase. Florence enjoyed spoiling her five grandchildren and remained close with her own kids — as well as the Brady actors — until the end. “That’s how you know how good a mom she was,” says Susan. “Two families and a career, and her kids still turned out terrific.”