Saturday, November 26, 2016

Remembering Florence Henderson

Like everybody, I was so sad to hear that Florence Henderson passed away Thursday.  She was 82.   I didn't really know her personally.  We met briefly one time at Dodger Stadium when she sang the National Anthem.  (She was a terrific singer.  Did you know that before Carol Brady she was a big Broadway musical star?)   We shared the same birthday and I think that's what we talked about in our two minute conversation.  So I can't give any real first-person account.

However, my daughter Annie and her writing partner, Jon Emerson, wrote an episode of INSTANT MOM (starring Tia Mowry) in which Ms. Henderson was a guest star.  They got to spend the day with her.  I asked Jon if he would share their recollection with her and he graciously wrote this post for the blog.   As you'll see, it's a terrific profile of a special woman.  Thanks, Jon.
Jon is right above her, Annie to her left
Writing the Mother's Day episode of a show called Instant Mom comes with a lot of network pressure. We pitched a story and were told “more.” We dutifully added more and were again told “more.” We added dancing, too many balloons, a mud fight, and thirty-five hundred other bits and gags. “More.”

We pitched having Florence Henderson show up and never heard from them again.

The episode centered on Stephanie's (Tia Mowry) first Mother's Day with her new family. Stephanie is crushed when the kids ignore her, only to realize that she forgot her own mother, Maggie (Sheryl Lee Ralph). She hastily takes Maggie for a spa day, but ruins the whole thing by moping about being ignored. Maggie suggests that the kids ignored Stephanie because they have a “real” mother, prompting a huge fight. Stephanie starts to fear if there's any truth to that. Is being a stepmom somehow less valid than being a “real” mom?

It's a fairly heady premise, so we needed a fun way for Stephanie to work through her concerns. We thought, “What if she went into the sauna and Carol Brady was there to tell her off?” That quickly ballooned to having the sauna filled with classic sitcom mothers, many of which we were lucky enough to book. But Florence Henderson was always the top of our list.

We knew Florence Henderson for about four hours. She was modest, kind, sharp, and had a mouth to make David Mamet blanche. She came into the scene cold and nailed every joke. She was even nice to the writers.

Reading tributes written by people who really knew her only confirms what we felt at the time: if you met Florence Henderson, you met Florence Henderson. No pretense, no ego, no playing up to a character that will be indelibly linked with her name. Carol Brady wishes she could be her.

The mothers in the sauna ended up being Florence Henderson, Marion Ross, Jackée, Meredith Baxter, and Tempest Bledsoe (makes sense in the scene).

A few takes in, Florence and Marion started to get punchy. (When the show reached out to see if they'd be willing to do the episode, they each agreed on the condition that we call the other to come do it too. Let that melt your heart for a moment.)

Here now is our favorite memory of working on Instant Mom, transcribed from an outtake we asked to have burned on a DVD. A DVD we will now have bronzed. The first line was from the script. Florence takes it from there.
MARION ROSS: Once you do that, everybody knows you’ve jumped the shark.

FLORENCE HENDERSON: Jump the shark? What does that mean?

MARION: They wanted me to say “fuck the shark” but I said no.

FLORENCE: Because everybody in Hollywood’s already fucked the shark.

MARION: You’re going to be sorry when that’s on YouTube.

FLORENCE: I couldn’t care less... So, Tempest, what was Bill Cosby really like?

However you imagined Florence Henderson, she was more.

Thanks again to Jonathan Emerson for that marvelous profile.  

14 comments:

LouOCNY said...

Classic. Thanks for the memory, and RIP Florence...2016's been a real bitch...

VP81955 said...

Sounds like Suzanne Pleshette (who Ken paid a splendid tribute to several years ago), only blonde. I'm guessing Suzanne and Florence are currently exchanging ribald jokes with the lady in my avatar in Hollywood heaven. (And I knew Florence could sing -- years before the Bradys, she was a well-known Broadway star who regularly appeared on NY-based shows such as "The Match Game.")

tavm said...

LOL, R.I.P. Mrs. Brady!

Bud Wilkinson said...

Perhaps someone can back me up on this... Back in my days as an entertainment reporter, I happened to be in the set of "Dave's World" one afternoon when Florence Henderson was guest starring. I recall that during a break in rehearsal, she drew everyone around and noted that a member of the crew had that morning become a U.S. citizen. She then broke into song - I think it was "God Bless America" but it may have been "America the Beautiful." Her wonderful a cappella performance was such a thoughtful gesture, making a special day for the new citizen even more so. It also provided a warm memory for everyone on the set.

Michael said...

That ... is ... great.

Ms. Henderson once was at a Dodgers Hollywood Stars game and met The Vin, who had three children with his first wife; Sandi had two, and they had one together. Vin said, "Miss Henderson, we have six children, and we never solve ANYTHING in 30 minutes."

MikeK.Pa. said...

Seeing her in interviews, I always got the sense she was game for just about anything if she knew it would generate a legitimate laugh. I also think she liked pushing against the stereotype image of Carol Brady people had about her. The same goes for Marion Ross and Shirley Jones. Florence did a terrific talk show that ran on RLTV, a channel geared to people in their retirement years. I think it was on for a couple seasons, but it was in re-runs for years in the late hours of the night. Most of her guests were popular in the 60s and 70s like Garry Marshall, Jack Klugman and Peter Marshall. Each time one of these TV or movies stars you grew up with passes away, a little part of your childhood passes with them.

Chris said...

Thanks a lot, Ken! I just woke up the rest of the house laughing at that dialogue...

Anonymous said...

Ron Glass passed also. This has been a bad year for alot of reasons. Janice B.

LouOCNY said...

And ANOTHER one..

Ron Glass, Det Ron Harris of BARNEY MILLER passed away today... :(

James said...

I hated THE BRADY BUNCH when I was a kid, and still don't like it. Florence Henderson gets a pass, though. I liked that she never seemed to take herself or her image too seriously. I also liked that she never acted embarrassed over that show or made apologies for it, the way a lot of actors will do over work they did that they feel was beneath them. (The antithesis of Robert Reed, who played Mr. Brady, who apparently spent every day of his five years on that show griping about it.)

Breadbaker said...

Thanks, Ken, Jonathan, Bud and Michael for some fine little memories. I remember visiting a friend in LA who said, "would you like to go by the Brady Bunch house, it's just around the corner?" and so we did. Imagine living there. Could it fit six teenagers, the youngest one in curls?

Tom said...

She was also fantastic in Weird Al's "Amish Paradise" video.

John Hammes said...

Florence Henderson clearly had a good time in the campy "Paul Lynde Halloween Special" from 1976. Then again, that particular special was sort of the "Plan 9 From Outer Space" of television specials. So bad that it was good - saying this with fond remembrances - the peculiar mixture of guest stars pretty much had no other choice, than to clearly have a good time on a very strange show.

Brother Herbert said...

Holy hell. Man, to have been in the same room with Marion and Florence...

I knew Florence had a "fun" side when she was present at one of the Comedy Central Roasts years ago. Jeffrey Ross was up and proclaimed that "Florence Henderson has now replaced Barbara Eden as the oldest woman I'd like to fuck." Cut to Florence, who displayed a knowing smirk and 'bring it on' hand gestures.

I remember a clip that made the blooper-show rounds decades ago when Florence was shilling for Wesson Oil. She blows a line and blurts out something that was bleeped. She instantly turns to the two kid actors in the commercial with her, who are now looking at each other with shocked 'OMG' grins, and says "I'm sorry! Don't report me!" Then a beat, then a quiet, sing-songy "Mis-sus Bra-dy swe-ars..."